More than any other sport, the NBA exists on the margins of hyperbole.
LeBron James is the most talented man to ever lace up a pair of sneakers. Or if he's not already, he will be once he wins his first title. Or he will be once he wins his sixth or seventh or however many titles he promised fans when he went to Miami.
Nothing can possibly stand in the way of James from his first title now. Nothing at all—except, of course, the three-time reigning NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant.
LeBron and Durant for the NBA title. This could be the start of something beautiful.
Hyperbole be damned, some people actually think Durant is the best player on the planet right now. For all of us—even those who try very hard to avoid anointing players certain titles without proper historical context—getting the chance to witness James and Durant battle for their first NBA championship might be the greatest thing in the history of sports. Maybe the history of the world.
There we go again, hyperbole being damned and all.
It's just so hard not to love this matchup between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat. Two of the great players in the game leading two of the league's most talented teams in a race to the title is too exciting not to over-inflate. It might even be justified.
Get this for rare: the NBA Most Valuable Player has made the Finals 28 times since the award was first given out in 1956, nearly half of all NBA seasons. Oddly enough, the NBA scoring champion has reached the Finals just 17 times since the first NBA champion was crowned in 1947.
This is the 11th time in NBA history the MVP and scoring champion will play in the Finals. However, in seven of those years the MVP and the scoring champion was the same guy, meaning this is just the fourth time in history the MVP and scoring champion will face each other for the NBA championship.
Take that, hyperbole!
Stats and awards aside, what makes the Durant-LeBron comparison so much fun is not just the fact neither player has won the elusive ring that will go a long way toward defining his career, but for most of their time in the NBA, their paths have not crossed.
James has played 689 NBA regular season games in his career, while Durant has laced up for 380 himself. Yet since Durant entered the NBA for the Seattle Supersonics in 2007, he and James have only faced each other nine times.
Durant and James have only played on the same court in nine actual, meaningful NBA games. This series is so ridiculously exciting because seeing the two of them on the same court has been so rare. Seeing the two play for a title has been nothing more than a dream.
It certainly is reality now, with fans (and media) already hyping the match-up to historic proportions. Heck, the headline of this article already calls the series "epic" and posits that we are in for a rivalry that can stack up to, who, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson? Did Michael Jordan have a rival that was anywhere near the same caliber as Durant can be to James, and vice versa? Did Kobe Bryant have anyone like this in his prime—other than maybe Shaq, when they were teammates?
Durant vs. James is not a rivalry—not yet at least. We hope the NBA Finals are an epic battle for the title where both players perform well enough to deserve the crown, fueling the loser to go on and try for a title next year or the year after that.
From a narrative standpoint—and to fuel the NBA hyperbole machine that David Stern has locked in a basement somewhere in the swamps of Secaucus, N.J.—we need both players to be their best in this series so we can eagerly hope for the next series and the series after that.
Truth is, there is a better likelihood of James developing a real rivalry with Derrick Rose, whose presence in the Eastern Conference playoffs would have surely changed the course of human events for LeBron and the Heat.
Could Miami have beaten the Bulls in the playoffs? They did it in five games last year, so there's no reason to think they couldn't have done it again. Not having to face Chicago won't tarnish a title for LeBron and Miami, but it surely will make next season's run through the playoffs more interesting. If Miami loses to the Thunder, we can't just pencil the Heat back into the Finals next year. Not if Rose and the Bulls are healthy.
For Durant, there isn't a natural rival in the Western Conference, making the leap to anoint LeBron his primary rival a natural—if a bit premature—decision.
Durant has played in seven playoff series in his career, winning five. He is 1-1 against Kobe Bryant and the Lakers and 1-1 against Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks, but those players are too far past their primes to start a substantive rivalry with a 23-year-old right now. Kobe might play another five years, but he just isn't the same player he was five years into the league. The same obviously goes for Tim Duncan and the aging San Antonio Spurs.
Who else in the West? It might end up being the Clippers with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. They could rise up to be a formidable opponent for Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Thunder. That said, unless that rivalry can happen time and time again in the playoffs—specifically the conference finals—it won't matter as much as what we have with Durant and James right now.
That's what makes these NBA Finals so important. There are no guarantees that either player will get back to the Finals, especially with all the young talent in the NBA. The league is in a renaissance period led, in part, by James and Durant, but that doesn't guarantee either of them a chance at the NBA title again, let alone a trophy and a parade.
So let's not get ahead of ourselves. This is about defining legacies, but it's also about winning one seven-game series and bringing home someone's first title. (Note: Dwyane Wade is probably staring at his championship ring right now and smiling.)
It is hard to believe that just over six months ago, NBA fans were justifiably worried about this season being cancelled altogether. Now we have a dream matchup that will advance the narrative of the league for the next decade.
This really could be the start of something great—hyperbole and all.