Role players and bench warmers might not have as many rivals on opposing squads, but they certainly have players who they get a bit heated with during practice. They're battling it out for playing time, and tempers are certainly going to flare, even if it's in a relatively friendly manner.
Starters have rivals as well. Maybe they're players on the same roster fighting to take over their role, or maybe they're guys who get hyped up every time they see the player's name on the opposing lineup.
And as for superstars, well, is there any question about that?
Again, LeBron is no exception, even if he told the Miami Herald's Joseph Goodman that he no longer focused on individual battles. In the words of the reigning MVP, "It’s not just one guy," as he's taken on more of a team-oriented perspective.
With that statement, LeBron doesn't mean that he has dozens of rivals. He means he no longer focuses on just one guy, even when the other player tries to get excited for the individual battle.
Well, the Miami Heat superstar is right about a lot of things, but this isn't one of them.
Last I checked, LeBron is human.
I know he tries to convince everyone that he isn't, using his incredible durability and jaw-dropping combination of athleticism and skill to do so, but he still belongs to the same homo sapiens species that claims all of us reading this article. And that means he has rivals.
He does now, and he will in the future. It doesn't matter how much better he is than the rest of the league.
Going into the 2013-14 season, three players stand out as rivals for LeBron. Two call the Eastern Conference home, while one has to wait until the NBA Finals for a prolonged matchup against the league's best player.
And no, Paul Pierce is not one of them.
The Truth was the subject of that Goodman article, and LeBron specifically acknowledged that his feelings toward him have died down. Pierce may still have gotten physical with James during the preseason, but he's not a prominent-enough member of the Brooklyn Nets to qualify as one of the top three at this stage of his career.
Let's break 'em down. You can even call them a "Big Three" if you so choose.
This one should pretty much speak for itself.
Not only did Kevin Durant and LeBron meet up in the 2012 NBA Finals for a big-time individual battle—one that LeBron quite clearly won—but it's blindingly obvious that they're the top two players in basketball. If anyone is going to take over LeBron's crown as the No. 1 guy in the sport, it's his rival on the Oklahoma City Thunder.
While they're friendly off the court and even train together during the offseason, that doesn't change the fact that unabashed vitriol starts coursing through their veins as soon as Miami and Oklahoma City step onto the same court.
As Durant told Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins, via Ben Golliver:
I’ve been second my whole life. I was the second-best player in high school. I was the second pick in the draft. I’ve been second in the MVP voting three times. I came in second in the Finals. I’m tired of being second. I’m not going to settle for that. I’m done with it.
And yet, he's doomed to be No. 2 whenever he plays against LeBron. And throughout the season. Seriously, who else do you think he was talking about if not the subject of this article?
In that Jenkins interview, he went on to say, "I don’t watch a lot of other basketball away from the gym. But I do look at LeBron’s box score."
This has become one of the premier individual battles in the Association, and that isn't going to change for quite some time.
Remember that high-five you can see up above?
That was more than an admission of mutual admiration; it was an acknowledgement that Paul George had just reached a level at which he could realistically be considered one of LeBron's top rivals.
Let's turn it over to ESPN's Brian Windhorst for a brief summary of the burgeoning relationship:
That’s what makes this budding rivalry so intriguing, because of how much George and James are alike. They are listed at 6-foot-8 but are actually probably 6-9 or perhaps even taller in George’s case. They both have terrific quickness and versatility defensively. They both are their team’s leading scorers and best passers. They’re both strong rebounders. It says it all that they’re the only two players in the East to have a triple-double in the postseason.
It's a pretty accurate description of what's going on here.
LeBron knows he'll have to go through George in order to win another title. Even if he doesn't face the young swingman during the postseason—that would require the Indiana Pacers getting upset by a lesser team or knocked off by the Chicago Bulls—they'll inevitably have a few hard-nosed battles in the regular season.
And George isn't afraid of the MVP.
He relishes the challenge, and that's evident in his defensive presence, which is already about as good as it gets, even with just three years of NBA experience under his belt.
The dynamic point guard is still the only player who has managed to beat out LeBron in the MVP voting over the last four years. He's also the second-best player in the Eastern Conference, and it's not even close unless you're particularly high on Carmelo Anthony (who I'd call a second-tier rival for James).
Seriously, take a look at the top 10 players in the league, taken from my recent rankings of the NBA's Top 100:
- LeBron James
- Kevin Durant
- Chris Paul
- Derrick Rose
- Tony Parker
- Kobe Bryant
- Russell Westbrook
- Carmelo Anthony
- James Harden
- Dwight Howard
LeBron, Rose and 'Melo are the only three Eastern Conference standouts listed up above, and you have to drop down to No. 13 to find another one (Rajon Rondo) who isn't on the same team as James.
That alone helps make this a rivalry, but so too does the fact that the Chicago Bulls and Heat are the two best teams in the East. And they hate each other. Well, the Bulls hate Miami, at the very least.
Rose is the biggest threat to LeBron's supremacy, as he can spark a Chicago run in the playoffs that leaves the Heat watching the NBA Finals from the discomforting comfort of their own couches. And while he hasn't historically had great numbers against the defending champions, he's forced LeBron to cover him, which throws the rest of the Miami defense into more of a tailspin than normal.
Plus, as LeBron told CBS Chicago's Nick Shepkowski, he knows that Rose is getting better: "I see a brighter, brighter future for (Rose). As good as he was coming out of college, in high school and in the pros, he’s going to be awesome when he gets back.”
Anyone else excited to see how this plays out in 2013-14?
Who Will they Be?
I know a lot of NBA fans are tired of the Jimmy Butler hype, but that doesn't mean he gets left out of a section he deserves to be in.
Butler will never be the offensive player that LeBron is, nor will he compete for an MVP trophy at any point in his career. He doesn't have that type of overall upside, but he's still that good on defense. Especially against superstars like LeBron and Kobe Bryant.
Take a look at how LeBron's overall per-game stats from the 2012-13 campaign compared to the numbers from his head-to-head matchups in the playoffs with Butler:
|Postseason vs. Butler||23.6||7.0||7.8||43.8||35.3|
I've isolated the playoffs instead of the regular season for two reasons. Butler focused more on LeBron during that portion of the season, and he was playing more minutes thanks to Tom Thibodeau's acknowledgement of his defensive prowess.
There's a huge difference (particularly when it comes to field-goal percentage), and it's pretty representative of the effect that Butler had on the reigning MVP. He was just that good at being a pest, getting in the way and contesting shots whenever he was on the court.
But beyond Butler, there don't appear to be too many new rivals set to emerge in the coming years. Kawhi Leonard could get there, as could Jeff Green. But the former doesn't play against LeBron often enough, and Green just simply isn't good enough to reach that level, especially if he struggles as a No. 1 option for the Boston Celtics this year.
We could also point to someone like Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle or Jabari Parker, but let's wait until they've played a college basketball game to do that. No one actually knows A) what they'll be like this year, B) how soon they'll arrive as stars in the NBA and C) what team's they'll play on.
Instead of focusing on players who haven't yet emerged, you still have to look at the present to figure out who LeBron's rivalries will be with in the coming years.
Rose just turned 25 years old in October. George is 23. Durant—hard as it is to believe—is still only 25.
It's not like that trio of current rivals is going away anytime soon, and I'm hesitant to add too many more players into the group.
Much as everyone would like to be considered a rival of LBJ, there's only a finite number of players who can realistically claim to be part of the fraternity at any given time.
The Biggest of All
It's hard to phrase this any better than NBC Sports' Kurt Helin did:
LeBron’s legacy isn’t going to be about duels with Pierce or even Kevin Durant or Derrick Rose or anyone who comes next. It’s about rings. LeBron’s legacy now is about building his resume to compare to the all-time greats. A three-peat would help that cause—it’s about team wins for him right now.
While Helin nailed it, it's still about more than rings and the right to compare himself to the all-time greats. It's about earning a legitimate place in the G.O.A.T. discussion and comparing himself to the all-time great.
Yep. Michael Jordan.
That's the ultimate rivalry for LeBron, and he will continue to chase Jordan until it's universally acknowledged that he's surpassed him or he retires. Honestly, it's not outside the realm of possibilities.
Not only was LeBron's 2012-13 season just as good as any season that Jordan produced during his prime, but he could earn his third ring (and first three-peat) while he's 29 years old. To save you the trouble of looking up dates and everything, Jordan completed his first three-peat at age 30.
So if rings are the ultimate measurement, it's tough to use them as an argument for Jordan right now, even though he's still four clear of LeBron.
That said, I'm not interested in getting into a LeBron-Jordan debate (although feel free to knock yourselves out in the comment section, since that's undoubtedly going to happen now). Comparing their resumes and speculating about the rest of LeBron's career isn't the point.
What matters is that Jordan still fills the role of the ultimate rival.
And while Durant, Rose, George and Butler—along with anyone else who unexpectedly emerges in the next few years—are stellar placeholders, they can't compare.
It's all about history now.