It's June 20, 2013, and LeBron James is joyfully swaggering down the tunnel between the court and locker room at American Airlines Arena in Miami, the Finals MVP trophy cradled comfortably in the crook of his left arm. Trailed by an army of cameras and microphones, he screams to no one in particular:
"Just keep it coming! Keep giving me motivation! I need it!"
Well, guess what, King James...you've got it.
"It," in this case is Kevin Durant, the man whose brilliant play this year has narrowed the gap between himself and James to the point of invisibility.
Durant's ascent might sound like bad news for LBJ. After all, with KD upgrading from "No. 2" to "1-A," James will have to work twice as hard to snare his third title, fifth MVP and, more broadly, position among NBA fans as the game's best player.
But that's not bad news at all. In fact, Durant's rapid rise is the best thing to ever happen to James.
It'll give him the motivation he begged for just after winning his second NBA title and could lift him to another level in the NBA's historical pantheon.
Mutual Admiration Society?
It might be easy to chalk up James' boastful shouting in the aftermath of his second Finals win as empty bluster. He's never had the same psychotic, insatiable craving for challengers that Michael Jordan had. Maybe, like so many players of the post-Jordan era, James was merely emulating His Airness, saying things No. 23 would have said in that same situation.
Then again, maybe James was serious in his request for a new challenge. His constant references to Durant and their increasingly heated rivalry this year would seem to indicate he was serious in his plea.
According to Michael Wallace of ESPN, James has admitted his desire to match Durant's remarkable performances: "Nah, I ain't beyond that. I ain't beyond that at all," James said. "I love when I see K.D. do something like that. It gives me an incentive."
Per B/R's Ethan Skolnick, the King even occasionally tosses barbs at Durant, perhaps in an effort to stoke the rivalry further. Check out this excerpt from just before the All-Star Game:
When does he think the pressure will truly shift to Durant to take the Larry O'Brien trophy?
"When I retire," James replied. "When I retire. They're still talking about, am I going to win a third? You know..."
James was smiling as he said this, a sandwich resting on his lap, his knees cooling in ice.
But he was serious.
Outwardly, Durant is far less interested in playing up the comparison between himself and James. That's an interesting contrast, especially because you'd expect Durant to take pride in his new status as James' peer.
But KD isn't big on feeding the rivalry narrative, telling ESPN's Brian Windhorst:
To be honest, I'm going to be totally real, like, I don't go in every day, when I go into the gym and work on my game, I don't have a LeBron picture [on the ball], or I don't have his name in my mind when I'm going in there and working.
Comments like that don't squash rivalry talk; they just force us to recalibrate a few things. While James is focused solely on Durant as his primary adversary, KD isn't setting his sights on any one particular opponent.
He wants to destroy everybody. He's driven to be the best and doesn't care who he has to climb over to get there. Durant doesn't seem to view his path to greatness as a one-on-one battle, but James is in his way all the same.
Any doubt about Durant's desire to reach the top should disappear after hearing his response to the question of whether he believes he's the league's best player (via Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman): "I’ve always felt that I was…I had confidence in myself. I’ll just say that. Everybody else around always thought of me as No. 2, but I always had confidence.”
A Perfect Match
It may not seem like it, but Durant's personality makes him an absolutely perfect foil for James. KD is ridiculously intense, a basketball assassin devoted to slaying everyone in front of him. He didn't like the "Slim Reaper" nickname, purportedly because of its negative connotations.
It'd be hard to find a more on-the-nose moniker than that, though.
KD is a killer whose laser focus won't allow James to rest for an instant if he wants to avoid slipping into second position on the NBA ladder. So not only will Durant's approach to the game force James to elevate his own, his personality contrast will also help LBJ further his reputation as a likable star.
James has made no secret of his desire to be loved—both by marketers and fans. He's outgoing, friendly and very much a salesman. His first year in Miami wore on him, because the way he left the Cleveland Cavaliers turned him into a villain.
That wasn't him.
In contrast, you get the sense Durant couldn't care less about being liked. He just wants to be great. That clash of personalities will make him the Larry Bird to James' Magic Johnson.
Yeah, we're going there.
The Model Works
We've established that Durant's "arrival" this year is a good thing for James on a number of levels, but a great rivalry is a bonus for both parties involved.
Magic and Bird proved that.
Those two fought it out for MVPs, titles and NBA supremacy for a decade and both came out better for the struggle. They're more historically relevant, and their legends are greater for having played against one another.
Timing had a lot to do with the all-around success of their years together—both entered the league in the same season—but their distinct personalities also contributed to the intrigue surrounding their rivalry. And even though it's something of a cop-out to compare any good duo of similarly dominant combatants to Magic and Bird, the parallels between their and the James-Durant pairing are undeniable.
Consider this snippet from an article Bob Ryan wrote for Sports Illustrated in 1992:
Magic, from the big school famous for its sports teams, was outgoing and perpetually smiling, the media's darling. Bird, from the little school with no reputation for athletics, was introverted and suspicious of the press. Magic seemed to be everybody's friend; Bird picked his friends carefully.
OK, we have to remove the scholastic angle to make the comparison perfect. But in terms of personality profiles, it's scary how close the Bird-Magic contrast is to the one we see today between KD and LeBron. Durant just wants to hoop. He's introverted, somewhat defiant and in possession of an unassailable confidence. He's Bird.
James is Magic: extroverted, desirous of popularity and more forthcoming about his self-assuredness. He'll tell you how great he is and smile while he's doing it.
And it's not exactly a stretch to say James has more than a little Magic in his game. The same is true of Durant and Bird.
The point is, Bird and Magic benefited greatly from their rivalry. It motivated them, kept them engaged and helped elevate their individual profiles.
Without Durant, James likely would have fallen into the model created by Jordan or Kobe Bryant. And while it's never a bad thing to be situated next to those two in NBA lore, there's just something special about having a real rival.
Jordan created his own out of thin air. Bryant, because he's either a clone of Jordan or a fantastic impressionist, was much the same. Neither ever had a singular rival. Durant and James are different and, in a way, luckier.
They have each other.
But let's get back to James.
The Benefits of the Buddy System
When he strode down that tunnel back in 2013, he was on top of the world. Peerless, on an epic run as the league's undisputed monarch and begging for somebody, something to fuel him. Maybe James would have found the motivation he sought elsewhere. Perhaps he would have focused on chasing down historical greats instead of vanquishing present foes.
Durant's elevation gives James a real challenger—one he must take seriously. That'll keep him in the gym over the summer, and it'll keep his focus sharper than it might otherwise have been for years to come.
Because even though James seems so easygoing and confident, he's also prideful. He wants a challenge, but he definitely doesn't want to lose.
Durant gives him everything he needs: a personality foil, a terrifying competitor and ultimately, the kind of rival that'll help him carve out an even more significant place in NBA history. James is fortunate to have Durant.
We're probably luckiest of all, though, since we'll get to watch the best rivalry in 30 years play out in the coming seasons. This is going to be good.