5 Individual NBA Player Rivalries We Want to See Blossom in 2014-15

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistNovember 23, 2014

5 Individual NBA Player Rivalries We Want to See Blossom in 2014-15

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    The 2012 NBA Finals put the league's most compelling new rivalry on full display, a five-game series pitting the game's best all-around player against its best pure scorer.

    The Miami Heat ultimately prevailed 4-1 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, but the stage was set for what may become this generation's most high-profile player rivalry. LeBron James now has four MVPs and two championships to his name. Kevin Durant—the reigning MVP—led the league in scoring for a fourth time last season with 32 points per contest.

    These two may rekindle their rivalry in the not-too-distant future, but Durant first must recover from a foot fracture that's sidelined him so far this season. Fortunately, there are some intriguing individual matchups on the horizon, rivalries to watch down the stretch of the 2014-15 season and beyond.

    We ranked five pairs of rival stars and used an admittedly subjective criterion: Which battles will be most spectacular in the coming months and years? From dueling point guards to next-generation big men, these matchups are on the verge of blowing up.

5. Michael Carter-Williams and Victor Oladipo

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    Things got interesting between Michael Carter-Williams and Victor Oladipo in the midst of March Madness.

    Before Carter-Williams snagged Rookie of the Year honors last season, he spearheaded Syracuse's 61-50 victory over Oladipo's Indiana during the Sweet 16 round of 2013's NCAA tournament, gaining an initial edge in side-by-side comparisons.

    Now Carter-Williams and Oladipo embark upon their sophomore NBA campaigns, playing for the rebuilding Philadelphia 76ers and Orlando Magic, respectively. So while an emerging rivalry between Carter-Williams and Oladipo is unlikely to have a significant bearing on the league at large anytime soon, get ready.

    Two or three years from now, these guards will be discovering their primes. And their long-suffering teams may be doing the same.

    Individually, this became a compelling matchup in short order. ESPN Stats & Info noted back in December 2013 that, "Via Michael Carter-Williams & Victor Oladipo are the first rookies to record their first triple-doubles in the same game."

    They did so in a double-overtime thriller that Philly won by a slim 126-125 margin. Playing a combined 99 minutes, the two overtime sessions certainly helped pad MCW and Oladipo's stat lines. But there's plenty of other evidence establishing these youngsters' credentials.

    They're versatile. They defend. And they're on track to lead desperately needed franchise turnarounds. Carter-Williams may be the slightly bigger name for now, but there's still a lot of basketball to be played between these two.

4. Kobe Bryant and James Harden

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    With Los Angeles Lakers icon Kobe Bryant only suiting up for six games last season due to injury, it seemed like Houston Rockets star James Harden might run away as the consensus pick for best shooting guard in the NBA.

    But with 13 games under Bryant's belt so far this season, the 36-year-old is averaging 26.7 points and doing his best to single-handedly carry the 3-10 Lakers. Though his odds of sneaking into the playoffs seem slim at the moment, Bryant himself is defiantly clinging to relevance.

    He's already faced Harden's Rockets twice this season, splitting the two games and largely keeping pace with his younger counterpart in the process. Head-to-head, Bryant averaged 24 points, 4.5 assists and four rebounds in the two contests.

    Harden tallied 28 points, 6.5 assists and 2.5 rebounds in the two games, making 50 percent of his field-goal attempts (compared to Bryant's 35.6 percent success rate).

    Houston is on pace to have a much better season than Los Angeles, but the gap between these two stars is far more narrow. Bryant has had an exponentially more accomplished career, but Harden is the one in the prime of his career—perhaps poised to take his elder's torch as the best pure 2-guard in the game.

    There may still be some bad blood between Bryant and former teammate Dwight Howard, as evidenced by the exchange the two shared in their first meeting this season. But the better story between these two teams is the one that will play out on the perimeter.

    How much longer can Kobe keep up with the man who may be this generation's premier shooting guard?

3. Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins

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    Despite the occasional questions about his maturity, DeMarcus Cousins quickly erased any doubts about his talent. Since averaging 14.1 points and 8.6 rebounds during his rookie campaign in 2010-11, he's emerged as the most obvious successor to Dwight Howard as the league's most dominant young big man.

    At least until Anthony Davis came along as the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2012.

    Nearly three years Cousins' junior, Davis appears to be the complete package—a long, absurdly athletic and fundamentally sound interior presence. And while Cousins initially appeared to have an edge when it came to mid-range shooting, Davis now rivals him on that front as well.

    Both highly touted Kentucky products, Davis and Cousins now represent the future of NBA post play. 

    And by the looks of things, that future is now.

    In their first meeting of the young season, Davis tallied 28 points, nine rebounds, three blocks and two steals en route to the New Orleans Pelicans' 106-100 victory over the Sacramento Kings. For his part, Cousins posted a respectable line of 24 points, 17 rebounds, three assists and two blocks.

    The contest may prove to be a microcosm of the two players' respective fates. Cousins is exceptional, but Davis appears to be slightly better—thanks in large part to his mobility and above-the-rim defensive prowess.

    It also may prove a preview of these teams' short-term destinies. While the New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Kings are both makings strides and leaving their rebuilding days behind them, there will likely only be room for one of these teams in this season's playoffs—and New Orleans is the more finished product at this point.

    Fortunately, these clubs should go as far as Davis and Cousins take them for the foreseeable future. This clash of titan talent is just getting started. 

2. John Wall and Kyrie Irving

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    With Derrick Rose's MVP career derailed by injury and Deron Williams losing some of his luster, the balance of Eastern Conference point guard power has shifted to a younger demographic.

    John Wall and Kyrie Irving were both No. 1 overall draft picks, taken in 2010 and 2011, respectively. The former has put the Washington Wizards on his shoulders and is coming off his first postseason appearance. The latter has gone from the Cleveland Cavaliers' next great hope to becoming something of a complementary star alongside this summer's star additions LeBron James and Kevin Love.

    Irving played a pivotal role for Team USA at the FIBA World Cup this summer. Wall was cut from the team before competition began.

    "You want to make every team you try out for," Wall told CSNWashington.com's Ben Standig in August after being snubbed by the club. "When you don't, it's more motivation for me...I guess I'm overlooked again. I guess have to prove myself one more time."

    Wall recently did just that, putting up 28 points, seven assists and four steals in a 91-78 victory against the Cavs that took Washington to an early 8-3 record. Irving tallied 22 points and two assists in 41 minutes.

    The relationship between these two is anything but bitter. As The Washington Post's Jorge Castillo noted after the most recent meeting (via Twitter), "John Wall and Kyrie Irving exchanged jerseys after the game...Wall is gonna hang it in his living room."

    A nice gesture to be sure.

    But with the Wizards poised to challenge Cleveland's seemingly predestined claim to the East's No. 1 seed, these two floor generals will make decisive impacts down the stretch this season—and presumably for a few seasons to come.

1. Stephen Curry and Chris Paul

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    Anything the Eastern Conference can do, the West can do better.

    And that goes for point guard rivalries, too.

    Chris Paul has long set the bar for elite floor generals in this league as a model of efficiency, toughness, leadership, cerebral decision-making and all-around two-way play. The seven-time All-Star hasn't won a title or MVP award, but he's arguably been a top-five player since he tallied 21.1 points and 11.6 assists per contest in just his third pro season.

    Though you could certainly make an argument that Russell Westbrook is the heir apparent to CP3's throne, there's a purer point guard option who's come into his own since an emergent 2012-13 campaign.

    Stephen Curry averaged 24 points and 8.5 assists per game last season, earning his first All-Star selection in the process. The 26-year-old quickly gained a reputation as one of the league's most skilled shooters, but he's developed as both a playmaker and defender, even averaging 2.3 steals through this season's first 11 games.

    To whatever extent Curry has blossomed into the player he is now, Paul himself may have a little something to do with it.

    "[Paul] basically took me under his wing for a month [prior to the 2009 draft in which Curry was selected]," Curry told reporters in April. "We traveled all around the Southeast and worked out that August, leading up to the draft. It gave me a chance to see his work ethic and what he put into the game. It definitely set me up to do the same."

    Last season's seven-game opening-round series between the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors adds some intrigue to this relationship. Put simply, the matchup was a classic, ultimately decided by a 126-121 Game 7 victory for Los Angeles.

    Paul and Curry were both spectacular, but the latter was slightly better, at least as a scorer. While Paul tallied 17.4 points, nine assists and 3.1 steals in the series, Curry posted 23 points, 8.4 assists and 1.7 steals. The Warrior also made 44 percent of his field-goal attempts, compared with Paul's 42.3 percent success rate.

    Curry also got the better of this season's first meeting between the two clubs, dropping 28 points and seven assists in a 121-104 win over the Clippers. Paul went 6-of-15 from the field, adding just 15 points to his haul of 12 assists.

    Paul topped Curry's 38 points (and nine three-pointers) a season ago on Oct. 31, erupting for 42 of his own in a 126-115 win that foreshadowed playoff things to come.

    Things have gotten pretty physical (and testy) between these two teams, but the point guard play has been basketball at its most beautiful. As the Warriors and Clippers battle for Pacific Division supremacy (and seeding in the ultra-competitive West), keep your eyes on the two guys running the show.