As much as the NBA has tried to discourage personal grudge matches with quick technicals, flagrant fouls and even suspensions, a few heated rivalries have survived. Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley have had an ongoing feud for years now. Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns have wrestled both on the court and on their social media feeds.
But there's really only one NBA rivalry that matters now. The one that features the only two superstars who have proven championship pedigrees and the requisite talent around them to get another one. The one where there is too much at stake—and healthy respect—to be cluttered by trash talk on the court or through a keyboard. One that is unusually intimate in that the combatants share the same city and the same building yet is stoked by starkly different personalities and approaches to the game. And one that might have a chance, if the basketball gods allow, to join the league's pantheon of historic confrontations, those forged by fierce playoff battles in which the winner claims the crown.
Not that anyone who is, or has been, around LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard expects them to admit they have one another in their respective crosshairs. (Whether it's in their much-awaited rematch Christmas Day or at some point in the playoffs, count on them talking about their teams more than any individual challenge.) But those on their teams nevertheless know there's something personal at stake.
"They'll never acknowledge it, but I think under the table, yeah," Clippers forward Patrick Patterson says. "You've got two guys in L.A., of all places, who are both eyeing the same prize and are on tremendous teams and have a tremendous chance of making it to a championship and winning it. Our goal, first and foremost, is to get to the postseason, but I think there's a little eyeing going back and forth. There's got to be."
Patterson's proverbial table may be made of glass, though, considering James and Leonard haven't fully concealed their desire for superiority over the other. Leonard's New Balance shoe commercial dropped the day he faced James in the season opener, declaring Los Angeles as "his city," and it included a shot of Leonard's key chain with a tiny crown hanging from it, a symbolic jab at James' "King" nickname.
Even without the ad, the way the two performed later that night made it clear how badly they wanted to establish who rightfully can claim L.A. as their domain. James made second and third efforts around the rim, playing a level of defense not seen from him in years and even taking a charge, all for an early 13-2 Lakers lead. Leonard answered every big shot James made with one of his own and helped hold both LeBron and Anthony Davis to two points combined in the fourth quarter. Result: Leonard finished with a game-high 30 points, and the Clippers were never threatened over the final seven minutes of a 112-102 win.
Then there was James' recent disparaging comments about load management, a term associated with Leonard's habit of missing games last year in Toronto as well as this season with the Clippers. Coach Doc Rivers, who responded by derisively saying the Lakers' load-management philosophy "is whatever LeBron says it is," suspects there was some mental warfare behind LeBron's remarks. "Everybody has a reason for saying whatever they say," Rivers says.
An Eastern Conference general manager, his identity concealed because the league prohibits executives from discussing other teams' players, agrees that the James-Leonard rivalry is apparent to him, even if the combatants won't come right out and say it.
"I would say there's mutual respect but that there's an appropriate level of fear as well," the GM says. "They know each other are really talented. But there's not a lot of admiration. I don't see them going out to dinner."
Clippers center Ivica Zubac, who played with James before being traded across town last season, echoed that sentiment. "I've played with both, and they're big competitors," he says. "I'm sure they've got that mentality."
The advantage James enjoyed in the Eastern Conference for so many years is that he knew there was not another superstar who understood what it took to develop and deliver a championship team. The two met in the Finals twice when James was with the Miami Heat and Leonard was still in San Antonio. James and the Heat came from behind to win the first time in seven games. Leonard and the Spurs completed a season-long mission for revenge in a five-game series the following year.
They know each other are really talented. But there's not a lot of admiration. I don't see them going out to dinner.
— Eastern Conference GM on the LeBron-Kawhi relationship
To say those were James-Leonard-centric battles, though, wouldn't be accurate to Richard Jefferson, who played in San Antonio during Leonard's rookie year and went to the Finals twice with James in Cleveland before retiring two years ago.
"We say that Kawhi has beat LeBron, but he had three other Hall of Famers on his team," Jefferson says of the Spurs' 2014 championship squad. "Mind you, they were going to pass the torch to him. But Tim Duncan was still one of the best bigs. He had arguably the greatest coach in modern-day basketball in Gregg Popovich. People make it seem like it was a Kawhi-LeBron series. That couldn't be any further from the truth."
Lakers guard Danny Green, who played with Leonard both in that series and last year in Toronto, agrees, even though Leonard was the Finals MVP.
"When he won Finals MVP, it was up for grabs—a lot of different guys could've won it," Green says. "I don't think he really came into his own until the year after that."
No one disputes, however, that Leonard was the driving force behind the Toronto Raptors' title last season. And although he didn't have to go through James, another Eastern Conference GM is convinced the psychological advantage James enjoys against everyone else doesn't apply to Leonard. At least not in Leonard's mind.
"Kawhi knows, 'Oh, I can get him,'" the GM says. "And LeBron knows he knows."
The desire to prove that, head-on, has been brewing for a while. Memphis Grizzlies forward Kyle Anderson spent his first four seasons in San Antonio, Leonard's last four there.
"When you had a guy like LeBron come in [to town], you could tell Kawhi wanted to make a name for himself and show the world he was up there [with James]," Anderson says. "I would've been shocked if he went to the Lakers. I don't take him for the kind of guy who wants to play with the best; he wants to prove he's the best. If there's anybody in the league ready to step up to LeBron, it's Kawhi."
Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks, the reigning league MVP, also has a team capable of vying for a championship and potentially crossing paths with either James or Leonard in the Finals. But after looking overmatched versus Leonard and the Raptors last May in the Eastern Conference Finals, it's unclear if Antetokounmpo can harness his extraordinary "freakish" athletic skills to make the crunch-time plays that result in titles.
"LeBron and Kawhi are traditional great players," Jefferson says. "Good defense, big shots, big plays. A guy like Giannis, he's so physically different in the way that he plays; it's just different."
The stark contrast in personalities between James and Leonard also mirrors some of the all-time great rivalries—Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier, Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird or Kevin Garnett vs. Tim Duncan, to name a few. James is Ali/Magic/KG as the brash, emotional talkative type, while Leonard is stoic, no-nonsense and seemingly unflappable in the mold of Frazier/Bird/TD.
If there's anybody in the league ready to step up to LeBron, it's Kawhi.
— Memphis Grizzlies forward Kyle Anderson
"Kawhi is not wired to overthink any situation," Jefferson says. "He's very RoboCop, robotic. These are compliments. I've seen him with a block for a game-winner, hit a game-winning jump shot, and he walks off. There's no yelling. No excitement. That's just his personality. His heart rate never goes up or down. He has shown emotion, but emotion is not a part of his game.
"Emotion is very much a part of LeBron's game. He has apologized in film sessions for his body language before. He's an emotional person."
Jefferson also notes that those personalities reflect the way they wield their talent.
"LeBron is going to be talking everything out, mentally trying to beat you, getting 10, 12 assists and making everybody else better," Jefferson says. "Kawhi puts his head down and says, 'My job is to defend, to defend all things, and then go score.' He does those two things as well as anyone has done them in the game of basketball, where LeBron tries to do five things very, very well."
In both cases, though, there's never a doubt about who is in charge. Even when they defer, in James' case to forward Anthony Davis, or Paul George in Leonard's case, they made the decision that was the best strategy in the moment. That when-and-where awareness, on a championship level, is what Antetokounmpo has yet to master, or at least prove.
"It's fun to be a part of but watch at the same time," Patterson says. "'Chess match' is a perfect thing to call it. Each possession matters more than the [last] one, and when you're out there sometimes you get a little ooh-ahhy, watching each possession, whether it's them trying to take advantage of something they see with us and being vocal about it, or with us doing the same thing. Playing with and for guys who have been in that situation and know what it takes to win championships, it's cool to see and something you definitely appreciate at the same time."
How much George's decision to pass on joining James with the Lakers when he could have as a free agent before last season adds to the emotional bouillabaisse of the rivalry is hard to determine. It was only a year later, though, when George, a Lakers fan as a kid, asked his way out of Oklahoma City to finally get back to L.A. and join the Clippers and Leonard.
The first Eastern Conference GM believes George's move was more of a business decision than an emotional one, adding that it also reflected how Leonard was following James' lead in not only deciding where he wanted to play but also in directing how the team was built around him before he committed.
Leonard, 28, and George, 29, are close in age, while James is about to turn 35. "There probably hasn't been enough credit given to how Kawhi orchestrated all that," he says. "Kawhi looked at joining LeBron on the Lakers and said, 'I'd be helping him with his legacy more than mine. Oh, and by the way, Paul George and I fit the same timeline. I think some serious thought went into that."
For the Leonard-James rivalry to enter the pantheon of the aforementioned classics, of course, they need to create more history. For one Western Conference vice president, there's no time to waste.
"It has to happen now," he says. "You just hope injuries don't happen. And hopefully it's not just one year. Hopefully it's two or three. But you want to see them in the conference finals this year."
Green hopes for the same.
"I think everybody is picturing that down the line, hoping for that and wanting that," Green says. "Guys have thought about it. It's crossed their mind. But we've been in this league long enough to know not everything plays out the way [we] want it to."
That certainly will be the case for James and Leonard. At least one of them.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @RicBucher.