OAKLAND, Calif. — It seems LeBron James and Stephen Curry have become unintentional rivals. They do not have much history beyond meeting in the NBA Finals for the second consecutive year.
What has created this so-called rivalry is Curry’s stunning ascension to the top of the basketball universe as the undisputed (and unanimously selected) MVP of the NBA’s reigning world champions and chief author of Golden State’s record 73-win regular season.
In the opinion of some, Curry has eclipsed James as the best player in the world, a title James has owned since a declining Kobe Bryant started down the path to retirement this season.
And yet, it seemed, at age 31, the physically imposing and wonderfully skilled James would hold fast to that distinction until Curry began draining 30-footers off the fast break, began weaving his way through the key with his Curly Neal dribble penetration, and put up a championship banner at Oracle Arena, lighting up the Warriors’ rise to prominence with his engaging personality and smile.
Suddenly, it seemed, James had competition.
“I think it’s great,” James said. “It’s great for our game. It’s great for you as an individual. Just the competitive side of it, to be able to face greats along your path is something that you’re going to wish you could get back when you’re done playing.”
Although Curry and James share a healthy respect for each other, their potential rivalry in no way matches that of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, who faced each other in the 1979 NCAA national championship game, then were drafted by the two most successful franchises in the NBA, and squared off in the NBA Finals three times over a four-year span.
While NBA players these days share more of a camaraderie than a rivalry, what with shared vacations between competitors in what has mostly become a “bro hug” league, nothing in recent memory has compared with the level of Bird and Magic’s shared animosity. It didn’t abate until they shot a Converse All-Star commercial at Bird’s home in French Lick, Ind., early in their careers in 1986, leading to a mutual respect and, finally, a long-lasting friendship.
Yet, this NBA Finals matchup between the Warriors and Cavaliers may be the best rivalry the league has to offer, and it should be cherished.
A few weeks ago, when Curry won the MVP award, James stated that there was a fundamental difference between “Most Valuable Player” and “Best Player in the Game,” which James implied he still was.
His response was widely viewed as a slight toward Curry, and seemed to spark a new rivalry. But it was simply a case of James defending his accomplishments when the basketball world around him appeared to be ignoring them.
Because of the praise Curry has received, the four-time MVP James felt inclined to remind those who may have doubted him. It wasn’t his arrogance at work, just human nature.
“First of all, I made the mistake by even answering the question because I knew where it was going to go, and I guarantee how it was phrased to Steph wasn’t how I answered the question,” James said. “So Steph was definitely the MVP of our league and is the MVP in our league and is a great basketball player, and what he does for this league is amazing.
“Then the question was asked if I had a vote what would the difference be between most valuable and MVP, and I gave my opinion. So obviously you guys ran with it.”
James had no desire to fan the flames of any such rivalry, perceived or not.
“You guys make rivals,’’ he said. “I mean, I think it’s great for the sport. It’s great for all sports. I don’t think me and Steph — when you talk about rivalries, you talk about Carolina-Duke, you talk about Ohio State-Michigan.
“It’s hard to say ‘LeBron and Steph.’ ”
Curry, for his part, never called himself the best in the game. He left that to others to decide. He said he never sought to unseat King James from his throne. Compared with James’s chiseled physique, Curry poses no such threat as a 6-foot-3-inch, baby-faced 3-point shooter.
“I’m not in the business of ranking or debating who is what,” said Curry. “At the end of the day it’s about winning, and the fact that we won a championship last year and were the last team standing obviously is what was most important to me.
“Us being back here against the Cavs again, there are obviously story lines and whatnot that as a basketball fan are pretty cool. You have two teams fighting for the same trophy once again and trying to play at a very high level to help our team get there. At the end of the day, that’s all I’m worried about.
“That’s not what I’m playing for, to be the face of the NBA or to be this or that or to take LeBron’s throne or whatever. You know, I’m trying to chase rings, and that’s all I’m about. So that’s where the conversation stops for me.”