When you are as good at basketball as LeBron James — the four-time MVP who has made six straight trips to the NBA Finals — for as long as LeBron James has been, you do not consider anybody a rival, it seems.
In anticipation of his Cleveland Cavaliers’ second meeting against the Golden State Warriors this season — both of which were intentionally scheduled for the two biggest regular-season dates on the NBA calendar, Christmas and Martin Luther King Jr. Day — James was asked about a rivalry between the two teams that was born out of two straight NBA Finals showdowns, with a third seemingly destined to come this June.
“I don’t think we have a rival in our game today,” James told reporters after Sunday’s Bay Area practice, according to ESPN.com’s Dave McMenamin. “We’ve had two great Finals appearances the last two years, but I had the same with San Antonio when I was in Miami. We weren’t rivals. And I think I played those guys more, so I wouldn’t look at it as rivals.”
James isn’t covering new ground here. Unquestionably the best player of his generation, he never considered Kobe Bryant a rival — and neither did Kobe, for that matter — because their primes didn’t overlap and they never met in the Finals. Back in 2013, James said, “I don’t really have an individual rivalry,” but if he had to name one, it would’ve been Paul Pierce and the Boston Celtics, since they met in the playoffs four times in five years. Then, James faced the San Antonio Spurs in the Finals for a second and third time in his career in 2013 and 2014; even still, that didn’t constitute a rivalry to him.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a rivalry,” he said of the Spurs in 2014. “But I would say it’s mutual respect, it’s great competition and they definitely helped me grow along the way and hopefully, I pushed them too.”
So, what is LeBron’s definition of a rivalry? Well, he did once say of his Cavaliers’ three straight heated playoff meetings against the Washington Wizards from 2006 through 2008, “Now that’s a rivalry.” And James told Ahmad Rashad in 2013, “When you look at Wilt [Chamberlain] and [Bill] Russell, they met multiple times in the Finals. Same with Magic [Johnson] and [Larry] Bird.” So, animosity and familiarity in the playoffs are factors for him, apparently.
After his Cavs played 13 games against the Warriors in consecutive Finals, splitting two series filled with barbs back and forth, you might think that would fit LeBron’s definition. After all, he did host a Halloween party this past fall that featured cookies fashioned to look like gravestones of various Warriors and, according to ESPN.com, a Stephen Curry dummy that guests stepped over to enter.
— Sam Amick (@sam_amick) November 1, 2016
In an interview with USA Today last week, Golden State’s Klay Thompson called the Halloween stunt “childish,” and then added of the Cavs, “It’s a good rivalry, and it’s good for the NBA. It makes it more fun, you know? It’s rare in pro sports you get rivalries like this, so we enjoy it, and we embrace it.”
That prompted more rivalry questions to James, who denied it exists. According to ESPN.com, the newest member of the Cavs-Warriors clashes, Cleveland shooting guard Kyle Korver, told reporters Sunday, “It’s a rivalry, it feels like. I don’t know how many of them there are in the NBA right now, but this feels like it’s at the top.”
It seems the only person who doesn’t consider the two teams rivals at this point is LeBron.
“You guys make rivals,” James told reporters during the Finals this past June. “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. If there’s a smaller scale or another word for a rival.”
Call it what you will, but there is certainly familiarity and animosity between the two sides. There’s also respect.
“They’re even more dangerous,” James added of the Warriors on Sunday. “They’re even more dangerous than they were last year, and that’s pretty hard to say because they were a damn great team last year and they’re even better this year.”
He just doesn’t want to call them rivals. In some way, that might be elevating someone to LeBron’s level, and he would prefer to be alone.
James doesn’t even like comparisons to Michael Jordan, and that’s the way it should be when you want to be considered the greatest ever. Whether or not he will be is up for everyone else to decide, but he certainly can’t go around calling people rivals when he wants them to think he’s peerless.
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