LeBron James vs. Steph Curry: The 21st century NBA rivalry

ByJ.A. Adande ESPN logo
Thursday, June 2, 2016

This NBA Finals between theCleveland CavaliersandGolden State Warriorsisn't just a rematch, it's a remake. It's the new-millennium version of Magic Johnson versus Larry Bird.

Now that we have meetings, plural, between LeBron James and Stephen Curry at what Ralph Wiley used to call the "Highest Level of Hoop," we have the beginnings of a new superstar rivalry.

We never got to see LeBron versusKobe Bryant in the Finals -- LeBron laments that as much as anyone -- but one of the side effects of LeBron's run of six consecutive Finals is that he can claim multiple meetings with Tim Duncan and now Curry. He knows enough about the way the NBA works to value the importance of familiar faces screened onto Finals T-shirts, to realize what it means for TV ratings when the promos can list the sport's biggest names.

"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.

"I've been fortunate to go against Duncan and KG [Kevin Garnett] and Ray Allen and the great Piston team. Now Steph, the great Steph, and the Warriors team. So I've been fortunate."

He made sure to mention his Finals matchups with Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook as well. If LeBron's idle thoughts at a morning shootaround in February can become headlines, anything less than a full recital of previous foes while he was at the podium on NBA Finals media day might be construed as a slight. But his meetings with the Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder don't belong in the same category. Those were one-offs.

Now we have back-to-back meetings of two viable MVP candidates who are locked in even closer competition for the unofficial title of best player in the world. (That distinguishes these two Finals from the previous two, which came against a graying Duncan who was no longer the best player on his team.)

Granted, LeBron versus Curry won't carry the historical importance of Magic versus Bird, a rivalry that catapulted the NBA from its drug-plagued, tape-delayed-championship nadir to a platform for international stardom enjoyed by Michael Jordan and all who followed. There also isn't the black/white dynamic of Magic versus Bird, an underplayed yet undeniable aspect of their duel.

Then again, LeBron versus Curry does comprise the intraracial dark-skinned versus light-skinned debate discussed by Michael Eric Dyson on The Undefeated. And there's the poverty versus privilege aspect as well, an angle LeBron might have inadvertently played up Wednesday when he mentioned his inner-city, single-mother upbringing.

More than anything there is the stark difference in playing styles, the representation of what the game was and where it's going. LeBron harkens back to Magic, who was revolutionary as a 6-foot-9 point guard in his day but now is a template for a more traditional style. As LeBron's 3-point accuracy has decreased he has become more reliant on the old standby of bullying his way to the hoop. Almost half of his shots this season came within 3 feet of the basket; only 20 percent of his attempts were 3s, according to Basketball Reference.

Curry, meanwhile, launched 55 percent of his shots from 3-point land. He is like an X-Men character, a mutant version of Bird, the feared marksman. Bird, whose rookie season in 1979-80 coincided with the introduction of the 3-point shot in the NBA, attempted 1,727 3-point shots in 13 seasons. Curry attempted 886 -- more than half of Bird's career 3-point attempts -- this season alone.

While LeBron fits our standard view of athletic ability (or rather, exceeds it), Curry is forcing a redefinition of the term. One NBA talent evaluator told me that after watching the nimble Curry flourish in the league, he now considers agility and dexterity as athletic traits equal to strength and speed.

Curry was born on March 14, 1988, nine months after the last of the three NBA Finals meetings between Bird and Magic.

"You might not have watched those series live," Curry said, "or seen Magic and Michael play, and Bird and all those guys. I didn't see them live, but you watch all the documentaries, you watch all the stories about what went down and how they advanced the game of basketball and just the high level of competition that it was, and that's inspiring, for sure.

"To be in a position now where we can create legacies and have memorable series like last series against the Thunder and now in the Finals -- that's pretty special for me to be in that with my teammates, and hopefully do some special things as well."

Curry and the Warriors surpassing the 72 wins of Jordan's Bulls might have been the beginning, not the culmination. Maybe Curry and LeBron can eclipse the rivalry between Bird and Magic, meaning these Finals wouldn't be the remix, they would be the new standard.