LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant: Basketball's Next Great Rivalry?

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The two stars could become today's Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

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More than any other team sport, basketball thrives on rivalries between individuals. Russell vs. Chamberlain, Bird vs. Magic, Jordan vs. the field, Kobe vs. his teammates are a few that have captivated fans over the previous decades. But even though the NBA features its best collection of talent in 20 years, the league currently lacks a compelling individual rivalry.

This is set to change on tonight when the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat square off in the NBA Finals. When the series begins, LeBron James and Kevin Durant will stop being supremely talented yet unconnected basketball gods and start directly challenging each other for the unofficial title of the NBA's top player.

If you had to write a play about a basketball prodigy's transition to the pros, it would be difficult to come up with a more compelling story than LeBron James's. Since gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline "The Chosen One" when he was a junior in high school, James has seemed preordained for astronomical success. It was almost too appropriate that the kid from Akron was drafted by the hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, giving a doomed sports town its hero. Upon entering the league in 2003, his career initially followed an arc similar to Michael Jordan's, the player whose number he wore during his first seven seasons. He put up mind-blowing stats, amassed individual accolades, and redefined what was achievable on a basketball court through his unique athletic gifts. Nike told us we were all witnesses, and for once an ad campaign seemed grounded in truth.

But unlike Jordan, James didn't make the transition from stat-stuffing superstar to centerpiece of a dynasty, and so he remains an individual basketball wunderkind seeking validation by championship. That failure to win the Finals—more than his move from Cleveland to Miami, more than the stunning display of bad public relations known as "The Decision"—has made James so fascinating to watch. Every truly transcendent player in NBA history—Mikan, Russell, Chamberlain, Robertson, Abdul-Jabbar, Magic, Bird, Jordan—won at least one championship. James has the talent to join that select list; the only thing standing in his way is the title that has eluded him thus far. In many ways, James's only rival has been himself. His inability to lead his team to a championship has caused his most outspoken critics to label him as soft , and "The Decision" showed he's equally adept at hurting his image off the basketball court.

In spite of the persistent criticism, there's always been a latent assumption that once James found his fifth gear, he would reel off repeat championships like Jordan did twice in the 1990s and Kobe and Shaq did in the early 2000s. The question was not if but when and how many. A once-in-several-generations talent like James doesn't go through a career without reaching the top of the mountain peak. Even after Dallas upset Miami in last year's final, Miami still entered this season as the favorite to win it all.

Enter Durant, a player whose talent level actually approaches James and, as the centerpiece of a young Oklahoma City team, is poised to take the unofficial title of world' best basketball player away from James. Oklahoma City, unlike last year's champion Mavericks, has the talent to not only win the title this year but contend for titles for years to come. For once, the biggest obstacle to James is no longer himself—his play against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals should finally dispel the notion that he can't deliver under pressure—but Durant and the Thunder. LeBron could play a fantastic final series, and the Heat could still lose because Oklahoma City is that talented.

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Kevin Craft is a writer based in Arlington, Virginia. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, and Arlington Magazine.

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