It takes 12 to tango.
by Pardeep Toor
In less than a month the NBA has subjected its fans to the Cavaliers versus the Lakers … err … Kobe vs. LeBron twice and both times little was learned about either player or team.
The Christmas day game was a slaughter barely worth watching and last Thursday affirmed common knowledge that LeBron is the best basketball player alive, maybe ever; just based on his intangibles and skill set (Jordan could never run over and past players at the same time).
The networks feverishly marketed Kobe vs. LeBron as a clash of pre-historic titans, demi-Gods of the game colliding for worldly supremacy. It’s nothing of that sort. LeBron, right now, is better than Kobe has ever been. But Kobe’s been around longer, has played on much better teams and has the history and hardware that keeps him in the conversation. From a statistical, basketball, casual, hardcore perspective – it’s not even close. LeBron is a dominant specimen of humanity who, ring or no ring, already stands at the top of the basketball mountain. Not the mountain of greatness but just pure talent and dominance. Nobody, past or present, is in the same realm as LeBron.
Kobe vs. LeBron is a fabricated argument that has no real basis outside of fans’ biases. The two have only met a handful of times, judging from the Olympics they seem like decent friends or acquaintances, possess mutual admiration for each other and externally they equip complacent personalities that ridicule serious feuds or in Kobe’s case – ingest them to the point of scowling (no idea what Hedo Turkoglu did to Kobe in the finals to earn his frown).
Most importantly, Kobe vs. LeBron is not a rivalry. They appear in puppet commercials together which hardly constitutes the paradigm of good versus evil or hero versus villain – that’s just cute. A rivalry requires more than two players who are recognized internationally by their first names alone; it requires tensions between teams, bitterness, defeat, anger, disappointment, resentment – emotions that are almost impossible to muster in just two meetings a year.
But the NBA chooses to market the individuals over the teams and that’s why Tracy McGrady (almost) and Allen Iverson are competing for starting gigs in the All-Star game well past their primes. McGrady has few unique moments or games in his career that distinctly set him apart from a decent number of good players at the beginning of the decade. Yet advertising him in the early 2000s as one of the greats engraved his image which has now transformed to a nostalgia for splendor and accomplishment that was never real. The unconscious impact of advertising defies time and common sense. The same thing is happening with LeBron vs. Kobe – it’s being touted as something much larger than it actually is and unfortunately it might be historically revered as an era by the All-Star voting fan base.
So what is a rivalry?
Let’s me try to explain my definition through the only three examples of rivalries I can think of this season:
Boston Celtics/Atlanta Hawks: There’s something metaphorical about the Hawks finally overcoming their 2008 playoff nightmare and beating the Celtics in Boston this year. The Hawks are all grown up. The feud between these teams dates back two years when Zaza declared nothing to be easy, Al Horford laid out the gospel to Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett got a taste of his own douche-baggy-ness from Pachulia. The individual moments in that series carried over to last season but not until this year have the two been on the same plane on the court. There’s excitable energy between the two in regular season games – the Hawks treating each meeting as opportunity for playoff vindication while building their emotional capital for a potential playoff series when they must face and overcome their Celtics-demons, again, when it counts.
Los Angeles Lakers/Denver Nuggets: With the Lakers hogging the national spotlight and Kobe needlessly killing himself in the regular season by averaging 22-shots a game (Relax Kobe – throw it into the post to Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, it’s only games 45 through 82 – save yourself) – the Nuggets are quietly much stronger this year than they were last. Ty Lawson absolved Chauncey Billups’ defensive duties on smaller point guards, the big man rotation of Nene/K-Mart/Anderson can match-up with Bynum/Gasol/Odom in a seven game series and Melo might be the only player in the Western Conference who can match Kobe, bucket-for-bucket, in the fourth quarter a playoff game. Like any Billups-led team in the last eight years, the Nuggets don’t lack confidence and are invariably closer to cocky and certain about their collective effort than humble and indecisive (carrying over Billups’ leadership style from Detroit). Melo vs. Kobe is a backdrop to two teams who are equitable in talent and performance and are on a collision course to meet in the conference finals again this year.
Cleveland Cavaliers/Atlanta Hawks: This match-up graduated to a rivalry this year after the home-and-home the two teams had earlier this month. Both games that Atlanta should have won but lost in the fourth quarter, solely because of LeBron. Last year, the Cavaliers swept a depleted Hawks team in the playoffs but this year – the gap has closed. The Hawks possess an army of healthy swing men they can throw at LeBron – Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Marvin Williams, Maurice Evans – while having the ability to match him bucket-for-bucket on the offensive end with Jamal Crawford and Johnson. Their two games in January were probably the most intense games of the year so far and the heartbreak of two fourth-quarter losses by the Hawks temporarily stunted their leap from “arriving” to “arrived.”
In all three cases, the teams have faced each other in the playoffs at least once in the past two years, the cores of the teams have remained in tact and the individual vendettas enhance the narrative rather than being the focal point. The days of one-on-one rivalries in the NBA have long past. Now, it takes 12.
Based on my criteria or your own, are there any rivalries in the League right now that I missed?