Like all professional sports leagues, the NBA is only as strong as its star power. From the 1960s with Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West to the 1990s with Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing and Karl Malone—the greatest eras of the game are remembered for the legends we witnessed.
For instance, take the 1980s. The NBA was looking for a way to recover from its mediocre play, lackluster fan interest and poor television ratings of the ‘70s. The answer quickly emerged in the form of one of the greatest rivalries in sports history. The ‘80s was all about two teams, and specifically two players, that ran the show. It was their league and everyone else was paying rent.
This particular rivalry pitted one superstar against another, but it went beyond that. It was one great team against another. It was one city's pride against another. The harsh, fast-paced Northeast came face-to-face with the laid-back 75 degrees of Southern California.
It was Magic vs. Bird.
Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Larry Bird weren't just the two best players in the league; they were the face of it. And while each guy was a 12-time All-Star and three-time MVP, it took more than individual achievements to explain their greatness. In the nine-season stretch from 1980 until 1988, either Johnson's Lakers or Bird's Celtics won eight titles.
Just let that sink in.
Eight out of nine championships while competing against Isiah Thomas' Pistons, Michael Jordan's Bulls, Dr. J's Sixers and Hakeem Olajuwon's Rockets.
Of those eight, Magic won five rings and Bird won three; some of which came at the expense of the other. They met in the 1984, ‘85 and '87 NBA Finals, with Bird winning the first and Magic taking the latter two.
They were the two best players on the planet, constantly clashing for the right of NBA supremacy.
Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
That's because 30 years later, history has repeated itself, and a new rivalry has emerged.
Once again, it's the two best ballers on the planet, playing on elite teams. It's two polar-opposite cities; one East, one West. This time though, the tropical melting pot of Miami has met the pride of the Oklahoma plains.
It's LeBron vs. Durant.
LeBron James, the oft-criticized three-time MVP recently silenced his critics by carrying his Heat over Kevin Durant's Thunder in the 2012 NBA Finals—a matchup of which we'll likely see sequels.
LeBron is the best player in the world. His ability to play all five positions (and play them well) is something the league hasn't seen since, well, Magic. He's what baseball scouts refer to as a five-tool player; a guy that can do it all. James can shoot, handle, drive, rebound, defend, pass and intimidate at an elite level. James has more tools than the Home Depot. Fans in opposing cities buy tickets just so they can say they saw him play.
To compete against a guy like that, it takes an equally unstoppable force. Such as a highly-skilled, 6-foot-9 wing that can shoot a high percentage from anywhere inside 25 feet. Wait, am I talking about Bird or Durant?
Durant is the best scorer in the world. People with his length aren't supposed to be able to handle the ball like a point guard and move like a cat. Nobody, including James, can prevent Durant from getting to where he wants to go on the court. And in a pinch, if he's cornered with no hope of escape, the three-time scoring champion will just fade away and bury one right over the defender's outstretched arm.
LeBron is a little ahead of Durant on the road to the Hall of Fame, but both guys are well on their way. James, 28, bypassed college basketball in lieu of being selected first overall in the 2003 draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers. James immediately changed the culture in Cleveland and became one of the best two players in the league (along with Kobe Bryant) while still in his early 20s. After coming close to glory on multiple occasions, he infamously took his talents to South Beach in 2010 in an attempt to secure his legacy, and has since done just that.
Durant, 24, took a detour through the University of Texas, where he scored 26 points per game while averaging 11 rebounds en route to winning both the Wooden and Naismith Awards in his only season as a Longhorn. Like James, Durant was a superstar from day one and has become one of the two best players in the NBA while still in his early 20s.
And when I say two best, third place doesn't even enter the picture, because the gap between these two and everybody else is astronomical. When the ball goes to James or Durant at the end of a tight game, it's shocking when they DON'T come through.
Of course, as good as they are, winning isn't a one-man job. Magic and Bird had some help—some very talented help. Magic ran with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy while Bird had Kevin McHale and Robert Parish backing him up.
And nothing has changed in today's NBA. James' perceived failures in Cleveland weren't because he wasn't clutch; they were because Mo Williams was his second option. Give Kevin Durant that roster and he'd come up short too. James moved to Miami so the likes of Williams and Zydrunas Ilgauskas would be upgraded to Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, while the ever-improving tandem of Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka has given Durant one of the top guard/forward combos in the league.
The re-emergence of a rivalry such as this is not only great for the NBA; it's great for the sport. This is much more than just X's and O's; these guys show the next generation you can be the best in the world and still respect your opponent.
LeBron and KD don't hate each other, not in the least. They actually get along quite well. In fact, they've teamed up each of the past two summers to train together in James' hometown of Akron, Ohio. They also starred together as members of Team USA's Gold Medal-winning squad in the 2012 London Olympics; 20 years after Magic and Larry did the same as members of the Dream Team back in 1992.
Do they want to beat each other? More than you or I could imagine. But just because you want to beat someone doesn't mean you have to hate them; it just means you have to hate losing to them. Magic and Larry proved that then and James and Durant are proving it now.
If these two continue on their current paths, we'll one day look back upon the LeBron/Durant era as one of the greatest of all time.