On June 12, 2012, the basketball world settled in for round one of what everyone assumed would be the start of a legendary duel. LeBron James led the Miami Heat against young Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder. The future looked certain. LeBron and Durant would spend the next decade sparring for titles as Oklahoma City and Miami sported the best basketball teams in the world. Five years later and we may finally get the Durant vs. LeBron rematch, however the circumstances are far from what we imagined.
LeBron James has never truly had a rival. There has never been one player that he consistently battled with, on the biggest stages, with championships on the line. He never had a Bird to his Magic or a Wilt to his Russell. LeBron himself has said on multiple occasions that he doesn’t have a rival.
“I don't think we have a rival in our game today,” said James in January when asked if the Warriors were his rival.
“I've thought about it. There is no real rivalries. It's the truth. No rivalries,” he said in 2013.
“I would say that I don't really have an individual rivalry,” he said in a different 2013 interview.
Paul George likely got closest. Even then, his Pacers were undone by infighting, injuries and the league’s seismic shift to small ball before that rivalry could spread its wings. George continues to battle and push LeBron in both the regular season and playoffs, but the massive stakes – like a trip to the NBA Finals – aren’t on the line. Does it count as a rivalry when one team barely made the playoffs?
Without another player to compare him against, the fans and media have had to create foes for him. His rivals became entire teams, such as the “Big Three” Celtics, the Spurs or the Warriors. If that didn’t work, such as when Miami lost to Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals, his rival became conceptual: LeBron vs. “the clutch.” We even made him rivals with his teammates; remember all the talk about whether the Heat were Lebron or Dwyane Wade’s team? Since another player didn’t step up to fill the void, we tried to force LeBron to have a rival.
Kevin Durant was supposed to be that rival. Rewind back to the spotlight of the 2012 NBA Finals and the media was more than happy to remind you of it.
“The two stars could become today's Larry Bird and Magic Johnson,” reads an article in The Atlantic.
“Durant is going to come back in 2013 with one player and one goal in mind, and that's getting the better of LeBron and winning a ring next year,” says a Bleacher Report article just after the 2012 Finals ended.
The stage was set for the Larry O’Brien Trophy to go through one of these guys for the foreseeable future. The Heat were coming off their second of what would become four straight NBA Finals appearances. On the other side, a young Thunder team defeated the defending champion Dallas Mavericks, the Los Angeles Lakers (winners of the title just two years prior) and the Tim Duncan-led Spurs. The script couldn’t have been written any better, with the young Thunder defeating the “old guard” of the Western Conference and announcing their arrival as an elite team. Sadly, while LeBron kept up his half of the bargain with six straight Finals appearances, the Thunder immediately began dismantling the team.
The first dominoes fell during the 2012 offseason. James Harden and Oklahoma City couldn’t come to terms on a contract extension. The Thunder’s rationale was simple: as a small market team, they couldn’t pay the luxury tax, a penalty for teams that spend more than the NBA’s soft salary cap. If Harden wouldn’t sign for a reasonable number, then trading him avoids losing a player of his caliber for nothing. In hindsight, the Thunder likely could have avoided most, if not all, of the luxury tax payments had they kept Harden. Instead, Harden was shipped to the Houston Rockets and became one of the league’s best players.
Even after trading Harden, Oklahoma City was still in a good place. In the two seasons after trading him away, the team racked up 119 regular season wins while finishing first and second in the Western Conference. The team couldn’t get over the hump in the playoffs however, being upset by the Grizzlies in 2013 and then losing to the eventual champion Spurs in 2014. Injuries to Kevin Durant robbed the team of contending during the 2014-15 season. To top it off, a new juggernaut was rising in Golden State, presenting yet another obstacle for a return trip to the Finals.
Even after all of that, last season showcased what a healthy Thunder team could do. The team finished third in the Western Conference and made their fourth Conference Finals appearance in six seasons. They had the 73-win Warriors on the ropes with a 3-1 series lead. What followed would have been the biggest collapse in modern NBA history if the Warriors didn’t give up their own 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals. Another opportunity squandered. Durant joined the Warriors a month later, leaving Thunder fans to wonder what could have been.
Five years after their first Finals meeting, a rematch seems inevitable. The Cavaliers and Warriors are a combined 16-0 in the playoffs. Cleveland is a combined 5-2 against its possible Conference Finals opponents in Washington and Boston. Golden State is a combined 4-3 against the Rockets and Spurs, however one of those losses came on a night when Golden State didn’t play any of their four All-Stars. If they meet with a title on the line it will be a match up five years in the making. The jerseys have changed, but during those moments when Druant and LeBron match up we will all be left wondering what this rivalry could have been.