Being one of the NBA’s leading players for nearly eighteen years, LeBron James naturally forms rivals with some of the game’s greatest players. A very few players throughout James’ career have given him enough fits to warrant rivalry discussions.
Let us look at LeBron James‘ rivals who have challenged him on the basketball court and threatened his place as NBA’s top player:
5. Kobe Bryant
LeBron James and Kobe Bryant have never had a single playoff series against each other. It is challenging to dub the two players as rivals, but Bryant and James were due to their battle for the NBA’s best player’s title.
The numbers indicate the matchup isn’t close. In their twenty-two meetings, James averaged a couple of more points, rebounds, and assists than Bryant with better defensive numbers and efficiency while also going 16-6. They did have competitive individual battles in those games, though, each combining over fifty points in several outings.
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4. Kawhi Leonard – In 2014, Kawhi Leonard won the Finals MVP award for his offensive emergence and held James to his average production. But until recently, he wasn’t considered a rival to James. The two have played against each other only twenty-four times between the regular season and playoffs, but Kawhi’s teams have had the edge.
LeBron James’ playoffs production is far greater than Kawhi Leonard’s as he was still developing when they met in the 2013 and 2014 Finals. Leonard is 8-4 in the regular season against James and 7-5 in the postseason against him. Their regular-season scoring numbers are comparable, each around twenty-four points per game, although Leonard holds James under average efficiency.
In this season, Leonard’s and James’ rivalry is at an all-time high as they lead their respective teams to the top two seeds in the Western Conference. The Clippers superstar Leonard now has a chance to dethrone James for good as the game’s best player because he is coming off a legendary Finals MVP run.
3. Paul Pierce – Paul Pierce faced LeBron James staggering sixty-nine times in his career. He has a three-win edge over James’s in the regular season but has the playoffs win advantage by four. In the late 2000s, Cleveland Cavaliers (James’ team) were the biggest threat to the big-three Boston Celtics(Pierce’s team), and it took James making a big-three of his own in Miami Heat to take control of from Boston Celtics.
James surpasses Pierce statistically in their matchups, but the two have several shootouts worthy of looking up. James found ways to overcome his early shortcomings against Pierce’s Celtics and matched his 2nd, 3rd, and 5th highest playoff scoring games against the Celtics forward.
James’ pervasiveness in the East cost Pierce chances at playoff’s success. Still, Pierce and his team, Boston Celtics, were the challenge that he had to overcome to become a champion and escalate near the top of the all-time rankings.
2. Stephen Curry – There hasn’t been a single player who has posed as big of a threat to LeBron James over the last sixteen years as Stephen Curry. James was the top NBA player in the mid-2010s until Curry developed into an all-time great in 2015-2016. In the 2015 Finals, even after the Golden Warriors beat James, who was part of the Cavaliers team, instead of Curry, the Finals MVP went to Andre Iguodala for his defense against James. Curry, the league MVP that season, was viewed as soft and not the proven playoff performer as James.
In 2016, the narrative changed after Curry had an MVP season for the ages and his team won seventy-three record games. That year was the first time that James wasn’t the league’s most popular player in several years.
James came back in the 2016 finals. James’ performance in that final was extraordinary. On the other hand, Curry needed Kevin Durant’s help to win the following two championships, so most people consider James the superior overall player.
However, what keeps this rivalry going is Curry’s ever-present influence on modern basketball and James’ legacy. Without Curry, James would likely have more titles, and his game isn’t as 3-point centric as Curry. Curry kept him from winning the rings he needs to catch Michael Jordan and diminished his influence on the game.
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1. Kevin Durant – Kevin Durant was the second-best player in the NBA after James for a good portion of his career. He outscored James like no other but often scored less, going just 2-13 against him in the 2012 regular season and losing the Finals to Miami Heats in his time with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Durant’s move to Golden State Warriors allowed him to emerge and beat James head-to-head in back-to-back seasons on the game’s biggest stage. But he never got the validation as NBA’s top player.
Durant brings out the best in James, which no other player could do. The two produced almost identical scoring totals in both the playoffs and regular season when playing each other, with Durant performing slightly better. Despite the popular opinion about his overpowered team, he is often touted as one of the greatest NBA scorers in history. Durant would have had multiple MVPs, and several rings had James not sustained excellence and James Harden not been traded to Houston. Now that Durant’s in Brooklyn, he is likely to take advantage of James’ absence in the East.