How much does it say about media hype and Internet culture that perhaps the most heated sports rivalry of 2010 — Manny Pacquiao vs. Floyd Mayweather — involves two guys who have never actually competed against each other, and have rarely even been within arm’s reach of each other?
But check out any boxing message board, or the opinion columns and TV segments about the (hopefully) upcoming superfight. Mayweather/Pacquiao has bad blood flowing before the two even step into the ring.
In the NBA, every superstar plays each other at least twice a year (unless they’re on the same team), so you don’t really have the same element of a rivalry with zero payoff. But there are players who could create a great rivalry if they met in a big playoff series or with a championship on the line. Here are some of those untapped potential/coulda-been rivalries:
1. LeBron James vs. Dwyane Wade
While Kobe vs. LeBron has been the NBA’s premier rivalry lately — at least in terms of marketing — LeBron vs. Wade was typically more competitive and exciting. The two never met up in a playoff series, however, and now it won’t happen for at least the next six years.
2. Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James
If you still believe the NBA can manipulate postseason matchups to enhance their bottom line, don’t you think we would have seen a Lakers/Cavs NBA Finals by now? With LeBron staying in the East and having a stacked Miami lineup around him, the chances of a LeBron/Kobe matchup is now more likely than ever. But because LeBron’s team has so much talent, it won’t be seen as a 1-on-1 duel, but rather (erroneously) Kobe taking on Miami’s Big Three by himself.
3. Tim Duncan vs. Kevin Garnett
For a good decade or so we had arguably the two greatest power forwards in NBA history playing in the same conference at the same time, and yet Duncan vs. KG never materialized into a competitive postseason matchup. This was almost like the modern-day Russell vs. Wilt. Duncan’s teams were always a notch above KG’s squads, and then when Garnett moved to Boston and seriously contended for championships, Duncan was on his way downhill.
4. Yao Ming vs. Shaquille O’Neal
They actually did meet in the postseason one time, when the Lakers knocked off the Rockets in five games in the first round of the ’04 playoffs. But Yao was only in his second year in the League, while Shaq’s L.A. team was loaded with Kobe, Payton and Malone. That series was more about Steve Francis trying to upset the Lakers than anything Yao could do. With all the hype Yao had coming into the League, it was expected he and Shaq would battle it out for several years as the two best giants in the game. Didn’t quite work out that way.
5. Chris Paul vs. Deron Williams
Depending on who you ask, they’re the two best point guards in the world and will forever be linked to each other because they were taken 3rd and 4th in the 2005 NBA Draft. Deron and CP are so evenly matched, their head-to-head battles typically don’t produce great numbers, but it’s always competitive. We have yet to see them go at it for seven games in a playoff series, though.
Honorable mentions — Carmelo Anthony vs. LeBron James; Yao Ming vs. Dwight Howard, Allen Iverson vs. Stephon Marbury.