With all the directions you could take in promoting yesterday’s Lakers/Celtics game — NBA Finals rematch, NBA Finals preview, legendary franchises collide, Future Hall of Famers Summit — it’s a good thing nobody tried to hype it as Kobe vs. Shaq. That rivalry, as Justin Timberlake would sing it, is dead and gone.
Kobe dropped 41 points on Sunday. Shaq went scoreless. There was one moment when Kobe baited Shaq into a foul before hitting a tough baseline shot, then made a show out of glaring at his ex-teammate/ex-nemesis, but otherwise there was nothing to see. If anything, you could say Kobe has ultimately won their feud by simply staying active more consistently and relevant longer. He is Prince to Shaq’s Michael Jackson.
So now what? Who fills the roles to make up the NBA’s premier 1-on-1 rivalry? LeBron and Dwyane Wade used to get into entertaining shootouts before they joined forces like Harlem Heat. LeBron and Carmelo turned in a classic as recently as last season, but their matchups have been hit-or-miss. Chris Paul and Deron Williams routinely put up underwhelming 11-point, 6-assist stat lines against each other. Dwight Howard and Yao Ming, well … maybe if Jordan Hill allows Yao to use one of his good legs.
While depth of talent is certainly not a problem in the League today, the biggest pesticide that is killing off rivalries is that players are too friendly with each other. And I don’t have a problem with athletes not hating each other, but that is the reality of the situation.
I saw an interview with Magic Johnson over the weekend where he said he and Larry Bird despised each other and barely spoke for the first eight years of their careers. Anyone who watched ESPN’s 30 for 30 film on Reggie Miller saw that the venom he had for New York — and vice versa — was very real. Wilt Chamberlain was still taking barbs from and throwing barbs at Bill Russell long after they’d both retired.
For the most part, today’s players aren’t like that. And if you don’t like it, blame the infrastructure of basketball in the United States. Thanks to an increasingly more organized and expanding AAU/grassroots system, elite players from around the nation cross paths with each other regularly at tournaments and camps throughout the spring and summer — not to mention when their high school teams play each other during the season in national showcase games. And while sometimes that familiarity builds rivalries, more often it builds friendships.
Kevin Garnett and Chauncey Billups became friends as teenagers at an airport while traveling from the McDonald’s All-American Game. The foundation of the Fab Five was built during elite camps where Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard were regulars. LeBron and ‘Melo formed a bond well before the ’03 NBA Draft. Looking at it more recently, don’t you think Austin Rivers‘ decision to sign with Duke had a little to do with his friendship with Kyrie Irving? In the past, these Denver-to-Chicago, Akron-to-Baltimore, Florida-to-New Jersey connections probably wouldn’t have been made before the players reached the NBA. Now they’re happening at 13 years old and younger. And it’s hard to build a blood feud with a guy you’ve been cool with since you both had pimples and braces.
That said, there are some entertaining and (at least potentially) combustive individual NBA matchups that could create great rivalries:
* Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose‘s contrasting styles and endless speed is like watching two NASCAR drivers fight for the checkered flag. Same goes for Rondo vs. John Wall, and Rose vs. Wall.
* Blake Griffin and Kevin Love are laying a foundation of dueling double-doubles.
* Brook Lopez and Amar’e Stoudemire can score on each other all day, and they have the NYC/Jersey thing going, and Brook is about to snap if Avery Johnson points out his rebounding issues one more time.
* LeBron and Kevin Durant are the two best at their position and seem destined for a classic Finals showdown some day. Or maybe LeBron and Wade will devolve into a Shaq/Kobe replay.
The elements are there on the court for great rivalries, not to mention that the next beef is just one misread Twitter post away. And if that’s not good enough, we’ll still have Marvin Williams versus Shawne Williams.