When the Cavaliers knocked off the Warriors on Christmas Day, it was a thrilling continuation of what has become easily the best rivalry in the NBA, wherein the two best teams in the league trade haymakers, and we watch in awe. This year, as we all know, the rivalry added a new element when Kevin Durant joined the Warriors. Some figured it might shift the balance of power irrevocably in Golden State’s favor, but the first round went the same way the Finals went, with a stirring comeback by LeBron James and company.
Maybe Durant isn’t the answer to LeBron that Golden State was hoping for, considering he only has a 4-18 record against LeBron teams since he entered the league, as pointed out by a nice feature from SB Nation. Though LeBron has long been considered the best player in the NBA, Durant was considered a solid number two for a while. With a talented team that frequently went deep into the playoffs in the tougher Western Conference, it’s a surprise KD, whose numbers against LeBron have been quite good, hasn’t been able to take more games.
That got us thinking: What other historical rivals — greats of the game who played the same position in the same era — had surprisingly lopsided records? We came up with a few, and for most of them, the reasons for one having the upper hand are far more obvious than with Durant.
Steph Curry vs. Chris Paul
Steph’s Warriors have a 16-8 record against Chris Paul, dating back to when CP3 was on the New Orleans Hornets and the Warriors weren’t any good. The only time the two teams faced each other in the postseason was that epic seven-game series that the Warriors took over the Clippers back in 2014, otherwise known as the moment when the Dubs put the league on notice as a serious championship contender. Since that moment, the Warriors have won 8 of 9 games between the two, and you can see just from the highlight package above how much that bothers Chris. Before Steph ascended to the heavens, CP3 was the consensus best point guard in the league. He still is the best traditional point guard around, but Steph changed the paradigm and left Chris in the dust. It’s a disservice to how tough Paul plays Curry, but the indelible image of the two’s rivalry is Steph eating Chris alive:
Tim Duncan vs. Kevin Garnett
Two of the best power forwards ever faced each other 44 times in the regular season, and Duncan won 27 of those matchups to Garnett’s 17. That’s not surprising in the least; for the first 10 years of games, Garnett was saddled with inferior teammates with the Timberwolves. While KG was on the Celtics, he had a much more reasonable 4-5 record — and that was with him losing the last three meetings as the Big Three era petered out. Then it was back to mediocrity for Garnett, with his final years spent in Brooklyn and back with a very different T-Wolves squad. In the playoffs, they only played two series against each other, with Duncan’s Spurs winning first-round series 3-1 each time.
Looking at individual stats, you can see where the teammate deficit really makes a difference (courtesy of Basketball-Reference):
David Robinson vs. Hakeem Olajuwon
Quick, without looking it up: Who had the better regular-season record in their head-to-head battle, Robinson or Olajuwon? The answer, with a shocking 30-12 edge, is David Robinson. Statistically, the two were very similar, but looking at the comparison, one number might jump out at you:
Robinson averaged two fewer points per game than Olajuwon, but on a whopping six fewer attempts. Their rebound, assist and block numbers were damn near identical. The win-loss numbers got especially skewed once the Rockets’ mid-90’s heyday passed and a kid named Tim Duncan showed up, but let’s get one thing clear: Robinson was an incredible player, and he does not get his historical due when people talk about the greatest big men ever. Of course, the postseason is a different story, when Olajuwon hit another level:
The Spurs and Rockets only faced each other once when the two big men were on the roster, the year David won the MVP and Hakeem made him pay for it. Here’s what I mean when I say another level:
That’s the image burned into everyone’s mind, but still: 30-12! Man, David Robinson was good, and the Spurs were good for a while even before Tim Duncan entered the picture.
Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain
Russell and Wilt were the original rivals, contrasting ultimate individual success (Wilt’s gaggle of records) with ultimate team success (Russell’s jaw-dropping 11 titles in 13 seasons). As one might expect, Russell had considerable edges in both the regular season (57-37) and postseason (29-20) series, with Wilt only getting the better of Russell one time, in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1967 when Wilt was on the Sixers. Regrettably, the sorts of advanced statistics — heck, even blocks — that would have truly put Russell’s impact into context were years away, but any firsthand account of Russell should be good enough to prove to the current generation just how special of a player he was.
Of course, the Celtics also had a staggering amount of talent through much of the rivalry, like Bob Cousy, K.C. Jones and tons of others. Russell was the cornerstone, however, and he had a natural feel for team basketball that Wilt had to spend considerable effort understanding. Whether it was the talent surrounding each star or the parts of individual hoops that didn’t fill the stat sheet, Russell always had an edge over Wilt.
(All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference)