For the past few years, the death of rivalries has been an endlessly recycled talking point. The idea is that NBA players are too friendly and it’s diluted the league’s competitive spirit. It’s also absurd. NBA rivalries are as intense as they’ve ever been and this week at The Step Back, we’re celebrating the rivalries that matter today, and the ones that will shape the league’s next decade.
On Nov.7, 1991, Larry Bird got a phone call from Magic Johnson. Magic wanted Bird to hear it from him first and not from the television. He was about to tell the world, in one of the most memorable press conferences in history, that he had been diagnosed with HIV, and was retiring. “I’m glad I was able to talk to Larry and let him know that I’m gonna be OK, and I knew he was going to be supporting me,” Magic said in his and Bird’s 2009 co-written book When The Game Was Ours. Despite being the faces of the NBA’s signature rivalry of the 1980s, Bird and Magic were great friends.
The friendship started over lunch in 1985 before the two were set to film a Converse commercial together. It was a year after they met in the Finals for the first time, and they’d meet in the Finals twice more after that lunch, three times in total. They’d finish their careers with a combined seven rings and between 1980 and 1989 either the Boston Celtics or Los Angeles Lakers (or both) appeared in every NBA Finals. Bird and Magic have been credited with saving the NBA in the 1980s like The Clash saved rock n’ roll.
There were several reasons Bird and Magic fueled so much interest in the sport — they resuscitated the legendary coast-to-coast rivalry between the Lakers and Celtics, fans anticipated seeing them in the Finals and, of course, there was the fact that one was black and the other was white. Bird vs Magic was defined by their differences. Yet there they were, at the height of the rivalry’s popularity, eating lunch and filming commercials together.
Thirty-plus years later, during these last NBA Finals, it was clear the gap between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors was too wide even for LeBron James to overcome. By mid-series, the only question left was who between Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry was more important to Golden State’s success. By the end of Game 4, both had a strong case to be named Finals MVP, but it was Durant who got the honor for the second-straight year. During the series, SB Nation’s Paul Flannery wrote of the duo’s dominance:
"“In time, perhaps with a few more championships, this dynamic will be appreciated for what it represents. To have two superstars in their prime put ego aside and work together to create a superteam that is able to function on parallel tracks in the service of winning is the stuff of legend. For now it speaks to the inevitability of what the Warriors have created, and there is little glory in the inevitable. The only thing that’s left is assigning credit.”"
For what it’s worth, neither Durant nor Curry seem all that interested in assigning credit. This is not Shaq vs. Kobe: Two alphas who tolerated playing with each other until, eventually, they didn’t, in large part because of the conflict over credit. Durant, perhaps sick of the chicken-egg argument after playing in Oklahoma City, signed with the Warriors because he wanted Curry’s help. Both actively avoid being acknowledged as the alpha.
“Curry knows he played a great game. Without him, we don’t win. He knows that. I know that. We all know that,” Durant told The Bay Area News Group after being named Finals MVP. “We stand firm in that. So trophies and accolades and praise, that doesn’t matter when we win. We know we’re all contributing something in a special way.”
“K.D.’s been amazing these last two years, especially in the Finals, and so deserving of back-to-back Finals MVPs,” Curry said after Game 4. “I’m going to be his biggest fan in there with what he’s able to do. I think the biggest thing we appreciate in the locker room is, again, what everybody brings to the table and we kind of unlock the greatness out of each other.”
Unlock the greatness out of each other. What does Curry mean by that? That statistically both he and Durant get better when they share the court? The numbers don’t show that. Does he mean Durant’s presence provides more motivation? Curry won an MVP and a championship before Durant showed up, so that doesn’t add up, either. When Curry says “greatness” he’s referring to a collective greatness. The Warriors have leaped past Best Team in the NBA and now are in the conversation for Greatest Of All Time. Part of that conversation is determining who the best player on the Warriors is. It’s been a topic of debate for the last two seasons (go ahead, Google it) and, as the Warriors climb higher and higher in the pantheon of great teams, being recognized as the best team’s best player becomes even more significant. Whether Curry or Durant like it or not, there is a rivalry between them.
It’s splitting hairs trying to prove which of Curry or Durant is more important to the Warriors’ success. Any evidence is anecdotal. Both averaged 26.4 points per game last season. Curry’s on/off splits were slightly more favorable than Durant’s during the regular season, but Durant’s were better during the playoffs. Reasonable people can convincingly argue whose gravity has more pull. Whereas Bird vs Magic was defined by their differences, Curry vs Durant is defined by their sameness. So how do we determine who is the more important Warrior? We have to go beyond the boxscore.
In a 2010 study, University of Wisconsin economics professor Lones Smith looked at the concept of assortative matching — the process of matching subjects by things they have in common and don’t have in common — as it relates to partnerships and team activities. Or bands, such as The Beatles.
“Partnerships of agents with similar reputations, like The Beatles, will dissolve as they establish themselves as either highly skilled — or not so,” Smith wrote. “Individuals are more likely to assortatively match when their reputations are low, while stars are more likely to match with those having unestablished reputations. Finally, this yields the dynamic result that matched stars eventually must split.”
In other words, as the skill level of players develops, they “rub off” (as Smith puts it) on their teammates. Smith argues a player’s salary should reflect not only their productivity but also how much they will improve the productivity of their teammates over time. Superstars need to (a) be appropriately compensated and (b) have young players to mentor in order to maximize their value.
When it comes to compensating Curry and Durant, “Hopefully these guys are getting paid for this, and it’s not sort of warm fuzzies,” Smith said. Seeing as they’re making the max salary, they have to be compensated in ways beyond cold-hard cash or even warm fuzzies. That’s where sponsorships, shoe sales and championships come in.
As for the second point, this is why the Warriors bring in someone like DeMarcus Cousins and draft players like Jordan Bell. It gives their superstars a project to work on. And, remember, Curry still believes he and Durant are getting better. Unlock the greatness out of each other. Smith says once players become superstars, there isn’t much they can do to improve one another. Curry, for the moment at least, disagrees. But is there a tipping point? A point when another championship, Brita commercial or one-year reclamation project fails to make sticking together worth it?
Smith tells the story of The Beatles to illustrate this point. “You have these four relatively unknown musicians in Liverpool. They got together perhaps for lack of better opportunities and, it just so happened, that at least two of them were the greatest ever and two others were damn good,” Smith said in a phone interview. “Well, this created clear opportunities down the road for these two superstars, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, in the very least to break off and form their own groups, where they again could start this process of mentoring younger musicians. And that’s exactly what happened.”
If true, this is a remarkable concept. A team that surrounds its superstar with developing prospects is not only maximizing the value of the players, it also makes it more likely the superstar will stay with the team long term. Established superstars seek out opportunities to mentor younger players. This jives with NBA history. Shaq in 2004 was traded to the Heat, where he was able to mentor a second-year guard named Dwyane Wade. LeBron left the Heat in 2014 to groom the Cavaliers and then Kyrie Irving left LeBron to establish himself in Boston. An alpha wants to groom the team in his likeness.
This is the central tension powering Curry vs Durant. Who is the more important Warrior, not only in terms of on-court production but also in the locker room? Who is the greater mentor? Who is having the most “rub off” on guys like Bell and Cousins? Who means more to the Warriors of today, and to the Warriors of tomorrow? And who splits off to form his version of Wings?
For the foreseeable future, Curry and Durant are at the top of the NBA world. As LeBron rebuilds in Southern California and the next generation of superstars like Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum prime for their reign, Curry vs Durant will have to play out before anything shifts at the summit.
Durant’s decision to join the Warriors sent ripple effects across the NBA, and his next decision will make similar waves. While Curry’s contract doesn’t expire until 2022, there are already rumors that Durant could leave as a free agent next summer. Maybe he’ll team up with Irving in New York, or join LeBron in L.A. Or maybe he’ll stay right where he is. If he re-signs in Golden State, the Warriors remain the must-beat team of the NBA. If he leaves, the drama spikes.
Either way, Curry vs Durant isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.