Is LeBron James obsessed with Steph Curry?
Check out all the shots traded between The King and the champs
Historically, kings have always had to fight to maintain their throne. LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers is no different.
For the better part of the last decade, James has owned the league, both in terms of skill and popularity. His reign as the NBA’s alpha remained consistent while other pseudo-rivals shifted with each passing season. For years, he’d taken permanent residency on the NBA’s mountaintop — earning the nickname “The King.”
James has had his fair share of foes and peers throughout his career: the Boston Celtics’ Big 3, Paul George and the Indiana Pacers, Derrick Rose and the Bulls, Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder, Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers and Tim Duncan and the Spurs (even Washington’s Gilbert Arenas, fleetingly).
But never one he hasn’t been able to beat at least once when it mattered most, never one he’s invested this much time, this much energy and this much obsession into. Never one quite like Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors.
“You guys make rivals,” James said Wednesday downplaying, albeit unsuccessfully, the significance of the star power matchup on the game’s biggest stage. “I think it’s great for the sport. It’s great for all sports. I don’t think me and Steph, when you talk about rivalries, you talk about Carolina-Duke, you talk about Ohio State-Michigan. It’s hard to say LeBron and Steph. If there’s a smaller scale or another word for a rival.”
James has rarely been the chaser, more like the one being chased.
He finished third in MVP voting the past two seasons. Curry not only captured his second straight MVP, he did so unanimously, the first time in league history. James fell one vote shy of the distinction in 2013. James finished second in jersey sales. Curry finished first. And in March, Morgan Stanley predicted Curry’s Under Armor sneakers would outsell James’ signature Nike line.
The mind games — to culminate with this year’s Finals — began before last season’s Finals ended.
Here’s how this game of riv…err, competitors has transpired over the past year.
June 14, 2015: Sitting sluggishly following a Game 5 loss in the Finals — one in which James tallied 40 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists — his position hadn’t changed. “I feel confident because I’m the best player in the world,” James said. “It’s simple.”
June 16, 2015: Golden State clinched a game later in Cleveland, leaving James to hear the Warriors celebrate and leave Quicken Loans Arena soaked in champagne. Klay Thompson returned James’ perceived shot with a subliminal of his own. “It just feels good to say, you know, we’re the best team in the world with the best player in the world. This man sitting right next to me,” Thompson said, pointing to Curry with a smirk. “Appreciate it, man,” Curry said in near unison.
June 19, 2015: Draymond Green, obviously “hella faded” off one too many bottles of champagne, says the Cleveland Cavaliers suck at the Warriors championship parade.
Nov. 18, 2015: James calls out his own team for lack of urgency, using the Warriors as a benchmark. “We lost in the Finals. So that’s enough motivation for myself. I think we need to understand that,” James said. “Like, we lost in the Finals. We didn’t win. And the team that beat us looks more hungry than we are. So it shouldn’t be that way.”
Nov. 23, 2015: Whether James meant to get on the Warriors’ radar with a perceived early-season slight, it happened anyway. He praised Golden State’s consistency and their ability to play at a high level for a long time. But all anyone ever heard was, “They’ve been the most healthy team I’ve ever seen in NBA history.”
Dec. 1, 2015: Lee Jenkins publishes a LeBron James cover story for Sports Illustrated, which analyzes James’ desire to bring Cleveland its long-awaited title. Yet, it also tells a shorter story of James’ watching a recorded Warriors/Raptors game in the early morning hours following a loss in Detroit. He drifts off to sleep angry. Of playing in the 2015 Finals, his fourth championship loss — this one without injured Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love — he said, “I don’t think we were outplayed or out-coached. I think we were outmatched.”
Of Curry’s impending arrival as the league’s top alpha dog, he’s even more ominous. “I hear the chatter about who is the best player in the league. I see the guys who are barreling down. That locks me in even more.”
Dec. 25, 2015: The Warriors improved to 28-1 after a 89-83 victory over the Cavs in Oakland in Irving’s third game back after recovering from a knee injury he suffered in Game 1 of the 2015 Finals. Neither team shoots well, but Golden State holds Cleveland to 31.6 percent shooting.
Jan. 17: As the Warriors prepare to bookend their season series with Cleveland, Curry openly anticipated returning to Quicken Loans Arena. “Obviously, walking in the locker room, it’ll be good memories. Hopefully, it still smells a little bit like champagne.”
Jan. 18: Life comes at the Cavs fast. The Warriors hand the Cavs its lowest point of the season with a 34-point loss in Quicken Loans Arena. Curry goes for 35 while LeBron only manages 16.
Jan. 22: The Cavs fire David Blatt, replacing him with assistant coach Tyronn Lue.
Feb. 24: LeBron, passive aggressively continues to poke the beast, saying the Warriors’ regular season dominance doesn’t mean much once the playoffs start. “You can be 82-0, man, once the playoffs start, everyone’s 0-0. Let’s get back to the beginning. It’s messed up, but that’s what happens,” he said. “And hopefully you’ve built enough chemistry, which it seems like they have, and enough out on the court where you can take that on to the next phase, but regular season recordwise is great for the record books, but it means nothing for the postseason.”
@StephenCurry30 needs to stop it man!! He's ridiculous man! Never before seen someone like him in the history of ball!
— LeBron James (@KingJames) February 28, 2016
Feb. 27: Even James lost his mind on Twitter watching the play of the season: Curry’s game-winning, nearly half-court, overtime, buzzer-beating 3-pointer against the Thunder.
March 11: Lost in a season-long collision course was the one time James outright defended Curry from older players who said the reigning MVP wouldn’t survive in previous eras. “I heard Dennis Rodman say if I played in their era I’d be just an average player — yeah, about me, that I’d be just an average player,” he said. “And they say the same things about Steph, ‘If Steph played in our era, then we’d be more physical with him and go at him.’ And it sucks because we’re just trying to carry the torch for the next group to come behind us.”
April 8: While the entire country watches Warriors/Spurs, James tweets he was more concerned with replaying the 1997 Western Conference finals between the Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets. His reasoning only added gasoline on a lit flame. “At the end of the day, the Warriors-Spurs game is going to decide itself. I wanted to go back and see what happened and why Stockton was so open to make that shot to send them to the Finals and I was able to watch it.” Right.
May 11: James praises Curry for his second straight MVP award. But he questions Curry’s impact in terms of being “valuable,” seemingly nominating himself for the award in the process.
May 13: Curry responds, “I’ve gotten really good at ignoring people.” James suggests the same day that Portland Trail Blazers’ Terry Stotts deserved Coach of the Year, an award given to Golden State’s Steve Kerr.
May 31: James calls Curry and Thompson “probably the two greatest shooters we’ve probably ever seen.”
June 1: It felt like the entire world tuned in to watch the Thunder/Warriors series. Well, except for Irving. “I caught bits and pieces,” he said. “I was in bed at 9 or 10. Other than that, I finished my night watching Family Guy.”
June 1: James admits speaking on Curry’s MVP was a mistake because of how it was perceived in the media.
Curry sat annoyed during Wednesday’s media availability.
“That’s not what I’m playing for, to be the face of the NBA or to be this or that or to take LeBron’s throne or whatever,” the reigning MVP said of his fellow superstar. “You know, I’m trying to chase rings, and that’s all I’m about. So that’s where the conversation stops for me.”
The conversation may stop for Curry, but the debate moves forward.
Part of what’s made James the pop culture lightning rod he is, is his ability to generate drama and storylines nearly as easily as he drops triple-doubles. His yearlong affair with poking the bear is a key ingredient in why this year’s Finals are so provocative. Love or hate LeBron James, LeBron James is must-see TV.
Much like Curry and the Golden State Warriors are, too.
In many ways, they’ve eclipsed James over the past two seasons behind a style of play enthralling to fans and crippling to opposing squads. This is the theater of 2016 Finals: the tug-of-war between regaining control and confirming dominance. James — the game’s greatest all-around player (ever) in pursuit of his career’s crowning achievement in his sixth consecutive Finals — squares up against the backcourt of Curry and Thompson — the greatest shooting tag team in league history in pursuit of becoming the greatest team in league history — in a heavyweight rematch a year in the making.
This is it. Don’t get scared now.
James’ high-stakes, backroom, season-long (but no pressure) poker game with the NBA’s deadliest catch comes to a head Thursday night in Oakland, California. A fifth Finals loss hangs in the balance, as is the first for a city in complete desperation for its first.
All chips are pushed to the center of the table. It’s almost time for LeBron James to play his hand.