Being one of the NBA’s premier players for nearly 17 years, LeBron James naturally forms rivals with some of the league’s best players. He often vanquishes his foes, especially those in the Eastern Conference during his eight consecutive Finals appearances, but a handful of players throughout James’ career have given him enough fits to warrant rivalry discussions.
People like Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert had public spats with James, and Michael Jordan and James are constantly compared to each other, but this list ranks the top-five rivals James has played against on the court in his career. A player like Joakim Noah, as much as he seemed to dislike James, was more of a thorn in James’ side rather than an actual competitor of equal measure, so he and the Lance Stephenson-types deserve their own ranking.
These five rivals, in one way or another, have both challenged James on the court and/or threatened his place as basketball’s top player.
5. Kobe Bryant
Dwight Howard’s 2008-2009 Orlando Magic deprived basketball fans a highly-craved James vs. Bryant Finals matchup, and unfortunately the two icons never met in the postseason. Without a single playoff series against the other, it’s difficult to dub two players as rivals, but Bryant and James were due to their battle for the title of the NBA’s best player.
The numbers indicate the matchup isn’t close. In their 22 meetings, James averaged a couple more points, rebounds and assists than Bryant with better efficiency and defensive numbers while also going 16-6, according to Basketball-Reference. The two did have competitive individual battles in those games, though, each combining for over 50 points in several outings.
Bryant and James are forever linked by what they meant to their eras and how fans decide who the world’s best basketball player is. Would you rather the fearless scoring assassin or the unselfish freak of nature? Those types of questions were debated countless times when Bryant and James’ primes synced. Especially to Laker-lifers, the Bryant vs. James debate will never be close. In reality, Bryant passed the torch to James as the face of the league.
4. Kawhi Leonard
While Leonard won the 2014 Finals MVP award for both his offensive emergence and holding James to merely his average production, he wasn’t considered a rival to James until recently. The two haven’t played against each other much — only 24 total times between the regular season and playoffs — but Leonard’s teams have the edge in wins.
Leonard is 8-4 in the regular season and 7-5 in the postseason against James. Because Leonard was still developing when the two met in the 2013 and 2014 Finals, James’ playoffs production is far greater than Leonard’s. The two’s regular-season scoring numbers are comparable, each around 24 points per game, although Leonard holds James under his normal efficiency.
James and Leonard’s rivalry is currently at an all-time high as they each led their respective teams in Los Angeles to the top-2 seeds in the Western Conference so far this season. Leonard is also coming off a legendary Finals MVP run in a year James was limited by injury, so the Clippers superstar now has a chance to dethrone James for good as the game’s best player for good. Leonard may rank higher on this list after this Orlando playoffs if the two teams meet.
3. Paul Pierce
Pierce hasn’t been the kindest critic of James’ since he joined the media, and it’s no surprise because he’s probably sick of talking about a man he faced a staggering 69 times in his career. Pierce has a three-win edge in the regular season over James, but James has the playoffs win advantage by four. The late-2000s Cavaliers were the biggest threat to the big-three Celtics, and it eventually took James making a big-three of his own in Miami to take control of the East from Boston.
James outshines Pierce statistically in their matchups, but the two have several shootouts worthy of looking up on YouTube. Pierce was never afraid to talk trash at the more subdued James and it sometimes got under his skin. James did, however, find ways to overcome his early shortcomings against Pierce’s Celtics and eventually tallied his second, third and fifth highest playoff scoring games against the Boston forward.
James’ prevalence in the East cost Pierce more chances at playoff success, so he’s understandably not quick to compliment the King in retirement. Still, Pierce and his Celtics were the challenge James needed to overcome to become a champion and ascend near the top of the all-time rankings.
2. Stephen Curry
James was the consensus top NBA player in the mid-2010s until Curry developed into an all-time great in 2015-2016. Even after the Warriors beat James and a depleted Cavaliers team in the 2015 Finals, the Finals MVP went to Andre Iguodala for his defense against James instead of Curry. Curry, the league MVP that season, was still viewed as soft and not the proven playoff performer James was.
That narrative changed in 2016 when Curry had an MVP season for the ages and his team won a record 73 games. That year was arguably the first time in several years that James wasn’t the league’s best or most popular player, and he seemingly channeled that resentment to come back in the 2016 Finals. There’s a famous clip of James blocking Curry’s layup and looking back at him with an attitude as if to put the smaller point guard in his place.
Between James’ performance in that Finals and Curry needing Kevin Durant’s help to win the following two championships, most people deem James the superior overall player. What keeps this rivalry going, though, is Curry’s ever-present influence on modern basketball and James’ legacy. Without Curry, James likely has more titles and the game isn’t as 3-point centric.
Curry kept James from winning the rings he needs to catch Jordan and diminished James’ influence on the game by revolutionizing the way basketball is played. On the court, the two are completely different. In the context of NBA history, James’ chapter leads into Curry’s, and the two are forever linked.
The two have met 35 times in their careers. James has one more win in the regular season and Curry sports an eight-win lead in the playoffs.
1. Kevin Durant
Durant was the second-best player in the league for a good portion of his career behind James. He could outscore James like no other but often came up short on the scoreboard, going just 2-13 against James in the regular season and losing the 2012 Finals to Miami in his time with the Thunder.
Durant’s move to Golden State allowed him to get over the hump and beat James head-to-head on the game’s biggest stage, which he did in back-to-back seasons. What he didn’t expect was the dismissal of his accomplishments because of the superteam he created, and he never got the validation as basketball’s top player as a result. He’s hit multiple late-game clutch shots in James’ face in Finals games, yet gets little credit.
No other player brings out the best in James like Durant. The two produce nearly identical scoring totals in both the regular season and playoffs when playing each other, with Durant doing so slightly more efficiently.
He’s the one player to truly out-duel James in the Finals, despite what people say about his overpowered team, and is often touted as one of the greatest scorers in history. Had James not had such sustained excellence and James Harden not been traded to Houston, Durant likely has multiple MVPs and several rings. Perhaps Durant will take advantage of James’ absence in the East now that he’s in Brooklyn.