When Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers square off against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday night, it’ll be the last time he faces the King in his court, and perhaps, it’ll be the last time the two all-time greats face, period. And that may end one of the greatest non-rivalry rivalries in NBA history.
The NBA is filled with genuine on-court rivalries: Kobe vs. Tim Duncan, LeBron vs. Tim Duncan, Michael Jordan vs. the Bad Boys or Patrick Ewing and the New York Knicks, Reggie Miller vs. Spike Lee (it counts!), Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell and so on. But the one thing that they all had in common was the playoffs.
Kobe and LeBron never met in the postseason. And to be perfectly honest, when they’ve met in the regular season, it hasn’t been that close. James has more or less owned the regular season head-to-head. Based on the Play Index at Basketball-Reference.com, it truly isn’t even close. James’s team has won 14 of the 20 times they’ve played, and he’s performed significantly better:
And when you look at the individual matchups, James has won 15 of them based on Game Score:
The “rivalry” between the players, as it were, isn’t that great. It’s never been with much at stake, and it’s never been close. But this is still significant for other reasons. It might be the most significant fan rivalry in NBA history. And it marked the change of an age.
This is a story that grew as the Internet did. When Kobe was a rookie, most people were still using a modem and connecting via a dial tone. It was just so darned cool that AOL had “live” sports scores and box scores. You could go into chat rooms and discuss sports.
By the time LeBron came along, a good chunk of homes were getting broadband, but it was still only just over a third of homes, and over half were still just connecting with their landline. The rest didn’t even have access.
All of that changed over the next 10 years. Now 74 percent of homes have a broadband connection. And broadband is hardly the same thing as it was then, either. We have smartphones that are faster than the computers and Internet connections were then. When LeBron was a rookie, it only took 500KBS to qualify, and 1MBPS was the best you could get. Now you get smartphones that top 100MBPS.
And with the faster availability came a massive influx of information. YouTube and League Pass. We have specialized writers who focus on basketball. We have analytics and statistical breakdowns like we never had before. We have shot charts and PER and Win Shares and tracking data and ways of viewing and evaluating that data which were unimaginable, even a decade ago.
We saw the rise of specialization of reporters for ESPN and other networks, and analysts like John Hollinger have become full-time basketball nerds. We’ve seen an explosion of websites with innovative thinking like Basketball Prospectus, 82 Games, NBA Wowy, Hoops Stats and NBA Stuffer, which give us in-depth statistical analysis.
We’ve seen bloggers, and we’ve seen sites like SB Nation, Bleacher Report and our very own FanRag Sports give once amateur writers opportunities to share their wares, broadening the voices you can listen to.
And all of that information and access gives armies of fans an arsenal of weapons to go to war with, and of all the wars that have been fought in the NBA circles of the Internet, none have surpassed that of Kobe vs. LeBron. For a decade, it’s been almost inevitable that any conversation will devolve into a Kobe vs. LeBron debate.
And the battleground has become bigger and bigger, first with chat rooms and news forums, then with comments sections, and then with Twitter and Facebook. The world is a battlefield. Kobe fans in China can argue with LeBron fans in Brazil. The world has shrunk to the size of a petty argument.
Kobe’s volume vs. LeBron’s efficiency. Kobe’s rings vs. LeBron’s consistent success and carrying a questionable roster deep into the postseason. Kobe’s scoring vs. LeBron’s all-around game. The arguments aren’t new, but the weapons at the disposal continue to evolve. You can prove arguments like never before.
It was the first “modern war” between fans. Personal offenses have rained down on us all. A careless quip about a Kobe missed shot or a LeBron loss could send a grown man driving to Temecula to fight on Christmas Day.
And this is what makes this rivalry so great and unique. It didn’t just mark a rivalry. It marked a transition in the world whereby how we access information, learn, grow and communicate are all embodied in that one, simple — even trivial — argument that’s bigger than any game they’ve ever played. Perhaps even bigger than the world itself.
So let’s hear it one last time: Kobe or LeBron?