For all of the talk about Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee and Kevin Durant’s eventual return to the court in Brooklyn, neither player represents LeBron James’ biggest rival: Kawhi Leonard
No, not even Durant, who has faced James in three NBA Finals, most recently beating LeBron in back-to-back years in 2017 and 2018 while Durant was with the Golden State Warriors and James was a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The player who is currently the biggest threat to James resides in the same city in which James plays. It’s hard to imagine Leonard being a legitimate rival of anyone’s given his personality. He doesn’t talk trash. He doesn’t show much emotion. He doesn’t ruffle any feathers.
He just goes about his business and quietly destroys everything in his path, much like his former San Antonio Spurs teammate, Tim Duncan.
But even Duncan looks like Kevin Garnett or Russell Westbrook when it comes to Kawhi.
However, that does not mean he doesn’t have LeBron’s attention.
The rivalry began to bud seven years ago, when James’ Miami Heat and Leonard’s Spurs clashed in the first of two straight NBA Finals meetings. Leonard was just a 21-year-old kid at the time and hadn’t received much attention outside of Texas. But even then, Kawhi’s defense had confounded LeBron (peak LeBron, no less) so much that James made this famous “damn” face when Leonard checked back on to the floor in Game 5 of that series.
Of course, the Heat would ultimately go on to win that matchup in seven games, with James taking home Finals MVP honors. But the following year, Leonard keyed a five-game destruction of that same Miami squad in a Finals rematch, winning a Finals MVP award himself.
It was at that point that the rivalry between the two small forwards genuinely began to grow.
No, Leonard was not yet on James’ level, but his ascension was obvious. As a matter of fact, over the next couple of years, LeBron bristled whenever he received questions about Kawhi in interviews, deflecting the credit back to the Spurs as a whole rather than dapping up his predecessor.
LeBron vs. Kawhi only happened twice a year, as James stayed in the East and Leonard remained in San Antonio through 2018, but whenever they faced off, the tension was palpable.
Then, the thought of the two superstars becoming teammates became a realistic thing during the summer of 2018, when Leonard asked out of San Antonio and had the Lakers (who had just signed LeBron) hot on his tail.
Nevertheless, the Spurs wanted nothing to do with sending Kawhi to Los Angeles and ultimately traded him to the Toronto Raptors, where he went on to win his second championship (as well as his second Finals MVP) last season.
The potential of a LeBron-Kawhi duo then surfaced again this past summer when Leonard hit free agency, but Leonard spurned James (and Anthony Davis), opting to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers to play alongside of Paul George.
Instantly, the idea of a Lakers-Clippers playoff matchup had everyone on the edge of their seats from Day 1, and we saw three previews of that possible clash during the 2019-20 regular season, with Leonard besting James in two of those matchups.
While there is certainly a mutual respect between LeBron and Kawhi, you just get the feeling that these two guys don’t like each other very much. James in particular has shown his distaste for Leonard. Maybe not fervently, but it seems pretty clear that LeBron isn’t exactly Kawhi’s No. 1 fan.
And as for Leonard? Yes, he is reserved, but he is a competitor, and ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith even reported after their second meeting this season that Leonard told someone to tell James to “stop being so afraid to guard me.”
How true is that? Who knows, but to confuse Leonard’s reticent demeanor for weakness is a big mistake, so it would not surprise me if Kawhi did indeed try to relay that message to LeBron.
Overall, Leonard owns a 15-9 record over James, including playoffs. That’s a pretty nice notch in Kawhi’s belt, as it’s not like James has played on cupcake teams, either.
The best part is that this rivalry is just getting started.
Both guys are playing in LA now, and it seems like a lock that they will meet in the playoffs at some point. Heck, even if they don’t, they now face one another a minimum of four times a year rather than just twice, which is enough on its own to add more fuel to the fire.
Also, for the first time since LeBron’s younger years, there are some who genuinely do not believe he is the best player in the NBA, with some people handing Kawhi that title.
Don’t get it twisted: this is a real rivalry, and it’s one that is only going to get hotter over the next few years.