The NBA has had its share of phenomenal individual matchups.

Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain went at it as the two colossal pioneers of the league in the 1960s. Meanwhile, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird formed one of the most dynamic rivalries (and friendships) in sports as preeminent stars for the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, respectively.

Michael Jordan had his battles with John Stockton and Karl Malone. Similarly, LeBron James squared off against a dynasty in Golden State.

However, basketball fans were robbed of seeing two generational stars square off in the NBA Finals at the end of the 2000s and into the 2010s.

We are speaking of the aforementioned “King James” and the “Black Mamba,” Kobe Bryant.

LeBron and Kobe seemed to be on a collision course for a Finals matchup between 2008-11. It never happened.

Still, as Episode 2 of The Final Ring: Kobe & The Lakers’ 2010 Title highlighted, the question must be asked: which player would have come out on top had these two titans met in a battle for the Larry O’Brien Trophy?


The narrative of LeBron’s first stint in Cleveland is pretty evident.

James was ascending as arguably the best player in the game, and he was carrying his team along with him in the process.

While Bryant was wallowing in L.A. following the departure of Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron brought the Cavs closer to the ultimate goal. Cleveland even reached the NBA Finals in 2007 after a Herculean performance from James against the Detroit Pistons in the conference finals.

But Kobe was in for a rise of his own. The Lakers acquired Pau Gasol prior to the trade deadline in 2008 and took off shortly thereafter. Although L.A. would lose to the Boston Celtics in the ’08 Finals, they won each of the next two titles.

Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lakers

LeBron had his opportunities, in the meantime. The Cavs pushed the Celtics to seven games in the 2008 conference semifinals, falling short mostly because of an abysmal shooting series from James.

The 2008-09 season looked like Cleveland’s year. LeBron led the Cavs (66-16) to the best record in the NBA, capturing his first MVP in the process. But Cleveland came up short in the conference finals, losing to the Orlando Magic in six games.

Another demoralizing loss to the Celtics the following season would end LeBron’s first run in Cleveland.

However, what if James and the Cavs had broken through at the end of the 2000s?

Mamba strikes at the heart of Cleveland

The Cavs failed to win a title during that stretch because they relied too heavily on James.

It is a miracle Cleveland pushed the ’08 Celtics to seven games considering LeBron shot a woeful 35.5 percent from the field. But they still lost when he performed superhuman feats. James averaged 38-8-8 against the Magic in the ’09 conference finals… still not enough.

Lakers, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol

The absence of a supporting cast for the Cavs would not bode well against the Lakers.

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One of the things people forget about Kobe and those Lakers teams is how sound they were defensively.

Kobe and Derek Fisher were pests on the perimeter. Lamar Odom could guard every position and switch out at any time. Gasol and Andrew Bynum were anchors in the paint. Wings like Metta World Peace and Trevor Ariza offered length.

The Lakers would have terrorized Cleveland defensively. Cavs guards like Mo Williams would have been totally neutralized, and guys like Bryant and Odom probably would have shadowed LeBron at every step.

Los Angeles would likely have controlled the glass with ease, as Bynum’s athleticism and Gasol’s fundamentals would be hard for guys like Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao and Drew Gooden to deal with.

The Lakers’ frontcourt would make for offensive mismatches as well, and Gasol’s ability to draw an extra defender in the triangle offense would open up the floor for guys like Fisher and Vladimir Radmanovic.

LeBron might take the assignment of guarding Bryant, but the Lakers would probably exploit a likely size advantage with whoever guarded Odom.

In short: Cleveland’s personnel just would not match up well against an NBA team as big, organized and diverse as those Lakers squads.

Oh, and having multiple scoring options would allow Bryant more room to orchestrate and look for his own shot in crunch time. LeBron probably would have been swarmed in the fourth quarter, with the Lakers packing the paint to prohibit straight-line drives.

What about James and the “Big Three”

The 2010-11 campaign offered one last chance for the two stars to meet in the Finals. But the season ended in massive disappointment for both Bryant and James.

Kobe’s Lakers were swept by the Dallas Mavericks in the conference finals, and the Mavs rode their momentum to a victory over James (then with the Miami Heat) in the NBA Finals.

But for the sake of an argument, what would Lakers versus Heat have entailed?

This time around, James had more star power. He would have a clear advantage, right? Well, maybe.

One of the reasons the Heat eventually became a dynasty is the recognition LeBron needed to be surrounded by floor-spacers in order to have success. There was a reason Chris Bosh became more of a stretch-four. There was a reason the Heat targeted shooters like Mike Miller, Ray Allen and James Jones.


Anyway, Bosh had yet to expand his game to the 3-point line during the 2010-11 regular campaign. He barely attempted (0.3 per game) and made (0.1) his triples that year.

However, it is also important to remember Dwyane Wade was still at his peak. Wade averaged 25.5 points per game during the regular season, and he was the best player — on either team — in the 2011 Finals.

Might Wade’s scoring alone have made the difference?

The Lakers appear to match up decently with the Heat. Like the Mavericks, they had wing players who can space the floor. Unlike Dallas, however, L.A. had a pair of paint-bound bigs. Whereas the Mavs used Nowitzki’s shooting to draw Bosh out of the lane, neither Gasol nor Bynum would have offered the Lakers that luxury.

Bosh’s length made him a natural deterrent at the rim and an excellent help defender. Bryant would have had his hands full dealing with either Wade or James and then running into Bosh in the lane.

It would come down to shooting for the Lakers, as well as Gasol’s ability to be effective. He was such a good passer from the post, but the Spaniard would also have had his hands full with Bosh. However, Pau’s ability to control the paint might have opened up the perimeter, and if the likes of Fisher, World Peace and Shannon Brown shot the ball well, it might serve as an X-factor.

A series between Bryant’s Lakers and the “Big Three” Heat would probably have been the most competitive, but this one might have favored James.