NBA fans will always wonder why the universe never aligned to have Kobe Bryant and LeBron James face off in a blockbuster NBA Finals.
It was 2009.
LeBron James had established himself as a legitimate superstar in the NBA. He had just won his first MVP and led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the best record in the NBA for the first time in franchise history. The King was more ready than ever to take his rightful throne atop the NBA.
On the other side of the country, the Los Angeles Lakers were on top of the Western Conference and were not far below the Cavs – just one game behind, in fact. Kobe Bryant, fresh off an MVP campaign in 2007-08, was still regarded as the best player in the league. Moreover, Bryant was hungry for redemption after he came up short of ring number four in the previous year’s Finals.
The stage was set. Every NBA fan around the globe clamored for it. A colossal showdown between two of the league’s biggest superstars at the time, two undoubtedly generational players on the grandest stage, the NBA Finals.
Bryant and the Lakers took care of business through the first three rounds and made a return trip to the Finals for the second consecutive year. The Cavaliers, on the other hand, strolled through the first two rounds, sweeping both of their opponents.
However, their Eastern Conference Finals foes, the Orlando Magic proved to be too deep and too much in firepower as they shockingly eliminated the top-seeded Cavs in six games.
Cleveland’s franchise record 66-win season went down the drain and so did a dream Finals between LeBron and Kobe. Instead, we saw an underwhelming Finals series between the Lakers and the Magic, that saw Bryant capture that elusive fourth ring.
But alas, there was always next year, right?
The 2009-10 season gave much more hope that we’ll finally get to see that Kobe-LeBron showdown. When the season finished, the stage was grander than ever and the people were hankering for the two best players in the league to finally go toe-to-toe in the Finals.
Cleveland essentially had the same core and James was still the lone star on his team. Nevertheless, for the second straight season, they finished with the best record in the NBA, while the defending champion Lakers also finished atop their conference.
Bryant and the Lakers once again took care of their end of the stick and made the Finals. However, the Cavaliers fell short once again. After dispatching Chicago in five games in the opening round, they ran into a Boston Celtics squad that looked to have their own redemption campaign after failing to defend their title the year before. For the most part, LeBron was a one-man show going against the Celtics’ Big Four with the emergence of Rajon Rondo as the fourth guy.
Nevertheless, the NBA still had a grand finale that season with the renewed Celtics-Lakers rivalry going full-length in a seven-game classic that went down the wire. But once again, James, because of his sub-par supporting cast, failed to play his part in giving the world the individual Finals match-up it had been thirsting for.
The league saw a power-shift the following season when LeBron bolted Cleveland and took his talents to South Beach. James made his infamous Decision to join the Miami Heat and formed a Big Three with his buddies, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
The Heat sputtered at the start of the 2010-11 season, but they eventually found their form. Led by their Big Three, they plowed through the regular season and eventually made the Finals in their first playoff run together.
The two-time defending champion Lakers, on the other hand, were getting up there in age, but still looked to repeat the three-peat they achieved in the early 2000’s. And still, fans wanted to see LeBron and Kobe finally face off in the Finals.
However, Los Angeles ran into an inspired Dallas Mavericks squad that shockingly took them out in the semis with a sweep, ending their two-year dominance in the NBA. This time, Bryant came up empty on his end of the deal.
James eventually faced the same fate that Bryant experienced two rounds earlier as Miami succumbed to Dirk Nowitzki and a destined Dallas squad, which won its first ever NBA championship.
In the lockout shortened 2011-12 season, the Heat entered as favorites to make a return trip to the Finals. However, the aging Lakers, after fizzing out in last year’s playoffs, were slowly falling off the cliff as one of the elite teams in the NBA.
Still, the Lakers looked to make a franchise-altering move to relaunch themselves back into title contention – and they almost did. The Purple and Gold had already closed a three-team deal that would land them superstar point guard Chris Paul.
At the time, Paul was regarded as the best point guard in the league and his addition would instantly bring them back to being title favorites. However, in an unprecedented move, the league decided to veto the trade and eventually, the deal fell apart. Paul was traded to the L.A. Clippers five days later.
Miami eventually won the title that season while the Lakers, as a result of the vetoed CP3 deal, were nowhere near contention.
The dream of a LeBron-Kobe Finals was slowly beginning to fade away. However, the summer of 2012 gave fans a glimmer of hope. The Lakers once again looked to make a splash that could save their franchise from completely falling off.
They acquired Dwight Howard that off-season and also signed aging point guard Steve Nash. However, that experiment failed miserably as the Lakers struggled to find chemistry throughout the season.
Bryant had to do everything in his power just to keep the Lakers’ playoff hopes alive. As a result of his Herculean efforts late into their campaign, Bryant eventually suffered a career-altering torn Achilles just before the regular season ended.
This, in hindsight, marked the end of Kobe’s career as a superstar. Likewise, the injury signaled that we will never get to see The King and The Mamba face off in the Finals ever.
Looking back, several factors contributed as to why we never got to see LeBron and Kobe face off on the NBA’s grandest stage.
For one, as much as they were the top two players at some point in time, they were too far apart in age. Really, there was just a particular three to four-year window in which this dream Finals could have happened.
However, during that window, their teams weren’t particularly the best two teams in the league. In his first go-round in Cleveland, the Cavaliers never surrounded James with the right supporting cast. More often than not, LeBron found himself as a one-man crew, hence they fell to much deeper squads in the playoffs. When James moved to Miami, this is when Los Angeles began to fall apart due to age.
When they Lakers looked to maximize the final years of Kobe’s prime by the 2011 season, the NBA decided to step in and ruin it for them, as we saw with the vetoed CP3 trade.
It’s a shame that we never got to see two of the game’s brightest stars go head-to-head in the Finals. I guess it’s just a dream that basketball fans will always have to fantasize about.