Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James - The NBA Finals series that never was.
Illustration by BSTN – Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler / NBAE via Getty Images

While this story is about a robbery, it’s not a news report. This is a textual fist, clenched angrily at the basketball Gods! It’s the silent outcry over one of the bigger what-ifs in NBA history. While the twenty-first century has blessed basketball fans with the primes of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James occurring close to and occasionally coinciding with one another, the two generational talents never went head to head in The Finals.1 Quite frankly, we got robbed y’all!

Why is it important?

A battle between two superstars of such magnitude on the NBA’s biggest stage could have — and should have, for that matter — been this generation’s ‘Magic vs. Bird’. Not unlike the two 80s stars, they shared a sneaker outfitter in Nike, ready to market the living hell out of the Kobe and LeBron signature lines. 

Unlike with Team USA Basketball, there has never been a ‘passing of the torch’ moment with those highly influential players on the NBA level. Since LeBron played in the East for the entirety of Kobe’s career, fans were restricted to a maximum of two matchups per season. An NBA Finals series — ideally over seven games — would have offered the perfect stage for the two giants to collide. 

Why didn’t it happen?

There is a six-year stretch during which either the Lakers or the Cavs/Heat have made the NBA Finals.2 Looking back at the rosters that both Kobe and (especially) LeBron have managed to drag lead there says as much about the players’ individual brilliance as it does about their General Managers’ incapacity.

Here’s a quick summary of what went wrong in each of those seasons resulting in the basketball world going 0 for 6 on a potential Kobe-LeBron-Final:

  • 2007: LeBron’s Cavs lost in The Finals while Kobe put up 33, 5, and 4 in a losing effort against the Suns in Round 1 with Jordan Farmar as his starting Point Guard.3 Lamar Odom did chip in 19 and 13.
  • 2008: Kobe’s Lakers lost in The Finals. However, LeBron’s 47 points (27/6/7 on the series) were not enough to get the Cavs4 past Boston in Game 7 of Round 2. Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Delonte West were the team’s next leading scorers at 23 points … combined.
  • 2009: Kobe’s Lakers won The Finals, but the Magic shot 40% from three against the Cavs5 despite LeBron’s best efforts (38/8/8) in the Eastern Conference Finals. Cleveland got a second All Star by default for winning 66 games that season. It was Mo Williams, who averaged 16 points in the postseason. 
What could have been!? – Noah Graham / NBAE via Getty Images
  • 2010: Kobe’s Lakers won The Finals against Boston, who needed the full force of their Big Three to “end” a 25-year-old’s tenure in Cleveland, according to Kevin Garnett. The difference between LeBron (27/9/7) and washed-up Shaq (13,5 PPG) as the Cavs’6 second fiddle is big enough to fit … well, Shaq.
  • 2011: LeBron’s Heat lost in The Finals while Kobe (23/3/2 and 36 in Game 4) and the Lakers7 got blown out by the Mavs in Round 2. Pau and Bynum combined for 25 in a disastrous series.
  • 2012: LeBron’s Heat won The Finals, whereas Kobe’s Lakers8 fell to the surging OKC Thunder in five games in Round 2. It was the last round of Pau (12,5 PPG) and Bynum (17) as Kobe’s (31/5/3) running mates.

What happened in their best seasons? 

While some parts of their primes overlapped, Kobe Bryant got to the league seven years earlier than LeBron James. Here’s a look at (probably) the best single-season performance each of them has delivered:9

Kobe’s 2005/06 campaign was obviously not his most successful one, at least not from a team success point of view. However, if you’re wondering when Bean was the most unstoppable, ask the 2006 Toronto Raptors (or three-quarters of the Dallas Mavericks, for that matter). Unfortunately, LeBron was just 21 years old and, in only his second NBA season, had vastly insufficient help that year.10 Then again, so did Kobe.11

During the 2012/13 NBA season, LeBron’s game had evolved yet again, and he delivered the most complete season of his career at that point (an ultra-efficient 27/8/7 with 40% from 3). And as if Murphy’s law needed any further proving, Kobe’s Dwightmare season ended even worse when he infamously tore his Achilles tendon. And while he came back from the devastating injury, the Black Mamba was never the same again.

When should it have happened?

There is a three-year window (2009-11) in which Bryant, as well as James, were named to both First Team All NBA and First Team All Defense. Not only did their similar positions12 ensure they would have guarded each other for extended stretches of the hypothetical Finals series, during this part of their respective careers, but they would also have been the premier options to do so.

During the six years analyzed above, Kobe and LeBron accounted for eight Top3 finishes in the MVP race. In 2009, they finished first and second in the voting. In addition, their teams won 65 and 66 games respectively to finish with the best records of the Eastern and Western Conference.

Kobe vs. LeBron in 2009 – Noah Graham / NBAE via Getty Images

There is a case to be made that a LeBron vs. Kobe Finals blockbuster could have happened in several of the six years mentioned above, but the 2008/09 season is the most probable one. Even LeBron himself acknowledges with regret that 2009 was the year the (super) stars were supposed to align. Unfortunately, the basketball Gods had other ideas, sending the Orlando Magic — an innovative team built on shooters spread around Dwight Howard — to a rather forgettable Finals series.

Who would have won?

The short answer is: Probably the Lakers. 

The longer answer is: Pau Gasol’s contributions during L.A.’s championship run are underrated, and his versatility combined with the size of Andrew Bynum would have been a lot to handle for the Cavs. Also, Lamar Odom is the most probable x-factor13 in this hypothetical series.

The only answer that matters, however, is: All of us!

Arguably the two defining players of the century’s first two decades were kept out of the Finals, mostly because their front offices failed to constantly surround them with enough help. So instead of Kobe and LeBron literally going head to head with the NBA close to the peak of its international broadcasting power, hoops fans around the globe truly missed out on an instant classic.

Damn you, inept GMs! Damn you to hell!

1. Despite a plethora of chances, as we shall see.

2. LeBron would go on to add a casual six more after that!

3. Aka. the “Holy crap, Kwame Brown averaged 8 points for this team“ edition

4. Aka. the “Maybe Wally Szczerbiak will help“ edition

5. Aka. the “Maybe Ben Wallace will help“ edition

6. Aka. the “Maybe Antawn Jamison will help“ edition

7. Aka. the “Bynum got big mad“ edition

8. Aka. the „Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake averaging 57 minutes during Playoff games“ edition

9. While the majority of this piece is purely hypothetical, we’re deliberately disregarding Kobe’s first three championship seasons (LeBron had not been drafted yet) as well as the King’s second residence in ‘The Land’ (because post-achilles injury Mamba was never the same) for the sake of practical feasibility in this thought experiment.

10. Aka. the “Maybe Donyell Marshall will help“ edition

11. Aka. the “Good God, Smush Parker is our starting PG“ edition

12. Later on in his career, LeBron spent greater amounts of time at the four.

13. non-superstar edition

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