March 10, 2016, inside the Staples Center, Kobe and LeBron played each other for the final time.
The fact that we are saying this in March and not June is disheartening.
We've come to grips that Kobe will never play in the postseason again but what really hurts, as a fan of basketball, is we never witnessed the two best players of this era play in the NBA Finals. Ever since 2007, we have been longing for a NBA Finals that would put these two against one another, similar to way Magic Johnson and Larry Bird battled it out in the 80s.
For various reasons, the basketball gods felt we weren’t worthy of a LeBron-Kobe duel, even though we created the hype for it to happen. Both players have their own coalition of fans and supporters that debate who was the better player, developing fictitious scenarios that we would never see.
As disappointing as it is, there are moments in history that caused for this matchup never to happen. Let’s take a look at each situation.
The Muppets Jinx
2009 was probably the closest year to seeing Kobe and LeBron in the Finals. Kobe and the Lakers were the top seed in the west, while Lebron and the Cavs had the best record in the NBA. Both teams were victims of the Boston Celtics a year prior - Celtics knocking off the Cavs in the Eastern Conference semi-finals and the Lakers in the NBA Finals, but after Kevin Garnett suffered a late-season injury in 2008-09, the Celtics were no longer a threat.
Cue the Lebron and Kobe Muppets May 2009.
Nike used Jim Henson muppets theme to promote Kobe and LeBron brands but also to insinuate that these two will be playing in the Finals. Similar to Lil Penny, the muppets were based on Kobe and LeBron’s characters. The muppets were a great hit and well liked by basketball fans but the media and a few players weren’t so enthused by the comical muppets.
Dwight Howard, who was fighting for his respect as a superstar, spoke on the muppets after a few games during the Eastern Conference Finals. Prior to game four, with the Magic up 2-1, Dwight Howard expressed his displeasure with the Muppets, saying it was "disrespectful".
The Magic would go on to defeat the Cavs in six games. It put Nike in a dilemma because they spent millions on this campaign and only one muppet was going to be featured in the NBA Finals. Nike decided to run the ad, claiming that the purpose is to promote “Kobe and Lebrons off-the-court character". The only issue with that is Kobe or Lebron voices were never used in any of the commercials.
After huge success with previous campaigns using the muppets theme, Nike hasn't used the puppets since 2009.
The Celtics Big 3
The Celtics Big Three were a major road block for the Kobe-LeBron matchup. When Lebron reached his prime in 2006-07, after leading the Cavs to the NBA Finals, that summer Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen joined forces.
LeBron loss to the three hall of famers twice in the playoffs before joining Dwayne Wade in Miami. In the 2008 playoffs, Lebron took the Celtics to seven games but a 40-point performance by Paul Pierce in Game 7 completely nullified Lebron’s 45 points.
And at that time, in the grand scheme of it all, a Celtics-Lakers Finals was more marketable than a Kobe-LeBron Finals. The Celtics and Lakers haven’t matchup in the NBA finals since 1987. The want for a Kobe-LeBron finals wasn’t as high as it is now, mainly because everyone figured that they would eventually meet in the finals.
In 2010-11, LeBron shocked the world by leaving Cleveland and taking his talents to Miami, linking up with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. The Heat became an instant NBA Finals favorite, and it looked like LeBron would win his first title, and even play Kobe, who was fresh off of winning his 5th NBA Title.
By playoff time, everything was still in place for a Kobe-LeBron NBA Finals. The Lakers were the #2 seed in the West while the Heat were the #2 seed in the East. The Lakers were looking to three-peat for the second time in 10 years, which would have been Phil Jackson’s 4th overall. There was only one problem…..
Dirk's performance in the 2011 Playoff will go down in history as one of the greatest postseason performances ever. Dirk led the Mavs to 4-0 sweep against the Lakers, that ended their potential dynasty. Phil Jackson retired after the Lakers loss and Dirk Nowtiski went on to defeat the Lebron and the Heat in six games for the Mavericks first NBA Championship, adding to the narrative that Lebron can't win the big game.
Before Dirk and the Mavericks shocked the world, people predicted either the Lakers or Spurs would meet the Heat in the Finals. Once the Spurs were eliminated in the first round, the Lakers were a prime pick. If it wasn’t for Dirk, Kobe-Lebron+Wade could have happened.
Chris Paul vetoed Trade
The Chris Paul trade debacle before the start of the 2011-12 NBA season completely destroyed the Lakers franchise.
When word got out that Chris Paul would be joining Kobe Bryant in the backcourt, everyone automatically put them in the NBA Finals. The Lakers were coming off a bad postseason loss to the eventual NBA champions, Dallas Mavericks, and just loss the zen master to retirement. Adding Paul to an already playoff caliber roster, made the Lakers a prime contender and possible opponent for the Heat in the Finals.
Out of all the things David Stern has done as commissioner of the NBA, this might be his worst moment. Just a few hours after the trade was announced, Stern dropped a bombshell that to this day still does not make sense. Because of "basketball reasons" that were never iterated to the public, Stern vetoed the trade, not allowing Paul to join the Lakers. Instead Paul was traded to the Clippers while the Lakers and Kobe began their downward spiral.
After the vetoed trade, the Lakers went through the tumultuous Dwight Howard era, failed attempts at signing a big named free agents, and two straight seasons of an injured Kobe Bryant. The Lakers haven’t been to the playoffs since that 2011-12 season and are currently on the verge of having their worst season since 1957-58.
Kobe and LeBron both help usher in a new wave of young talent. The two are widely considered as the two best High School draft picks in NBA history. They are once in a generation type of players and since 2009 at least one of the two was playing in the NBA Finals.