The two best players in the post-Michael Jordan NBA world are Kobe Bryant and Lebron James. These two spent 13 overlapping years (2003-2016) in the league.
During this stretch, one of Kobe or Lebron played in 11 of 13 NBA Finals, including every Finals between 2007-2016, yet the two GOATs never faced each other, despite being on opposite sides of the league the whole time. Kobe and Lebron went a combined 5-6
How is that possible?
Let’s go year-by-year to see how we get to each NBA Finals.
2004 Finals – Kobe’s first Finals loss
Kobe: Lakers appeared in their 4th Finals in 5 years, but the Kobe and Shaq duo suffered their first loss together, losing to the Pistons. It was also the end of their partnership as Shaq would be traded to the Heat in the summer of 2004.
Lebron: Cavs won 35 games in his rookie season, their most since 1998.
2005 – NO PLAYOFFS
This was one of two seasons where neither Kobe or Lebron made the Finals and the only one where neither guy made the playoffs.
Kobe: Lakers finished 34-48 in their first year of the post-Shaq era. It was their first losing season since 1994.
Lebron: Cavs were 9th in the East in Lebron’s second season, finishing 42-40 for their first winning season since in 1998.
2006 – The Last Time
2006 was the third and final time that neither Lebron or Kobe appeared in the Finals during their time together in the league.
Kobe’s former partner, Shaq and one of Lebron’s former teams, the Heat, won their first NBA title in 2006, beating the Dallas Mavericks.
Kobe: Lakers lost to the Suns in 7 games in the first round, in their first post-Shaq playoff appearance.
Lebron: First playoff appearance. Beat Wizards in the first round, before losing to the Pistons in the second round.
2007 – Lebron and Cavs lose NBA Finals
The 2007 Finals was the start of a 10 year stretch where one of Lebron or Kobe played in the Finals every year.
Kobe: For the second year in a row, Lakers lost in the first round against Mike D’antoni’s Suns, this time in 5 games. The Lakers starting lineup during those 5 games – Kobe, Lamar Odom, Kwame Brown, Luke Walton, Jordan Farmer. Yikes. Blame former Lakers (and current Hornets) GM Mitch Kupchak for this mess.
Lebron: Cavs knocked off the Wizards, Nets, and Pistons to make their first NBA Finals. They would eventually get swept by the Spurs, one of three Finals encounters Lebron would have with San Antonio. Lebron’s fellow starters in the Finals were – Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden, Sasha Pavlović, Larry Hughes.
2008 – Kobe returns to Finals, but loses
Kobe: Pau Gasol and Derek Fisher both played huge roles on the Lakers, who in 2008, made their first of three straight NBA Finals appearances. And their first post-Shaq Finals appearance and first since 2004.
Lebron: Following the Cavs’ run to the Finals in 2007, Lebron did not return to the Finals in the remainder of his first Cavs’ tenure. Cleveland was eliminated by the eventual Eastern Conference champs for three consecutive seasons, before he departed as a free agent.
The 2008 and 2010 seasons ended the same way – East Semifinals loss to the Boston Celtics, who made the Finals both years. In 2008, the elimination came in 7 games and 6 games in 2010.
2009 – Lakers beat Magic to win Kobe’s 4th NBA title
Kobe: Lakers would beat in the Magic in 5 games, winning their first post-Shaq NBA title (ironically against Shaq’s first team).
Lebron: In 2009, the Cavs got to the Eastern Conference Finals for the second time in Lebron’s time. They got their by sweeping both the Pistons and Hawks. After opening up 8-0, they would lose in 6 games to an Orlando Magic team led by Dwight Howard, Rashard Lewis, Jameer Nelson, and Hedo Türkoğlu.
Ironic that Dwight, a future teammate of Kobe’s, cost us our best shot at a Kobe vs Lebron Finals.
2010 – Lakers back-to-back, beat Celtics
Kobe: His 5th and final NBA Finals win, and last Finals appearance, came in 2010 against the Lakers’ biggest rival. Lakers beat the Celtics in an awesome 7 game series.
Lebron: Celtics knocked off Cavs in the semis, in the “final” game Lebron would play for Cleveland (until 2014 when he would return).
Shaq was a member of the 09-10 Cavs, playing 52 regular season games and all 11 playoff games. He averaged 12 ppg and 6.7 rpg.
Lebron Goes to Miami
Following the Cavs loss to the Celtics in the 2010 semis, Lebron became a free agent for the first time and decided to take his talents to South Beach, where he, along with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, would lead to Miami Heat to four consecutive NBA Finals appearances (2011-2014).
What’s next for Lakers?
After the Lakers won back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010, the Lakers would make the playoffs in each of the next three seasons, but would lose prior to the conference finals and each time would go on to lose to the team that represented the Western Conference in the NBA Finals, and would face Lebron and the Heat.
2011 – Lebron’s second NBA Finals
Lebron: Heat made their first Finals since 2006 and Lebron’s second.
Kobe: This was Phil Jackson’s final run with the Lakers, who lost in the semifinals to the Mavs. Mavs went on to win their first NBA title against the Heat.
2012 – Lebron wins #1
Lebron: Finally, in year 9, Lebron James won his first NBA title. The Heat beat the Thunder, who had a loaded roster of Kevin Durant, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka.
Kobe: In their first year post-Phil Jackson, former Cavs coach, Mike Brown led the Lakers to the playoffs, where they beat the Nuggets in the first round. Lakers went on to lose to those Thunder in the West semifinals. Brown coached Lebron and the Cavs from 2005-2010 and coached the Lakers for just this one season.
2013 – Lebron goes back-to-back
“Anything you can do, I can do better”. Right?
Lebron: James and the Heat did what Kobe and the Lakers often had to do – beat the Spurs en route to the championship. For Lebron in 2013, it was beating the Spurs in the Finals, handing Greg Popovich his first loss there.
Kobe: Lakers made the playoffs again in 2013, getting swept in the first round by the Spurs, who eventually lost to Miami in 7 games. Kobe did not play in the postseason, as he tore his Achilles towards the end of the regular season.
Dwight Howard, who cost us our Lebron/Kobe Finals in 2009, played one season with Kobe in LA, in 2012-13. He averaged 17.1 ppg and 12.4 rpg. Kobe tore his achillies near the end of the season and missed the postseason, leaving the burden on Howard, Gasol, Metta World Peace, and Steve Nash and were coached by Mike D’Antoni. The latter two, ironically, were part of the Suns teams that eliminated Kobe in round one back in 2006 and 2007.
Lakers playoff drought
The 2012 second round loss to the Thunder, was the last time the Lakers won a playoff series, until this season. It was also the final playoff series victory of Kobe Bryant’s career as well.
Lakers missed the playoffs in each of Kobe’s final three seasons, getting worse and worse each year, record wise.
- 2013-14 – finished with 27 wins
- 2014-15 – won 21 games
- 2015-16 – honored Kobe in his final season by going 17-65
Ironically, the playoff appearance drought for the Lakers ended in 2020 because of Lebron James.
2014 – Lebron loses final game with Heat
Lebron: In 2014, Popovich, Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs got their revenge, beating in the Heat in 5 games to win the franchise’s 5th NBA title.
After this season, Lebron would return “home” and re-join the Cavs.
Kobe: Lakers finished 27-55, missing the playoffs for the third time since 1977 and winning the fewest games since 1960, when they were the Minneapolis Lakers.
2015 – Warriors dynasty begins, Lebron loses
Even if the Lakers were good in Kobe’s final years, they needed to be great, to return to the Finals. Between 2015-2019, the Warriors won the West and made the Finals all 5 seasons, a streak that will end in 2020.
The first year of their run coincided with Lebron’s return to Cleveland. The Cavs would make 4 straight NBA Finals, going 1-3 during that span.
2016 – Lebron fulfills his destiny at home
In Kobe’s final NBA season, the Lakers went out with a whimper, winning a franchise-worst 17 games. But they did win his finale, a game in which he scored 60 points.
On that same night, the Warriors made history by winning their 73rd regular season game, surpassing the 72-10 Chicago Bulls. But unlike those Bulls, they failed to win a ring.
Famously up 3-1 in the Finals, with three chances (two at home) to win back-to-back NBA titles, the Warriors blew it, while the Cavs made a historic comeback, winning the franchise’s first NBA title.
Who to Blame?
Blame the front offices for both the Cavs and Lakers, blame the Magic, Celtics, Spurs, Pistons, Heat, Warriors, Thunder, Mavs. Much blame to go around.
It really is a shame we never got to see a Kobe vs Lebron NBA Finals, considering both players overlapped in their prime. Their were chances.