The two best players in the post-Michael Jordan NBA world are Kobe Bryant and Lebron James. These two played 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.
How is that possible?
Let’s go year-by-year to see how we get to each NBA Finals.
2004 Finals – Pistons defeat Lakers
Lakers, who added Karl Malone and Gary Payton to the mix, lost the Finals during Lebron’s rookie season to a group of Pistons that Lebron would get to know real well, real soon.
Lebron debuted during this 2003-04 season, two years years after Kobe and the Lakers won their third consecutive NBA title to conclude the 2001-02 season. 2004 was the 4th time in 5 years that the Lakers played in the NBA Finals, and their last time with the Kobe and Shaq duo.
2005 – NO PLAYOFFS
2005 was a crazy season, one that saw Shaquille O’Neal debut for the Miami Heat, after winning 3 NBA titles with Kobe. This was one of two seasons where neither Kobe or Lebron made the Finals and the only one where neither guy made the playoffs.
Cavs finished 9th, going 42-40, their first winning season since in 1998. Lakers went 34-48, their first losing season since 1994.
2006 – No Lebron or Kobe
Shaq and the Heat won their first NBA title in 2006, beating the Dallas Mavericks. Lebron got his first taste of postseason basketball, beating the Wizards in the first round, before losing to the Pistons in the second round. Lakers lost to the Suns in 7 games in the first round, in their first post-Shaq playoff appearance.
2007 – Lebron and Cavs lose NBA Finals to Spurs
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 and the 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.
The 2007 Finals was the start of a 10 year stretch where one of Lebron or Kobe played in the Finals every year.
2008 – Celtics beat Lakers
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.
Of course, the Cavs’ struggles coincided with the Lakers resurgence. 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.
2009 – Lakers beat Magic to win Kobe’s 4th NBA title
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.
Lakers would beat in the Magic in 5 games, winning their first post-Shaq NBA title (ironically against Shaq’s first team).
2010 – Lakers back-to-back, beat Celtics
Kobe’s 5th and final NBA Finals win, and last Finals appearance, came in 2010 against the Lakers’ biggest rival.
Celtics knocked off Lebron and the 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.
Lakers won an awesome series in 7 games.
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, loses to Mavs
Lebron led the Heat to the second NBA Finals and first since his 2010 team and long-time Kobe ally, Shaq, led the Heat in 2006.
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, beats Thunder
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.
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, beat Spurs
“Anything you can do, I can do better”. Right?
Kobe had to beat Greg Popovich and the Spurs to get to many of his NBA titles and Lebron’s second came at their expense as well.
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, to date. It was the final playoff series victory of Kobe Bryant’s career as well.
Since getting swept in 2013, LA has not returned to the playoffs.
Lakers missed the playoffs in each of Kobe’s final three seasons, getting worse and worse each year, record wise. In 2013-14, they finished with 27 wins. They won 21 games in 2014-15, and in Kobe’s final season, the Lakers honored the legend by going a franchise-worst 17-65 in 2015-16.
Their drought will end at 6 years in 2020, ironically because of Lebron James.
2014 – Lebron loses final game with Heat
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.
2015 – Warriors dyansty 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 wimper, 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
Both made their first NBA Finals in year 4.
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.
But for this not happening, blame the front offices for both the Cavs and Lakers, blame Magic, Celtics, Spurs, Pistons, Heat, Warriors, Thunder, Mavs. Much blame to go around.