"I didn't hold up my end of the bargain in 2009 for the fans, for us, to meet in the Finals," James said Tuesday, looking back on the 2008-09 season when his Cleveland Cavaliers led the league with a 66-16 record and Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers were right behind him at 65-17. "I know the world wanted to see it. I wanted it, we wanted it. He held up his end and I didn't hold up my end, and I hate that. I hate that that didn't happen."
James and the Cavs lost to the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference finals 4-2, with the Lakers going on to beat the Magic in the championship round 4-1. With Bryant and the Pau Gasol-led Lakers hitting their stride at the same time James was on the top team in the East with Cleveland and later the Miami Heat, a Finals matchup seemed inevitable to observers. However, James said he never assumed it would occur.
The Lakers are suffering through their worst three seasons since moving to Los Angeles 55 years ago. But with Kobe Bryant announcing his retirement at the end of the season, the team now has the clarity it needs to prepare for a future without Bryant.
Since the Lakers' hopes for a sixth championship with Bryant were dashed by his Achilles injury in April 2013, followed by Dwight Howard's departure for the Houston Rockets that summer, the franchise has been stuck in an awkward purgatory -- caught between trying to stay competitive in Bryant's golden years and developing young talent to eventually supplant him.
Now, the organization can fully commit to building the next great Lakers team. Here's what that should entail in six steps, some of them easier than others:
"I did idolize Kobe Bryant. I studied him, wanted to be like him," Durant said Monday at a shootaround in Atlanta. "He was our Michael Jordan.
"I've been disappointed this year because you guys [the media] treated him like s---. He's a legend, and all I hear is about how bad he's playing, how bad he's shooting and it's time for him to hang it up. You guys treated one of our legends like s---, and I didn't really like it. So hopefully now you can start being nice to him now that he decided to retire after this year."
Bryant, 37, announced Sunday that he is retiring at the end of the season. He is coming off injuries that have limited him to 54 games since the beginning of the 2013-14 season and has seen a steep decline in production.
Responding to social media backlash to his comments, particularly the part about media coverage, Durant said his point was noting the negativity around Bryant, rather than appreciating the accomplishments of a legend on his way out.
"I understand [the media] have to write about the game. Of course I understand that," Durant told ESPN.com. "Kobe hasn't played well, and his team hasn't played well, but did we expect that from them? You did say he was the 93rd-best player in the league, you did have the Lakers as the worst team in the West, but it seems like everybody is happy that he's going out like this. Every game he's played on TV is about how terrible he looks, every article the next day is about how he should retire and give it up. Just killing him.
"I never hear about the Finals MVPs, the accolades. They did it for [former New York Yankee] Derek Jeter, they will do it for Tim Duncan