- J.A. Adande, NBA
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In the middle of watching a Los Angeles stop of the Watch The Throne tour featuring Jay-Z and Kanye West, it dawned on me that we might be down to our last chance to see the NBA equivalent: LeBron James and Kobe Bryant in the Finals.
There might be other star pairings that would be fresher or even more competitive, but none feels so necessary. We need closure on the league's best "Who's better?" debate over the past five years. An ultimate test of LeBron's all-around game versus Kobe the Closer.
When the Lakers and Heat play Thursday, it won't be too hard to envision them meeting again in June. The Heat have played some of the best ball in the league for stretches, melding their defense with a wide-open offense. Kobe, meanwhile has had rewinds to his MVP season, providing the scoring punch for a newly defensive-oriented Lakers squad under Mike Brown. A Kobe-LeBron NBA Finals is possible. Perhaps not as probable or inevitable as it seemed a few years ago, but still possible.
Over the past three decades the Finals have hosted a nearly complete assortment of cross-conference matchups between past, present or future Most Valuable Players: Dr. J versus Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbbar versus Moses Malone, Magic versus Larry Bird, Magic versus Isiah Thomas, Magic versus Michael Jordan, Jordan versus Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon versus Shaquille O'Neal, Jordan versus Karl Malone, Allen Iverson versus Shaq, Tim Duncan versus LeBron, Kobe versus Kevin Garnett, LeBron versusDirk Nowitzki.
LeBron needs a championship to create silence. Kobe needs another one to turn up the volume. Getting his sixth championship forces more chatter about Kobe versus Jordan.
That's an amazing run. In a star-driven league, the biggest stars have consistently met in the biggest series.
The list feels incomplete without Kobe and LeBron on there.
Face it, no other NBA Finals would have the same Watch The Throne level of grandeur. That concert felt BIG, starting with the giant U.S. flag hanging above the stage during the opening set. Good ol' American bravado.
Even the styles of Kobe and LeBron mirror the Watch The Throne duo. Kanye, like Kobe, has a greater sense of urgency. Kanye is more liable to double over or sprint across the stage to put every last bit into a line. There's that self-indulgent side, too, such as when Kanye dragged the whole audience through his personal relationship hell in "Heartless," reminiscent of Kobe's 35-points-and-27-shots-a-game season in 2005-06. But Kanye also provided the most inclusive moment of the show, when "Good Life" seemed to uplift the whole arena.
We know about Jay-Z's links to LeBron. He shouts him out on every album these days. LeBron also has that cool, detached style, as when Jay-Z takes over for Kanye on "Diamonds" with a quick, "Yep, I got it from here, 'Ye." Jay-Z makes it seem effortless, the way LeBron seems to get 30, 8 and 8 while barely having to adjust his headband.
It's that stylistic difference that would make that matchup so compelling, like contrasting techniques making a better boxing match. That and the reputations they'll be fighting to enhance -- or shed.
We know all about Kobe's label as the clutchest player in the game, and we've all read the lame jokes about LeBron's fourth-quarter shortcomings (even if there's statistical evidence that suggests they should be reversed).
It's really about intent rather than execution. There's a different mentality there. When LeBron described some crucial missed free throws in an overtime loss to the Clippers last week, he said, "This was just one of those games when you don't have that rhythm at the free throw line," which sounded a lot like comments he made about being out of rhythm during one of last year's NBA Finals games. And that's the difference right there. Kobe wouldn't listen to the rhythm of the game, he'd listen to the inner voice telling him to put the ball in the basket. LeBron is the biggest log floating down the river, Kobe is a fish fighting his way upstream.
The howling about LeBron reaches its highest levels when he seems unwilling to take over the game with it on the line. Kobe gets criticized when he tries to take on too much responsibility. Is there a middle ground to be found? Could going up against each other game after game bring it out of them?
Last year the Lakers were swept in the second round by the Dallas Mavericks, even though the Lakers had home-court advantage. The previous two years it was LeBron who had home-court advantage throughout the playoffs and was the back-to-back Most Valuable Player, but he still couldn't reach the Finals.
That's LeBron's greatest albatross right now, even more than his performance in the 2011 NBA Finals. For three consecutive years he has lost a series in which he had home-court advantage. Number of times that has happened to Kobe in his career? Twice. Number of times that happened to Michael Jordan? Zero.
There's a whole fresh batch of Jordan discussion this week after author Roland Lazenby tweeted that Jordan found Kobe to be the only player to warrant comparison to him. Jordan once told me that one similarity he sees in Kobe is that "where he's a lot like myself is as far as separating himself -- the way I wanted to separate myself from Clyde Drexler and everyone else."
That's what drove Michael's Shrug Game destruction of Drexler, the guy whose presence in Portland caused the Trail Blazers to say, "No thanks, we'll take Sam Bowie" when they had the chance to draft Jordan. It seems like the worst thing that could have happened to the rest of the NBA was for ESPN.com to rank Kobe as the seventh-best player in the league. He's indirectly taking it out on everyone else. He also has known for a long time that you can't challenge the all-time greats unless you first eradicate the rest of your contemporaries.
We're still waiting for LeBron to win a championship so we can place him in proper historical context. For one, anyone who wants to bring up LeBron's name in the discussion will quickly get shot down with: "He hasn't won anything." It's no longer a knock, it's the defining statement about him.
LeBron needs a championship to create silence. Kobe needs another one to turn up the volume. Getting his sixth championship forces more chatter about Kobe versus Jordan. It wouldn't necessarily make Kobe the equivalent of Jordan in our minds, but they would at least be even on the ledger. And it forces you to ask the question. No one who's come along since Jordan even warranted a serious discussion.
Kobe could also use a signature moment in the Finals. Our final image of Jordan in a Bulls uniform is him holding the follow-through on the series-winning shot against the Utah Jazz. It's why everyone knows what Jay-Z is talking about when he says, "Jordan Game 6."
John Paxson and Steve Kerr had their championship-winning shots before Jordan did. Kobe, similarly, has yielded to Derek Fisher and even Ron Artest when it comes to iconic shots in the Finals in recent years. So there's some unfinished business for him.
LeBron, meanwhile, has yet to start construction on a championship shrine. He still has time. He just turned 27. When Shaq was 27, he was a guy who had been swept out of the playoffs five times. Seven years later he had won four NBA championships. It's completely possible that LeBron can follow in Shaq's footsteps and retire with a collection of rings.
What better way to start emulating Shaq than to get into a battle with Kobe Bryant? Might as well do it in the Finals, with everyone watching.
Kobe and LeBron meet again, but will they ever meet on the ultimate stage?