Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James
Who's been more impressive this season? Who will win more championships?
LeBron versus Kobe. It's a matchup made in basketball heaven. Will we ever see it in the NBA Finals? Which future Hall of Famer is having a more impressive season? Who has the better supporting cast? Our panel answers that and more heading into Thursday night's Heat-Lakers showdown in L.A. (ESPN Radio, 9:30 ET).
1. Will Kobe and LeBron ever meet in the NBA Finals?
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: No, sadly enough. I've already detailed why I thought it was essential that a Kobe-LeBron Finals happen. But if we get any long-desired postseason matchup involving the Lakers this season, it will be a Lakers-Clippers hallway series. Miami will be playing in June; the Lakers won't.
Tom Haberstroh, ESPN.com: In real life? No. In every video game ever? Probably. With the Spurs, Clippers and Thunder as good as ever and the Lakers as bad as they are, I just can't envision a scenario in which these two icons meet in the Finals, which is too bad.
Darius Soriano, Forum Blue And Gold: Yes. Although conventional wisdom says it won't happen, I believe the basketball gods will gift us this matchup before LeBron and Kobe hang up their sneakers. It just seems unfair that we wouldn't get these two all-timers battling it out for the championship at least once.
Michael Wallace, ESPN.com: Yes. I'm still holding out hope that the NBA will get this dream matchup. I say it happens next season -- provided Dwight Howard returns and the Lakers get a second full season to establish some chemistry. But if it doesn't go down next season, it'll never happen. Sort of like Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao.
Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: My guess is no and it's too bad, because it once seemed like a guarantee. The best chance probably already happened when the Lakers made three straight Finals from 2008 to 2010. LeBron was there in 2007 and had Finals-worthy teams in '09 and '10 that just didn't get it done. More than anything, I just don't think Kobe has that many seasons left. Looking at the West and the state of the Lakers, I don't think it's happening this season.
2. Which player has the better supporting cast?
Adande: Kobe. The Lakers have won a couple of games when Kobe has scored fewer than 20 points. LeBron doesn't have that option. The only time he scored fewer than 20, the Heat lost.
Haberstroh: LeBron. But it's close. The Heat's supporting cast may be a step slower, but at least those players are on the court. Without Pau Gasol being 100 percent and with no Jordan Hill, the Lakers just don't have the bodies to compete, not to mention Steve Blake won't be ready for some time.
Soriano: LeBron. If all the Lakers' stars were fully healthy, I'd say Kobe. However, when factoring in injuries, the Pau, Steve Nash and Dwight trio isn't too much better than the Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh duo. And when looking at the remaining rosters of both teams, the Heat's role players outclass the Lakers' secondary players fairly easily.
Wallace: Kobe. If health is reasonable, you have to lean toward the more balanced roster. Kobe and LeBron each play with at least two other Hall of Famers. If both supporting casts play to their full potential, I'm giving Dwight, Pau and Nash a slight edge.
Windhorst: LeBron. I probably wouldn't have given this answer at the start of the season, but seeing how limited Dwight Howard has been and looking at how Pau Gasol seems to have aged five years since the Olympics, the Heat look to be better. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are younger and more productive than what Kobe is getting. Plus the Heat's bench is significantly better.
3. Which player has been more impressive this season?
Adande: LeBron. In part for reasons mentioned in the previous answer. It's amazing how much he does to help his team win. And even if the Heat aren't maxing out, they're still winning as much as any other team in the Eastern Conference. As impressive as Kobe's performance has been this season, we're watching LeBron at his peak. LeBron at his best is better than Kobe at his best. It's always been a matter of whether LeBron could match Kobe's drive to get there.
Haberstroh: Kobe. He's currently in the midst of the most efficient shooting display of his career (.588 true shooting percentage), which might make sense in his prime -- but he's 34! LeBron continues to raise his game, but Kobe has been more surprising at this stage in his career.
Soriano: LeBron. What Kobe is doing in his 17th campaign is pretty much unprecedented, and he deserves immense praise for his stellar play this season. But LeBron's numbers are still a step above Kobe's, and when they're combined with James' superior defense, you have to go with the reigning MVP.
Wallace: LeBron James. But it's much closer than folks might suspect. To contend for the league lead in scoring and minutes played this deep into his playing career is truly magical for Kobe. But for a three-time MVP to be in the midst of the best shooting and rebounding season of his career proves LeBron is still finding ways to get better. And that prospect alone is very scary.
Windhorst: Probably Kobe. For him to have this type of offensive season at his age adds another volume to his amazing career. His defense off the ball has been a gag reel and the Lakers have woefully underachieved. Asking me who is having the better season, it's LeBron in a walk. But we expect that from LeBron in the middle of his prime. Kobe is still surprising us.
4. Which player will finish his career with more rings?
Adande: Kobe. Nothing is more premature than LeBron-Jordan comparisons, because LeBron has to get to Kobe's ring count first. And LeBron won't be able to hold the Kevin Durants and Derrick Roses at bay long enough to do it. He's going to regret not cashing in from 2009 to 2011.
Haberstroh: Kobe. My crystal ball is cloudy with this one, but Kobe has a four-ring head start. If LeBron opened his career with the generation's dominant center like Kobe did, this might be a much tougher question. But alas, LeBron had Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
Soriano: Kobe. If there's one thing history has taught us, it's that winning championships is extremely difficult. Kobe already has a four-ring lead on LeBron, and any forecast saying he makes up that difference -- especially in a league this competitive -- would be overzealous, even when accounting for how great a player LeBron is.
Wallace: Kobe Bryant. He's got five now, four more than LeBron. That's an awful lot of ground to cover. Even if LeBron finishes one or two short, there's no shame in that. I've always felt LeBron has to win at least two titles to truly validate his legendary status.
Windhorst: Kobe. Got to take your hat off to those five, winning them decades apart, too. Not even Jordan could do that (of course it was partially because of retirements). It would be a disappointment if LeBron didn't win another or even multiple, but "expecting" him to equal or surpass Kobe is not a measure of comparing their games but a nod of respect to how challenging winning those titles were.
5. Which player(s) will play for an L.A. team in 2014-15?
Adande: Kobe. As he has said before, "Why would I go somewhere else?" He can't knock Lakers management for failing to bring in support, not after it got him Gasol, then Nash and Howard. And the one part of MJ's career he doesn't want to duplicate is the Washington Wizards phase. It would be easier to see LeBron back in Cleveland (how does Bron and Kyrie Irving strike you?) than in L.A.
Haberstroh: Just Kobe. My guess is that if LeBron leaves Miami, he'll take his talents back to Cleveland, not to L.A. But if he does go to L.A., I have a feeling it would be to play in Lob City with his buddy Chris Paul.
Soriano: Although it's possible the right answer is both, I'm going with neither. With Kobe talking openly about retiring when his contract expires in the summer of 2014 and LeBron looking more than happy to spend his career playing for the Heat, I don't think either will call the City of Angels home in that season.
Wallace: Kobe Bryant. The fact LeBron even granted the Clippers a visit to recruit him as a free agent in 2010 shows he's at least open to the possibility of taking his talents to Cali. But LeBron seems to be more likely to stay in Miami -- or eventually return to Cleveland -- than to head to the West Coast.
Windhorst: I say neither. But because they're the Lakers, I wouldn't completely rule out both.