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Does Cleveland's elimination sour possible LeBron-Kobe Finals matchups in the future?

May 13, 2010 | 11:00 pm

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During the Cavaliers-Celtics chat, I joked with several fans on the Lakers blog that Thursday marked the only day of their lives when they rooted for the Boston Celtics (and possibly wore green).

With the Celtics' series-clinching 94-85 Game 6 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, fans expressed plenty of excitement knowing that the Lakers would have home-court advantage if they meet Boston in the NBA Finals, that the Lakers have an opportunity to atone for their 2008 Finals loss and, of course, that this could be the last time LeBron James plays for the Cavaliers. I may be going out on a limb here, but I have a hunch he'll be in the news as free agency approaches. Just a hunch.

Lakers fans surely aren't losing any sleep over this, with 86% in our unscientific poll wanting the Celtics to win against Cleveland. Even if there was a clear distinction on who Lakers fans were rooting for, 58.7% said they wanted the Celtics to win so the Lakers could possibly rekindle their rivalry in the Finals, and 51.7% said they wanted Kobe Bryant to have the chance to prove his supremacy over James.

Yet part of me wonders if Cleveland's elimination ended the best chance for James and Bryant to match up with each other in the Finals, a sentiment ESPN Los Angeles' Arash Markazi outlined eloquently:

"LeBron's career will not be defined by one playoff series. He'll recover, but what we lost tonight and might never get again is Kobe versus LeBron in the NBA Finals, which is not only a huge loss for the NBA but for both of their legacies.

No matter what LeBron ends up doing in the offseason we can all agree the odds of him reaching the NBA Finals next season aren't as much of a foregone conclusion as we had previously thought. If he returns to Cleveland, the Cavaliers, after being eliminated before the Finals despite having the best record in the league the past two seasons, have to make major changes to get past the Celtics and more important the Magic. If he goes to New York, the Knicks' rebuilding process will be even more daunting.

Meanwhile, Kobe will turn 32 in August and has already shown the wear and tear of a player in the back end of his career. If we were going to get Kobe versus LeBron in the Finals it had to be last year or this year. If we end up getting it two or three years from now it will be like watching Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando in "The Score." It might not be terrible, but you'll always wonder how amazing it would have been if they were both in their prime.

The truth is Kobe needs LeBron and LeBron needs Kobe. As manufactured as their rivalry may be, they need to face one another to validate their accomplishments during a time when you are judged by your competition as much as your talent. Yes, Kobe finally won a championship without Shaquille O'Neal last season when the Lakers beat the Magic, but how much bigger would the victory have been viewed historically and by his critics if he had taken down LeBron in the process? It would have been infinitely more memorable if Kobe had his hands raised while LeBron was walking off the court with his head down behind him."

Markazi pretty much sums up the situation, an argument with which I completely agree. I had mentioned that once James won his second consecutive MVP, any talk regarding him or Kevin Durant surpassing Bryant as a basketball player was way too premature, both because Bryant has four championships to their zero and that it's unfair to compare the body of work when James' and Durant's legacies aren't even completely molded. Though I have no rooting interest in any scenario, the reporter in me roots for stories, and I couldn't help but wonder what stories would've come out had a Finals matchup between Bryant and James occurred.

I'm not talking about the manufactured rivalry between Cleveland and the Lakers, two teams that really have no history with each other. I'm not talking about the manufactured tension between Bryant and James, which has more to do with the Nike puppet commercials than anything else. I'm talking about the manufactured contention that a Lakers-Cavaliers matchup would help decide who's the better basketball player. Because Bryant has four rings, another championship wouldn't significantly bolster his resume over James. And because James has zero rings, a Cleveland title over the Lakers wouldn't have changed the argument. But it would have given either Bryant or James something on their resume that would serve as a talking point for the discussion.

As Markazi noted, it's not entirely out of the question that the two will meet in the Finals down the line. But with James' uncertain future, it appears that if they meet, it would be when they're past their prime, thus making the matchup somewhat less intriguing.

But what do you think? Do you wonder what would've happened had the Lakers and Cavaliers met in the 2010 Finals? Or are you just happy to see the league's top team eliminated? Because the answers may be wide-ranging, I didn't create a poll. So feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

-- Mark Medina

Follow the L.A. Times Lakers blog on Twitter. E-mail the Lakers blog at mgmedin@gmail.com

Photo: Cleveland forward LeBron James walks back to the bench after being called for a foul during the first half of the Boston Celtics' 94-85 victory over the Cavaliers in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Thursday. Credit: David Butler II / US Presswire


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