Kobe Bryant and LeBron James
Over the course of NBA history, there have been numerous occurrences where a perfect NBA Finals matchup never came to fruition. Whether it be from unfortunate injuries, fatigue or just basic upsets, these anticipated best of seven-game series just never panned out.
This, in turn, creates the mysterious "What Ifs" that fill the annals of NBA Finals history.
What if Cleveland's title hopes weren't derailed by Orlando and, instead, a Kobe-LeBron playoff rivalry came into existence? What if a rising Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls faced the team that passed on him in the draft years earlier for bust Sam Bowie, the Portland Trail Blazers, in the 1990 NBA Finals?
These are the types of questions that have been stored away in NBA lore—never to be answered, never to be reopened.
It is always interesting to ponder if these epic NBA Finals matchups had consummated.
How different would the NBA landscape be today?
Would "The Chosen One" still be in Cleveland? Would the potential-filled Indiana Pacers of the early 2000s have a few championships? Would Michael Jordan still be widely labeled the greatest to ever pick up a basketball?
Nonetheless, in the subsequent slides, this slideshow will delve into the 15 most epic NBA Finals that never happened.
Going into the 1999-2000 NBA season, many expert analysts pegged the rising Los Angeles Lakers as the team to beat. Behind high-octane scorer Kobe Bryant and All-NBA talent Shaquille O'Neal, the Lakers were on the fast track to dominance.
In the end, the early predictions were right, as the developing squad dominated the Eastern Conference Indiana Pacers in the NBA Finals four games to two.
While a truly tantalizing victory for the fans in California, as it marked the beginning of the Lakers era, numerous fans of basketball, including myself, were rooting for a Pacers-Trail Blazers Finals matchup.
The Los Angeles Lakers, in a thrilling best of seven-game series that had many questioning who was really the best team in the West, eliminated the No. 3 seed Portland in the Western Conference Finals.
With a Portland-Pacers series, one could expect a tough, rugged style of play. After all, it was the "Jail Blazers" against the Pacers, a team who would later become notorious for the infamous "Malice at the Palace."
Both teams were comprised of established veterans and potential-filled prospects.
The Pacers included legendary players such as Reggie Miller, Mark Jackson, Rik Smits and Chris Mullin. The Blazers, on the other hand, were headlined by Bonzi Wells, Rasheed Wallace, Steve Smith, Damon Stoudemire, Detlef Schrempf, Arvydas Sabonis, Scottie Pippen and the young Jermaine O'Neal.
In the end, who wouldn't want to see one more Pippen-Miller matchup?
LeBron James and Kevin Durant
After years of playing in the NBA, finesse forward Dirk Nowitzki finally captured an elusive ring last season. While everyone was excited to finally see the Hall of Fame-bound power forward accomplish a championship, many fans desired a Thunder-Heat Finals.
Both organizations possess a "Big Three," and neither franchise has won a championship with their core group of players. In addition, it would finally answer a compelling question: who has the best trio?
Obviously, the Oklahoma City triumvirate undoubtedly have the most potential, as sixth man James Harden, slasher Russell Westbrook and the lanky Kevin Durant are all under 25 years old.
However, unlike most of the matchups in this slideshow, this one is still possible as both teams are currently alive in the 2012 Playoffs. The Thunder have just advanced to the Western Conference Finals, where the Heat are battling to defeat the Indiana Pacers in the second round.
The 2002 Western Conference Finals were, and still are, the most controversial NBA Playoffs series to date.
Not only did it go to a game seven, but the officiating throughout the series was questionable, to say the least. Obviously, it would help the NBA if the Lakers advanced to the biggest stage in professional basketball, as Los Angeles is a more lucrative market than Sacramento.
This caused many Kings fan to point the finger at David Stern and the NBA brass, saying that the series had been tampered with in favor of the Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O' Neal-led Lakers.
While nobody confessed to any wrongdoing, Tim Donaghy, a referee who would later plead guilty to deliberately miscalling games for financial incentive, was an official during the series.
In the end, the Lakers advanced to the Finals, but many "what ifs" arose.
If the Kings had made it to the Finals, would the roster, which was comprised of center Vlade Divac, star Chris Webber, marksman Peja Stojakovic, facilitator Mike Bibby and a plethora of competent role players, be able to compete against the Eastern Conference elite?
A Boston Celtics-Sacramento Kings matchup would absolutely have been the most exciting. Both teams had the ability of putting up large point totals. The Kings relied on their inside tandem of Webber and Divac and their multitude of competent three-point sharpshooters for scoring.
On the other hand, the Celtics, who were eliminated in the Conference Finals by the New Jersey Nets, received major contributions from forwards Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce.
Fight between both teams
The New York Knicks battled to stay relevant against the rising Los Angeles Lakers. The following statement would have been the headline for a New York-Los Angeles NBA Finals.
If the Knicks advanced to the NBA Finals, instead of being eliminated in six games by the Pacers, this could have been a fantastic showdown to start the new millennium.
Patrick Ewing vs. Shaquille O'Neal
Latrell Sprewell vs. Kobe Bryant
Allen Houston vs. Glen Rice
Larry Johnson vs. Robert Horry
Charlie Ward vs. Derek Fisher
Marcus Camby vs. Rick Fox
Jack Nicholson vs. Spike Lee
The bright lights of New York vs. Hollywood Los Angeles
Both franchises were hungry for a championship. The Knicks had just reached the Finals the season before to be defeated by the San Antonio Spurs. The Lakers, on the other hand, wanted to start a dynasty with their one-two punch of Bryant and O'Neal.
Additionally, a few fights broke out between the two teams in regular season action.
Simply put, this series had the background to be legendary.
Isiah Thomas Magic Johnson
Despite it cooling off in recent years, the Detroit Pistons and Los Angeles Lakers have always had a rivalry.
This animosity towards the opposition stems from 1988 and 1989 NBA Finals. In both series, the high-flying Lakers were pitted against the team-oriented, rugged "Bad Boy" Pistons.
In 1988, the Lakers beat the Pistons in a seven games, earning their fifth championship of the 1980s. The Pistons, however, rallied back the next year and, mainly due to the loss of Magic Johnson and Byron Scott to season-ending hamstring injuries, swept the Lakers in four games.
This caused many critics to put an asterisk next to Detroit's lone championship at the time.
However, the teams would never meet again until 2004, where the Pistons would again be victorious.
In the 1990 NBA Finals, the Pistons would defend their crown against the Portland Trail Blazers, beating the franchise 4-1.
While the Lakers fell from grace at the hands of the Pistons, it would open the door for a new dynasty, the Chicago Bulls, though many desired another Pistons-Lakers Finals featuring Johnson and Isiah Thomas.
Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp
The Chicago Bulls' final championship in their first three-peat with Michael Jordan was somewhat anticlimactic.
Not only did the Western Conference Phoenix Suns pose no threat for the Chicago Bulls, they made quick work of the Charles Barkley-led team, defeating the franchise in six games.
It would have been a much more competitive series if the Suns lost game seven of the Western Conference Finals to the Seattle Supersonics.
The Sonics possessed a more talented, younger roster that could compete athletically with the spry Chicago Bulls. In addition, the team had more defenders capable of slowing down Michael Jordan, including guards Gary Payton and Nate McMillan.
Behind the aforementioned Payton and high-flying Shawn Kemp, the Sonics had obtained a roster over the years competent to beat the favorite Chicago Bulls.
Tim Duncan and Rasheed Wallace
The San Antonio Spurs swept the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Boom. It was done.
In a moment's notice, the 2006-2007 NBA season was finished.
It became painfully clear that LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers were not ready for the big stage.
However, the Detroit Pistons, the organization who the Cavaliers eliminated in the Eastern Conference Finals, were ready to compete in the Finals.
After all, their core group of players won a championship only three years before against a Lakers team with four Hall of Fame bound athletes.
If LeBron didn't provide late-game heroics for his organization, including a tremendous winning effort where he scored the Cavaliers' final 25 points to take a 3-2 series lead, the Pistons may have advanced that year.
Cleveland would ultimately ride their momentum to a game six victory.
A Spurs-Pistons, however, wasn't just the anticipated NBA Finals matchup, but the series that many wanted to see. The last time these two franchises met in the playoffs, the Spurs won the championship in seven games.
With a series headlined by established veterans Chauncey Billups, "Rip" Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, this could have been the best matchup in NBA Finals history.
There was just an abundance of talent.
Shaquille O'Neal and Boris Diaw
It is a shame that the Phoenix Suns of the early 2000s never reached the NBA Finals. Behind their triumvirate of Steve Nash, Amar'e Stoudemire and Shawn Marion, in addition to coach Mike D'Antoni, this team was one of the most exciting in NBA history.
Not only did their fast-pace allow a multitude of highlight plays, the team could, simply put, win games.
The Suns best chance to capture the elusive Larry O'Brien Trophy was in 2005. However, their attempt fell flat after the rival Spurs demolished the team in five games. It was a major upset, as the Suns were the No. 1 seed and the San Antonio was the No. 2 seed.
On the other side of the bracket, the Heat, who had just acquired Shaquille O'Neal from Los Angeles, were also the No. 1 seed. Like the Suns, they lost to the No. 2 seed Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals.
A Suns-Heat showdown would have been quite exciting, as both teams had a different style of play. The Heat relied on their half-court offense to generate points unlike the quick Suns.
Additionally, the world would have been exposed to the rising Dwyane Wade.
The Portland Trail Blazers selected center Sam Bowie from Kentucky in the second overall pick. It didn't seem like a bad pick at the time, as the big man was dominant during his college tenure.
However, he turned out to be one of the biggest busts of all time, not just because of his little contributions, but because of who was drafted behind him.
Because Portland already possessed slashing guard Clyde Drexler, it didn't seem like a wise idea to couple him with fellow scorer Michael Jordan from the University of North Carolina. After all, the Trail Blazers had a huge hole at the center position.
This would turn out to be a gargantuan mistake.
Jordan would go on to lead the Bulls to six titles, racking up a multitude of accolades and titles in the process. Bowie did nothing of great importance in the Association.
In 1991, Jordan almost received the opportunity to face the club that passed over him seven years before.
However, Portland would lose to an elder Los Angeles Lakers squad in the Western Conference Finals. The Magic Johnson-led team would later be crushed by the Bulls in the championship.
Substituting Portland in for the Lakers probably wouldn't have made the NBA Finals much more competitive, but it would have been interesting to see how Jordan would have responded against the team that simply disrespected him in the draft.
Kobe and Rip
The quest for the Lakers' fourth championship in 2004 was an endeavor to capture a championship for the ringless Karl Malone and Gary Payton in the eyes of the fans and media.
However, the Detroit Pistons foiled their plans when they beat the all-star filled Los Angeles Lakers. Many expected the new-look Lakers to demolish the Pistons. Due to their scoring prowess, experts expected the Pistons, despite being defensive-minded, to not be able to contend with the Lakers' roster.
The Pistons, though, didn't back down and won the series in a shocking six games.
The aftermath of the 2004 NBA Finals was incredible.
The Pistons, due to being on top of the basketball world, decided to keep their core intact.
The Lakers, on the other hand, lost Malone and coach Phil Jackson to retirement, traded Gary Payton and shipped the disgruntled Shaquille O'Neal to Miami for essentially Caron Butler and Lamar Odom.
This officially marked a rebuilding phase in Los Angeles.
If the Lakers decided to keep all their players and nobody called it quits, there is no doubt the organization would have been the heavy favorites to meet the Pistons in the NBA Finals next season. After all, the franchise reached the Finals the preceding four years.
Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant will never probably admit it, but the veteran Laker has been trying to surpass Michael Jordan for his entire career. And we shouldn't blame him, as he will always be compared to Jordan due to his position, style of play and demeanor.
Phil Jackson, who coached both athletes, even said that Bryant is gunning to pass Jordan on the all-time scoring list.
Even as simple as a number switch shows how much Kobe tries to compete with Jordan's legacy.
Of course, I am referring to Bryant's decision to switch his jersey number to 24, one higher than a certain someone's number.
These two legends once had the opportunity to face each other in a best of seven-game series in 1998. However, the Lakers failed to advance to the Finals after being swept by the Utah Jazz.
A Bryant-Jordan matchup would have been must-see television.
Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal
With a Miami Heat vs. San Antonio Spurs bout in the 2004 Finals, the world would have been able to watch one more Tim Duncan-Shaquille O'Neal playoff matchup in their respective primes. Both big men were accustomed to battling against one another during Shaq's Lakers tenure.
While fearsome opponents, both held high respect for their opponent. Shaq even gave Duncan the nickname of "The Big Fundamental" due his boring, yet effective, style of play.
Then, when you add a young Dwyane Wade, and Spurs guards Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, you had yourself a concoction that could form an electrifying NBA Finals.
San Antonio, however, would be defeated by the Finals-bound Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals.
Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon
The Houston Rockets were thankful to see Michael Jordan quit basketball to pursue a baseball career, as the franchise capitalized on the opportunity and won two championships in his absence.
In fact, the Hakeem Olajuwon-led Rockets, other than the dominant Bulls, were the only team to win a title from 1991-1998.
In 1997, the Rockets, again, found themselves in position to contend for another championship. However, Jordan was back and Houston was considered the underdog in a likely Finals series against Chicago.
But, the Rockets failed to reach the big stage, as they dropped four games out of six to the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference Finals.
It would have definitely been a thrill to watch the No. 1 overall pick in the 1984 NBA draft, Hakeem Olajuwon, battle against the No. 3 selection, Michael Jordan.
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson
In the 1980s, the Celtics-Lakers rivalry was renewed, mostly due to the rise of stars Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.
The personal rivalry between the two players dated back to their college tenures with Michigan State and Indiana State, respectively. Johnson's Spartans defeated Bird's Sycamores at the 1979 NCAA Championship.
Their rivalry continued in the NBA. Larry Bird even said, "The first thing I would do every morning was look at the box scores to see what Magic did. I didn't care about anything else."
The Lakers won their first NBA championship with their new cornerstone in 1980. The following year, Bird and the Celtics would capture a title against the Rockets. The Lakers would again win rings in the 1981 season against the 76ers.
The Celtics and Lakers would finally play each other in a series in the 1984 NBA Finals. The Celtics squeezed out a championship in seven games, leaving a sour taste in the mouths of Lakers nation.
Los Angeles would have their revenge, beating Boston in six games in the 1985 NBA Finals.
But, to much of the dismay of NBA fans everywhere, the Lakers would fail to reach the big stage in 1986. Houston, instead, went on to battle the Celtics and were crushed in the process.
Would we look on the Boston-Los Angeles rivalry in a different light if the Lakers reached the NBA Finals in 1986?
LeBron James and Kobe Bryant
As more time passes, the window of opportunity for this truly epic NBA Finals matchup is coming to a close.
The realm of basketball may never see a LeBron James-Kobe Bryant showdown. Two players who have single-handedly defined the Association in the 2000s may never meet on the basketball world's biggest stage.
Sure, we may see the two face each other in the Finals in some capacity down the road, but not during both of their respective primes.
2009 was undoubtedly the best chance for a Kobe-LBJ bout, but the Orlando Magic foiled this grand plan. Instead, of a championship that would determine who really is the best in the Association, we witnessed an uneventful Finals between Los Angeles and a team that never stood a chance.
Next year, in my opinion, is Kobe's last dominant year. The veteran, Hall of Fame-bound shooting guard is already entering the twilight of his career. After all, he entered the league out of high school.
James still has a solid amount of time left in his NBA tenure, as he was drafted only in 2003.
Even if Miami and Los Angeles collide next season in the Finals, it won't possess the same pizzazz as before.
With Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh teaming with "The Chosen One" and a rejuvenated Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, there are too many distractions from what the world really wants: a Kobe and LeBron showdown.
Nonetheless, with rising teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers gaining relevancy, even this may become an unlikely scenario.