NBA fans never got their dream matchup a few years ago between Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. A finals matchup in 2009 or 2010 with the Los Angeles Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers would have decided not only the league champion, but which player was the best in the world at the time.
Los Angeles held up its end of the deal in both of those years and brought two more championship banners to the Staples Center, strengthening the legacy of Bryant as one of the best of all time.
However, Cleveland failed to make the NBA Finals in either season, getting upset by the Orlando Magic in the 2009 Eastern Conference finals and failing to get past the second round a year later, strengthening the opinion of James as a postseason choke artist.
Last year, James finally got his team back to the NBA Finals, only this time it was Bryant's team that was swept in the second round by the eventual champion, the Dallas Mavericks.
It seems unlikely these superstars will ever face off in the NBA Finals (unless the Lakers can make a major move or two this offseason), but basketball fans will get to see a different NBA Finals matchup this year that will do just as much to decide who the best basketball player in the world is, as it will the best team in the league.
LeBron James has won the MVP award three of the last four years and has seemed to achieve as much as an individual can at his level without winning a championship.
Leaving Cleveland to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami has made him arguably the most polarizing and scrutinized athlete today. His decision to sign with the Heat has often and unfairly overshadowed his dominance and spectacular play on the court.
Kevin Durant has the led the NBA in scoring the last three seasons and is a big reason why the Oklahoma City Thunder have rapidly gone from a cellar dweller to a title contender in such a short period of time.
He, along with Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka, have helped make the Thunder the best young team in the league and one that may be going to its first of many NBA Finals to come.
The Thunder had a record of 23-59 in their first season in Oklahoma after relocating from Seattle (Washington State maybe rooting for the Miami Heat in this series after all), and now the team is only four wins away from bringing a Larry O'Brien Trophy to the Sooner State.
Many fans feels the Oklahoma City Thunder have built a championship contender the right way by acquiring their good young players through the NBA draft, while the Heat reloaded by pulling off the signings of two major free agents (LeBron James and Dywane Wade). This is arguably the biggest reason why the Miami Heat are so polarizing.
The contrast of how these teams were constructed will be a major storyline and discussion point leading up to the NBA Finals, but the winner of the series will be decided by the matchup of LeBron James and Kevin Durant. The two of them are regarded by many as the best basketball players in the world, and this showdown has been anticipated and hyped throughout this lockout-shortened season.
Who is the best basketball player in the world?
Championships are the biggest factors in shaping the legacies of legends in any sport, and this will be case for both players in this series.
An NBA title for James in his third trip to the NBA Finals (and a clutch play or two in the fourth quarter) would lessen the criticism of him from the fans and media alike, who still vehemently criticize The Decision nearly two years later. It may even validate his decision to sign with the Miami Heat for some people.
A title for Durant in only his fifth NBA season would start the dynasty discussion for the Oklahoma City Thunder and lead to further criticism of James for his postseason play and the failures of the Big Three.
While 2012 NBA Finals will decide who the best in the world is in several ways, this may not be the last we see of the James and Durant in the near future. They will likely be teammates in the London Olympics next month, and it wouldn't be unimaginable to see these teams playing again for the NBA title next June.