'03 Starter: Dwyane Wade
'96 Starter: Kobe Bryant
The two forward spots are completely dominated by the 2003 class. Conversely, the point guard and sixth man match ups are completely dominated by the 1996 class. The center match up is boring because neither of them would be very involved in the game anyway. Both benches are deep and compliment the starters very well, as long as the right coach played the right guys the right minutes.
Easily the most competitive, compelling, and dominating matchup of the game. Neither guy would leave the floor and would probably spend all game trash-talking and going at each other in isolation scenarios reminiscent of Michael Jordan vs Clyde Drexler. Minus the one-sidedness, obviously.
In the 2006 Finals, Wade submitted what the great John Hollinger considers the greatest performance in NBA Finals history, so if we're taking everyone at the peak of their powers for a single game, one might think that Wade would get the edge here. He had a PER of 33.8, shooting over 46 percent from the field while scoring 34.7 points, grabbing 7.8 boards (at 6'4''), dishing 3.8 assists, and pilfering 2.7 steals a game.
He also got to the line about 10-15 times a game in '06, culminating in a staggering 25 attempts in the deciding game alone. So Wade would have a decided edge and upper hand for sure, if Joey Crawford were refereeing the game.
That said, he's had a knack for coming through in the biggest of games in the playoffs, especially when doubters are doubting him, including efforts in Game 6 and 7 of the most recent NBA Finals that can only be described as "beyond gutsy". From 2006-09, when he was the unquestioned leader of the Heat and the leader of a perennial contender, his peak yielded an per-game average of 27.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 7.3 assists. He had a 26.9 PER, over 57 percent TSP (true-shooting percentage) thanks to his double-digit free throw attempts. He's been the best player on one title team, while being the second-best on two and undoubtedly the icon of Miami Heat basketball. He's undoubtedly a top-five two-guard in NBA history.
His counterpart? Kobe Bean Bryant. The most remarkably durable, consistent and hard-working player in NBA history, Kobe has five titles to his name, a league MVP, two Finals MVP's, and has been All-NBA First Team an astounding 11 times. All of these numbers are gaudier than Wade's, perhaps simply because Bryant has played six more seasons as a starter than Wade has been in the league. On the other hand, it's impossible to imagine Wade ever winning another Finals MVP.
Their scoring, rebounds, assists, win-shares, and PER numbers are so eerily similar for their respective five best seasons it's scary.
Here's where we begin to find separation. Wade has had three All-NBA Second Team Defense selections; Kobe has had the same amount, but also been selected to the All-NBA First Team Defense nine times. Wade has never been a good shooter, especially from deep, sporting an ugly 29 percent career three-point average, while Kobe rocks a 34 percent. Kobe might also be the best mid-range jump shooter of all-time; anyone who watched the 2009 Finals knows his 32.9 points per game in that series came just about entirely on contested jumpers.
A big edge for Kobe: unlike Wade, he's proven that he can be the alpha dog of an overly talented team in the 2008 Olympics, when everybody deferred to him in the biggest moments of the gold medal game against Spain. The Black Mamba in his prime will undoubtedly be the go-to guy for his side. Wade will be the second or third option.
In the late game situation, Wade's game reeks of toughness and grit, willing himself to the line when his team needs a two. But, Kobe's late-game chops remind me of a killer with ice in his veins, ready to step back and drop a dagger in anybody's face, even if he'd been shooting horribly all game.
Edge: 1996 (barely)