If the endless Vitamin Water Commercials, front page ESPN ads, and “Great Debate” arguments haven’t made it strikingly clear, allow me to reinforce David Stern’s fantasy; an NBA finals with the headline reading “Kobe vs. LeBron.”
As much as the commish and the average NBA fan (including myself) want to see this dream matchup come to fruition, I wouldn’t bet my money on it.
Yes, I know Kobe and LeBron are the two best players on the planet, bar-none. And I know that they both led their teams to the best records in their respective conferences. But there is one key component missing in both the Cavaliers and the Lakers; balance.
If the first couple of games of these conference finals have shown us anything, it’s that Kobe and LeBron have the ability to carry their teams by putting up 35-40 points a night, making highlight real dunks, and going one-on-five on a consistent basis.
One problem—it’s still not enough.
The Lakers are now staring at a 2-2 series that could easily be 3-1 had the Nuggets not imploded with fourth quarter techs/learned how to inbound a basketball.
Likewise, the Cavaliers could easily be looking at a 3-0 deficit had it not been LeBron’s miracle fading three-pointer in Game 2.
These results are a far cry from the resounding success that both clubs had during the course of the regular season and the early postseason, as they blew through the competition based on utter talent and team chemistry.
But all of a sudden both the Lakers and Cavaliers have resorted back to what made them mediocre teams just a couple seasons ago.
Everything has been put in the hands of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant; they have to handle the ball, score, defend at a high-level, score, set-up teammates, and score at the expense of their own teams.
What made the Lakers and Cavaliers so good over the course of the regular season was their mixture of depth, talent, and a superstar presence.
Sure there were nights when LeBron and Kobe would go off and have transcendent individual performances, but on the whole it wasn’t necessary. Because there were guys like Mo Williams and Delonte West stepping up from the outside, and players like Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum working the inside.
Just when both teams needed that little boost, King James and the Black Mamba were there to put them over the top; it was the perfect formula for success.
But now the tides have turned because Williams and West aren’t hitting shots, and Gasol and Bynum are getting outworked in the paint, so the Cavs and Lakers have reverted to the old way, the proven formula for disaster; the one-man team.
Credit the Orlando Magic and Denver Nuggets, it’s their defense, versatility, and intensity that has forced this conversion to occur. Because even though these two teams might lack the absolute star power of the Lakers and Cavaliers, they have the depth and balance to overcome it.
That’s why the Magic were able to beat the Cavaliers by 10 points in Game 3 despite Hedo Turkoglu’s one for 11 shooting and LeBron’s 41 points and nine assists.
It’s also why the Nuggets dismantled the Lakers in Game 4, even though Carmelo Anthony had only seven points entering the fourth quarter.
Because for every off night for Anthony and Turkoglu, there is a Rafer Alston, Michael Pietrus, Chris Anderson, or J.R. Smith waiting to pick up the load.
The Magic and Nuggets have room for some error, while the LeBrons and Kobes have none.
LeBron and Kobe need to be outstanding every night in order for their team to have a chance, while the Nuggets and Magic can hurt you night-in and night-out with different people because they play as cohesive teams.
Don’t get me wrong, what LeBron and Kobe have done thus far in these conference finals has been beyond impressive, they have single-handedly kept their teams afloat through sheer will and determination.
But at this point in the season it takes more than one player's determination to get to the NBA finals—it takes the cumulative efforts of five guys willing to work together during any given sequence.
Right now the Orlando Magic and Denver Nuggets have that, while the Los Angeles Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers are still trying to decide on their team identities.