Historic Superstar NBA Playoff Matchups We Wish Happened
Since 1947, the NBA has delivered iconic playoff matchups, from Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain to LeBron James and Kevin Durant. The duels that saw Magic Johnson and Larry Bird battle for superiority again and again delighted fans for nearly a decade. The friendship that ensued even inspired a Broadway play.
And yet, some of the most notable superstars failed to meet one another in such classic fashion, robbing fanbases of the mano-a-mano confrontations they had desperately been craving.
Here are some of the what-ifs we wish could be remedied.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar vs. Bill Russell
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's and Bill Russell's iconic legacies stand the test of time decades after their highly decorated playing careers reached the end.
Kareem still owns the record books with the most points all-time, most All-Star appearances (19), All-NBA teams (15) as well as the most MVPs (six). He also has the fourth-most All-Defensive team selections (11) and is the only player to win Finals MVP 14 seasons apart.
Kareem is one of the game's best ever on account of his MVPs, scoring and titles (six), but another big whose career barely preceded his carries the title of the game's greatest winner: Bill Russell.
No athlete in any major American sport won more than Russell, who brought home 11 championships in just 13 seasons in Boston. He finished with five MVPs, 12 All-Star appearances and 11 All-NBA teams despite playing seven fewer seasons than Kareem.
The two each battled another historic great in Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt managed to eliminate Kareem and his Milwaukee Bucks in back-to-back seasons. Though Russell fell to Wilt's 76ers and Lakers in back-to-back years, he largely owned him throughout their careers (57 wins out of 94).
So, how would the game's greatest scorer fare against the game's greatest champion ever? The two missed each other by just one season, robbing sports fans of one of the greatest potential clashes in NBA history.
Michael Jordan vs. Hakeem Olajuwon
A Finals clash of Michael Jordan versus Hakeem Olajuwon is one of the great what-ifs in NBA history. The Houston Rockets were the only team to experience championship glory during Jordan's nearly unblemished 25-1 playoff series record between 1991 and 1998. That run is only separated by two seasons in which Jordan "rode the bus" with the Birmingham Barons.
But what if Jordan hadn't given up basketball for close to two seasons? Could the Bulls have continued their path of destruction against the Houston Rockets in 1993-94 and 1994-95?
Olajuwon and his Rockets may have posed a threat that Jordan's Bulls never encountered in the NBA Finals, with Patrick Ewing in the Eastern Conference playoffs being the closest exception. While Ewing is an undeniable Hall of Famer and all-time great at the center position, Olajuwon was the far superior defender, having placed on the All-Defensive team nine times to Ewing's three in addition to two Defensive Player of the Year awards in 1992-93 and 1993-94.
Jordan himself didn't believe the Bulls had the personnel to defend Olajuwon, according to an interview The Athletic's Michael Lee conducted with Rockets head coach Rudy Tomjanovich.
"He gave our team great respect," Tomjanovich said. "He didn't feel that they could contain Hakeem. They just didn't have the personnel to do it. And he said he thought we were the team that gave them the most trouble."
During the '93-94 campaign, the Bulls would have been a near-lock to return to the Finals with Jordan. Led by Scottie Pippen and reinforced by Toni Kukoc as a perimeter scorer and small-ball threat, the Bulls rattled off 55 wins, falling to the Knicks in the semifinals in seven games.
The matchups beyond Jordan and Vernon Maxwell would have intrigued. Horace Grant would have been the proper foil for Otis Thorpe with 1994 All-Star starter B.J. Armstrong chasing Kenny Smith and Sam Cassell. Pippen locking down a young Robert Horry or Clyde Drexler in 1995 may have served as yet another compelling showdown.
Incidentally, the Bulls beat the Rockets just once in six attempts during Jordan's first three-peat, though they took five of six immediately following Jordan's return.
Patrick Ewing vs. Tim Duncan and David Robinson
We were so close!
The twin towers of Tim Duncan and David Robinson stand tall as one of the greatest frontcourt combinations ever. Duncan and the Spurs' run of excellence began in 1998 when they started their streak of 22 playoff appearances in his rookie season.
In the lockout-shortened season that followed, Duncan and Robinson won their first title against the unlikeliest of opponents in the eighth-seeded New York Knicks. Even so, basketball fans can't help but wonder, what if?
While the addition and play of Marcus Camby was critical in advancing to the postseason's final round, could a healthy Patrick Ewing have dictated a different outcome? A first-ballot Hall of Famer, Ewing earned 11 All-Star appearances, seven All-NBA honors and three All-Defensive team nods.
Like Charles Barkley and Karl Malone, Ewing stands as one of the greatest players to never win a championship, mainly because of Michael Jordan's Bulls but also Hakeem Olajuwon's Rockets. With Jordan freshly retired and Olajuwon's prime fading, the path to a title finally shone itself. However, in cruel Knicks fashion, Ewing tore his Achilles tendon during the Eastern Conference Finals warm-ups against Indiana.
In his absence, Duncan dominated and walked away Finals MVP in just his second season. It took his Spurs only five games to expel the Knicks without Ewing as their leader. Though 36, Ewing still possessed much of the same presence as in his prime, scoring 17.3 points with 9.9 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in the regular season.
The Spurs would have been heavy favorites with or without Ewing, but being robbed of a matchup between him and fellow USA Dream Team member David Robinson still stings 20 years later. For Robinson, this Finals appearance was his first, though Ewing had sparred with Olajuwon five seasons prior.
Michael Jordan vs. Kobe Bryant
The comparison is unavoidable.
The two shared a bond unlike any NBA superstars before them. Their passion, skill, feel and size make them comparable, but their ages and fierce competitiveness should have driven a wedge between them. Instead, Jordan referred to Bryant as a younger brother and a close friend in a touching eulogy he gave following his tragic death.
Jordan possessed the prickly demeanor necessary to thrash his opponents continually as a 34-year-old international icon and unstoppable force on the basketball floor. However, Bryant managed to slip past his emotional barricade, earning his respect even at the young age of 19 at the 1998 All-Star Game.
The two played the same position, and Bryant admittedly modeled much of his game after Jordan's. The lessons proved fruitful as Bryant led his Los Angeles Lakers to five NBA titles, each of which came after Jordan's reign with the Chicago Bulls.
Though Jordan eclipses Bryant in nearly every statistical threshold, Bryant accrued more points, All-Star appearances in addition to All-NBA and All-Defensive teams.
Jordan's 1995-96 team that went 72-10 en route to a title may have put together the most impressive season of all time, while Bryant's 1999-00 championship squad was arguably the best Lakers team ever.
Amid their primes, would Jordan and Pippen have been able to best Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal? At the very least, seeing Bryant and Jordan—virtually mirror images of one another—duel at the highest level would have been basketball nirvana.
Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James
Perhaps the two most popular and polarizing NBA figures of this century, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant were fated to meet in the NBA Finals. Popular puppet commercials teased it. Talk shows still haven't stopped discussing it.
Fate denied us the pleasure.
The two narrowly missed one another's prime. LeBron earned his way to eight consecutive Finals between 2011 and 2018, a streak that began one season after Kobe Bryant's last championship. After reaching his first Finals in 2007, LeBron fell at the hands of the Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic in each of the next three postseasons.
Kobe earned seven trips to the NBA Finals, including three straight from 2008 to 2010. However, he narrowly missed an opportunity to take care of the 2006-07 Cleveland Cavaliers. Without the aid of Pau Gasol, the Lakers were dismissed in consecutive opening rounds by the Phoenix Suns in 2006 and 2007.
Aside from Tim Duncan, no two superstars dominated the past two decades quite like Kobe and LeBron. The two share eight titles between them, five MVPs, five Finals MVPs, 34 All-Star appearances, 30 All-NBA teams and 18 All-Defensive teams, yet they never met in the postseason.
As a member of the Lakers, LeBron promised to continue Bryant's legacy. While we may never know who would have bested the other, LeBron would have surely had a physical advantage, as well as his unrivaled cerebral penchant for playmaking.
Earlier in his career, though, LeBron confessed to shirking the moment in his Finals series against Dallas. Would the Mamba's relentless mental fortitude have been enough to overcome LeBron?
Jason Kidd vs. Steve Nash
For this pair of floor generals, it would have been a battle on the floor and of the minds between two masters of the game.
Each bears stark similarities to one another. In addition to being among the greatest point guards in NBA history and first-ballot Hall of Famers, each cut their teeth as athletes in Phoenix and later earned their first head coaching gigs in Brooklyn.
Nash was the offensive savant, putting together two MVP campaigns and some of the most statistically efficient seasons in league history. Though his Suns fell short of postseason glory as a result of untimely injuries and unfortunate suspensions, their offensive style influenced the way basketball has been played ever since.
Kidd was the all-around bulldog who was just as tenacious on the defensive end and the boards as he was handling the rock. With New Jersey, he assisted in leading the Nets to the NBA Finals twice, only to fall to the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs. In Dallas, he helped Nash's former teammate Dirk Nowitzki overcome a 2-1 deficit and defeat LeBron's Heatles.
Nash should have earned similar accolades in the twilight of his career with the Lakers, but nagging back injuries forced him to retire prematurely.
On paper, Kidd appears to win the matchup as a champion who made nine All-Defensive teams. However, Nash had such a unique ability to elevate others' games, as Raja Bell expressed on a recent episode of the The Ringer NBA Show. It wasn't only his play that instilled confidence in his teammates but also the positive reinforcement he gave them between possessions and off the floor.
If the two had sparred in the postseason, the result would have been beautiful basketball.
Preston Ellis covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @PrestonEllis.