In the 21st century, no two players have made more impact on the game of professional basketball than Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. The two combined for 17 Finals appearances and nine championship titles from 2000 to 2020, as well as five regular-season MVPs, six Finals MVPs, and 34 All-Star team selections. Ask most people, and Kobe and LeBron will be in their top ten players of all time.
None of that is news. Everybody knows how astounding Kobe was; how spectacular LeBron has been. Unfortunately, what we don’t know, is what would have happened if they’d met in the NBA playoffs – a venue where both players thrived. While hopes for a Kobe/LeBron Finals showdown rode high during the latter’s early career, it never played out.
Of course, neither Kobe nor LeBron reached their peaks alone. Both played (and in LeBron’s case, still plays) with an impressive collection of All-Stars through their careers, including multiple Hall-of-Famers. So what would a matchup look like between Kobe and his best teammates, and LeBron and his? That’s what we’re here to find out, looking at matchups and skillsets to determine which dream team would win. For the sake of competitiveness, each player will be considered at peak health and performance.
Team Kobe: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Shaquille O’Neal
Team LeBron: Kyrie Irving, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Anthony Davis
Point Guard: Steve Nash vs. Kyrie Irving
Starting at the one, it’s a two-time MVP winner vs. one of the greatest ball handlers of all time. Nash would be the primary playmaker throughout for Team Kobe, and while Kyrie is a solid one-on-one defender with good hands, Nash’s expert eye and exceptional passing ability would open up big offensive opportunities for Kobe, Gasol and Shaq. However, Nash’s own scoring potential would be limited by Irving’s defensive coverage and the inside presence of Anthony Davis.
The trouble for Team Kobe will come on defense, where Nash was always more of a liability. With LeBron playing on the ball, Kyrie would be in prime position to score big from the perimeter or coming off drives, which could be a problem for Nash. The biggest offensive output from Team LeBron would be from Wade, AD and the King himself, meaning that Nash wouldn’t get as much help with Irving, opening up some great chances to score.
Shooting Guard: Kobe Bryant vs. Dwyane Wade
This alone would be a showdown for the ages, as it was many times over the course of Kobe and D-Wade’s careers. Wade was a decent defender, but it’ll be impossible to shut Kobe down once he gets hot. The natural step for Team LeBron would be to double the Black Mamba often, likely with LeBron also taking some turns in the one-on-one. Of course, with Shaq on the floor, that becomes a lot tougher.
That doesn’t mean D-Wade wouldn’t get his too. Kobe’s 12 All-Defensive selections would play in big time, but LeBron’s playmaking and passing ability would open up opportunities for Wade as effectively as they did in Miami. Plus, with Irving out there with Wade, Team LeBron’s finishing potential would be truly stacked.
Small Forward: Ron Artest vs. LeBron James
While he was a capable scorer at various times throughout his career, Artest (now Metta Sandiford-Artest) would have a singular focus in this hypothetical faceoff – shutting down LeBron James defensively. Even at the highest level in the Finals, similarly-sized players like Kawhi Leonard and Andre Iguodala have successfully limited James’s scoring potential, and Artest would also be effective in that role.
The problem of course is what happens when Team Kobe gets the ball. While he’s a great player, Artest is probably the weakest offensive link on either team in this game, which means safer doubling opportunities for Shaq and Kobe. Plus, while a good defender can certainly diminish LeBron’s effectiveness on offense, it’s impossible to truly shut the man down. And with AD playing in the paint and Bosh, Wade and Kyrie on the perimeter, stopping LeBron’s drives just means passing opportunities to equally dangerous scorers.
Power Forward: Pau Gasol vs. Chris Bosh
This is probably the most even matchup in the LeBron/Kobe showdown. Gasol will have a heavy defensive load as he helps take on AD farther from the basket and splits the paint-guarding burden with Shaq, but Bosh’s own abilities will be tested holding off Gasol while also having to help out against Shaq.
On offense, Bosh will likely play more of a sharpshooter role, spreading the floor for Kyrie, Wade and Davis to get inside. Gasol should have some open scoring opportunities as well with the Team LeBron defense spread thin between Shaq, Kobe and Nash. Both fours will also have to pick up a big chunk of their teams’ rebounding, but with Shaq on the floor, the burden will weigh heavier on Bosh.
Center: Shaquille O’Neal vs. Anthony Davis
This past season, AD proved he’s capable of dominating at the five against smaller ball teams. But what about against the most unstoppable physical force basketball has ever seen? It’s true that Davis is one of the most athletic bigs we’ve seen since Shaq’s prime, but even he would have trouble guarding the four-time champion. Shaq would beat him out in the paint, and dominate on rebounds.
The flipside of course is AD’s versatility and shooting potential. Shaq could guard the post-up well enough, but he’d have a tough time keeping up with Davis farther out, and even inside he’s far from insurmountable. That means a lot more defensive energy put on Davis and bigger openings outside for Bosh and Kyrie.
Coming out of the gate, Team LeBron has the energy high. LeBron and AD will go for four points each in their first four possessions, putting an early lead of 8-2 in the first minute of play. But it’s not long until Nash starts finding feeds inside to Shaq and Kobe starts getting hot from midrange. Bosh and Wade struggle at first to find a rhythm against Kobe and Gasol, but Kyrie gets a few big shots past Nash to keep Team LeBron in the game
With Team LeBron putting more pressure on Shaq, Kobe explodes, leading his team to a 32-25 lead at the end of the quarter, with Shaq at 14 points and Kobe at 12. LeBron switches onto Kobe on defense starting the second quarter, and as AD starts to hold his ground a bit more against Shaq, the lead shrinks. Kyrie continues dropping daggers against Nash, forcing a double team that opens Wade up for a few big drives. By halftime though, Team Kobe still holds onto the lead 57-53.
Like at the beginning of the first half, the second half starts all Team Kobe. Kobe takes the shot on three straight possession, making two in a row and missing on the third, only for it to be slammed back down by Shaq. He and Gasol are killing it on the offensive boards, with Shaq already at double-digit rebounds and 28 points. Team Kobe is scoring on nearly every possession.
Then halfway through the third, Team LeBron picks it up on ball movement. Bosh’s shot starts to fall, and Wade gets inside on three straight possessions. Shaq’s defense starts to wane against AD’s continued assault, and Team LeBron starts to even things out on the boards. Team Kobe stays consistent in the paint and Kobe himself keeps knocking down shots, but Team LeBron manages to pull ahead by one with a buzzer-beater three from James, closing the quarter at 86-85.
Kobe opens the fourth quarter with a fadeaway jumper over Anthony Davis, which LeBron quickly answers with a freight-train drive of his own. The two go back and forth, with Kobe breaking thirty points and LeBron hitting a double-double after a no-look pass to Bosh on the outside. With the big men looking tired from a fierce bout battling each other for rebounds, Nash, Kyrie and Wade start to pick up some clean drives to the basket. With 3:14 left on the clock, Team Kobe barely leads 110-109.
A far shot from Davis in the corner puts Team LeBron up two, and he follows it up with a big stop on Gasol and the defensive rebound on the other end. Davis lobs it out to Kyrie on a fast break, who lays it up to stretch the lead to four. Nash brings the ball up, going off the screen from Gasol to drive in past Bosh and slip the ball to Shaq, who slams it down again, putting him at 36 points, 13 rebounds, and four assists.
Another long shot from AD puts the lead back at five with less than two minutes left, but Kobe scores quickly, switches onto LeBron on defense to make a huge steal, and breaks away for two more. Up two with 1:08 to play, LeBron brings the ball up slowly, but Team Kobe locks in on defense and forces a bad shot from Wade to get the rebound. Not to be outdone, Team LeBron boxes out Shaq with a double team from Bosh, and LeBron holds Kobe on an attempted drive. But it’s all for naught when Kobe kicks it out to an open Artest, who drives in and scores with five seconds left on the shot clock.
On Team LeBron’s next possession, down one at 117-118 the King makes a crazy turnaround shot against Artest with six seconds to go. Nash brings the ball up fast and works off a screen from Gasol to move inside. With Shaq and Gasol both rolling to the paint, the defense has to collapse, which is when Nash makes a blind backward overhead pass back to Kobe on the wing. LeBron steps back in to contest, but it’s to no avail, as the signature two-point jumper sails up and splashes down right at the buzzer, bringing Team Kobe the victory.
Final Score: Team Kobe vs. Team LeBron 119-118
MVP: Kobe Bryant (41 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists)