There was nothing at stake for Kobe Bryant when he played against LeBron James for the final time before the sun sets down on his career. Yes, the Cleveland Cavaliers needed a regular season win, which they got. The Los Angeles Lakers? Another loss in a forgettable season. They won’t remember the loss either.
But what about the end of a rivalry? That had to matter, right? Well, maybe to some people. Those who argue through memes about who had the better career and who is the better player, LeBron or Kobe. It mattered to ESPN and other media outlets, pushing this game before and after as some showdown between Bryant and James. Bryant got more points in a rare night of efficient shooting. James? He had a nice little trade off of scoring with Bryant during the second quarter. But he’s part of a better team. Like Bryant, he sometimes tries to force himself on their game. Like the Lakers in recent years, the Cavaliers are better when James doesn’t do that.
And it’s funny that James, in a way, has transformed into a different version of Bryant. His power within the Cavaliers organization allegedly knows no bounds. In Miami, the Heat blocked his attempts to get Erik Spoelstra fired because Pat Riley, someone who has done a thing or two during his career both as a player and especially a head coach, knew the Heat did well before LeBron James and will do fine after him. That kind of powerful figure doing the steering for the franchise enabled to build such a star studded team in 2010. It enabled James to focus on being a better player, and lead the Heat to four straight NBA finals and two NBA championships. He put the Heat on a whole new level in terms of how they stand with others in the hierarchy of great NBA franchises, but it was also the place that gave James the opportunity to finally get that championship chip off his shoulder.
In Cleveland? I’m not sure he knows what he wants to be. A player? A general manager? Agent? Head coach? I’m not sure that putting LeBron in his place would have make a difference while there’s a historic team in Oakland doing incredible stuff. But like the Lakers in recent years, the Cavaliers seem to be held hostage by the star and earning power of one player, and while they’re not sinking and will probably make another NBA finals in a few months, it sometimes feels as if James is holding them back while in the meantime being the reason they’re so good. Complicated, but it’s very Bryant-like in nature.
But back to the rivalry, which in the regular season, James, with the two teams he has played for, dominated. James has been on the winning end of these games for 16 times out of 22 meetings. It was always hyped as the best player in the NBA meeting the guy who’ll replace him. I think that in 2007 or 2008, if Bryant was actually ever the best player in the league, that pendulum shifted to LeBron. But the promise of meeting in multiple NBA finals never came true. James made it in 2007 with the Cavaliers, but was then stopped by the Celtics (twice) and the Orlando Magic on his way there. Bryant, in the meantime, made the finals three consecutive times, adding championships four and five to his collection. The Heat rose, and the Lakers started falling into the abyss they’re in now.
So who will be remembered as the better player? I think LeBron James is the answer, even if he doesn’t win another championship in his career. He’s probably the greatest small forward of all time, while positions become more and more flexible these days. I think he influenced the league a lot more than Bryant, who might be a bit more than a copycat version of Michael Jordan, but was simply someone who was excellent without bringing something new to the league. James changed things. He might not have invented them, but he didn’t feel like a slightly inferior version of something that came before him. His behavior in the last two seasons isn’t new, or a welcomed addition to his CV.
So this is it for the great Kobe-LeBron rivalry, huh? Yep. Being in different conferences since James got into the league made it so. Finals was the only place for them to truly turn this into something historic. Instead, regular season matchups and some one on ones during the All-Star games is what we got. Not that we’re complaining. It seems that individual rivalries hardly exist anymore in this league. Star players are too nice with each other, and except for the annual LeBron trip to the finals, the teams and stars he faces change. Bryant goes off into the sunset with one of the more forgettable retirement seasons possible, despite the failed hype generated by whoever it is trying to make it into some sentimental occasion. In the meantime James can move on to more important things, like how convince people that firing David Blatt was the right thing for the Cleveland Cavaliers.