The NBA Finals is the culmination of the NBA season where the two best teams meet in a seven-game series to see who will be crowned NBA champions. The NBA Finals is not only a series to see what team will etch their names among the greatest teams in NBA history, but it is also a chance to see some of the greatest one-on-one matchups. Bill Russell vs Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson vs Larry Bird, Shaquille O’Neal vs Hakeem Olajuwon, Kobe Bryant vs Allen Iverson are just some of the great one-on-one battles we have seen take place in the history of the NBA Finals.
Sure winning an NBA championship is a team award but seeing the two best players the league has to offer dueling for the top prize is what puts the butts in seats. Case in point, the Milwaukee Bucks being eliminated from this year’s playoff race means we will not get to see an NBA Finals matchup between Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James/Anthony Davis, or Giannis and Kawhi Leonard, or Giannis and Nikola Jokic. However, we could still potentially see an NBA Finals matchup between Jayson Tatum-Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler-LeBron James or Nikola Jokic-Bam Adebayo.
With this year’s NBA Finals right around the corner, I thought why not highlight cases where two of the best players in the prime of their careers in a particular era had a chance to meet up in the NBA Finals but it was just never to be. These matchups are not based on just two of the best players that never played against each other. These are two players who were in opposite conferences in a year where one player’s team was eliminated a round (or two) short of making the NBA Finals therefore depriving us said NBA Finals matchup. With that being said, Let’s Begin!
1963: Jerry West vs Oscar Robertson
We got to see a matchup of the two best bigs in the 1960s between Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain in the NBA Finals on multiple occasions, but we never got to see an NBA Finals matchup between the two best guards of the ’60s: Jerry West and Oscar Robertson. While Jerry West is one of the best scorers the NBA has ever seen, Oscar Robertson is a pioneer of a long line of triple double specialist. Both are great in their own right but were largely unsuccessful in the playoffs as Jerry West holds an 1-8 record in the NBA Finals and Oscar never made one. These two would face each other in the early rounds of the Playoffs later in their careers but this came close to happening in the NBA Finals in 1963. As a member of the Cincinnati Royals (now Sacramento Kings), Oscar Robertson fell one round short of the NBA Finals but lost to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Division Finals (now Eastern Conference Finals) in seven games. Had the Royals won that series, they would have faced the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals giving us the matchup between Jerry West and Oscar Robertson but alas it was not to be.
1975/1976: Rick Barry vs John Havlicek
Both Rick Barry and John Havlicek are two of the most underrated players in NBA history as they were two of the best at the wing position in the 1970s. One big reason for this Finals matchup not happening was Rick Barry leaving the NBA to join the NBA in the prime of his career with the Warriors from 1968-1972. Meanwhile, John Havlicek and the Boston Celtics remained top contenders in the NBA but didn’t win the championship for the first time following Bill Russell’s retirement until 1974. There were opportunities for this matchup to happen in back-to-back years in 1975 and 1976. In 1975, the Warriors made it to the NBA Finals and eventually won with the Celtics losing in the Eastern Conference Finals in six games to the team the Warriors beat in the NBA Finals the Baltimore Bullets. Then, in 1976, it was the Celtics who made the Finals with the Warriors losing in the Western Conference Finals in seven games to the team the Celtics beat in the NBA Finals the Phoenix Suns.
1982: Julius Erving vs George Gervin
Of all the ABA players to join the NBA when both leagues merged, Julius Erving and George Gervin were easily two of the most successful. Arguably the best ABA player of all-time, Dr. J went on to win an NBA championship, league MVP, seven All-NBA appearances and appeared in the All-Star game each season. Meanwhile, while not as successful as Erving in the NBA, George Gervin had an excellent NBA run winning four scoring titles, seven All-NBA appearances, nine All-Star appearances.
Not only were these two highly successful, but they were insanely fun to watch as they are two of the best finishers at the rim the game has possibly ever seen. In 1982, there was a chance for these two to duke it out in the NBA Finals but (SPOILER ALERT) that didn’t happen. Dr. J and the Sixers made the NBA Finals for the second time in three years while George Gervin and the Spurs were swept in the Western Conference Finals to the eventual NBA champion “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers.
1988: Isiah Thomas vs John Stockton
Of all the scenarios on this list, this is the only one that features a player that lost in the Conference Semifinals as opposed to the Conference Finals. However, given the fact that people still argue who’s the better point guard all-time between the two to this day, this was one I could not pass up. At the time, Isiah Thomas at his peak as the leader of the Bad Boy Pistons leading the team to their first ever NBA Finals. Meanwhile, John Stockton had just begun to take over the starting point guard role for the Utah Jazz. There was a chance for these two to face off in the NBA Finals but the Jazz lost in seven games in the second round against the Los Angeles Lakers. Unfortunately, as the John Stockton and the Jazz got better rising to become contenders in the Western Conference, the reign of the Bad Boy Pistons was coming to an end as well as Isiah Thomas’ career. These two facing off in the NBA Finals could have gone a long way into settling the debate of who’s better between them.
1997: Michael Jordan vs Hakeem Olajuwon
How many championships would Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls won had Jordan not retired to play baseball in 1993? Would the Houston Rockets have beaten the Chicago Bulls had Jordan stayed in the NBA? To think we could have seen two of the top three picks in the 1984 Draft face off in the NBA Finals in the peak of their careers only for one of the players to retire prematurely to go play baseball is just heartbreaking. To be fair, 1994 was not the only chance to see Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan play each other in the NBA Finals. In fact, this was one game winning shot from John Stockton in game six of the 1997 Western Conference Finals away from possibly happening. If we’re being honest, this would have been better to watch in 1997 because the Rockets would have featured Clyde Drexler and Charles Barkley (two men Michael Jordan previously beat in the NBA Finals). Just imagining Chuck and Dennis Rodman going at it in the post would be worth the price of admission all on its own. My point is, this is a matchup that would have been fun to watch whether it would have taken place in 1994 or 1997.
1998: Michael Jordan vs Kobe Bryant
Ok look, I get it, Kobe was nowhere near his peak in 1998 and probably would not have gotten much playing time had the Lakers made the Finals anyway. It’s also a possibility that the Lakers would have gotten swept had they played the Bulls in the Finals like they did in the Western Conference Finals against the Jazz. However, how awesome would it be having a picture of a young Kobe Bryant guarding Michael Jordan in his sixth and last NBA Finals in the NBA archives. The fact that Kobe would eventually go on to become one of the greatest players the NBA has ever seen is just the icing on the cake. This would not only ramp up debates of who would have been better between Jordan and Kobe had both men played each other in their prime, but it would have also heightened the debate of which duo between Shaq/Kobe and Jordan/Pippen.
2003: Jason Kidd vs Steve Nash
Jason Kidd and Steve Nash were not only two of the best point guards of the 2000s, they were two of the best point guards ever. At the time this prospective NBA Finals matchup could have happened, Jason Kidd was coming off a season in which he resurrected a New Jersey Nets (now Brooklyn Nets) franchise from a 26-win team in the 2001 season without him to a 52-win team in his first season with them in 2002 making it to their first NBA Finals poised bring them back to finish the job this time around. Meanwhile, Steve Nash was the anchor of a Dallas Mavericks team that was in the midst of their best stint in franchise history winning 50 games in their third straight season with this being their first ever 60-win season. These two had a chance to clash in the 2003 NBA Finals but it was the Mavericks who would end up losing in the Western Conference Finals against the eventual NBA champion San Antonio Spurs in six games. While Steve Nash would go on to stay in title contention in the Western Conference with the Mavs and Phoenix Suns respectively, Jason Kidd would never get as close to making the NBA Finals in the East only making it back to the Finals when he (ironically) joined the Dallas Mavericks.
2009: Kobe Bryant vs LeBron James
I mean, come on, does this one even need an explanation its Kobe and LeBron for God’s sake. Not only are these two among the greatest players in NBA history, but the debate of who’s better among both men is probably the most persistent debate in NBA history and possibly in all of sports. Both men have rabid fan bases who always find many ways to argue why one is better than the other whenever they get a chance. It’s a shame that we were so, so, so close to seeing these two face off in the NBA Finals in 2009. Unfortunately, the Cleveland Cavaliers collapsed against the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference despite winning a franchise record 66 games in the regular season and sweeping the first two rounds in the playoffs against the Pistons and Hawks respectively. The Lakers would go on to beat the Magic in that year’s NBA Finals in five games in a series that was not at all competitive. Would this have settled the debate of who’s better between the two? Probably not. Still can’t deny this would have been a must see NBA Finals had it happened.
2009: LeBron James vs Carmelo Anthony
Although this is the only matchup where neither guy appeared in the NBA Finals, there is no doubt an NBA Finals between LeBron and Carmelo would have been must-see tv. Just think of all the storylines behind this potential NBA Finals series: two of the top three draft picks in the 2003 NBA Draft, the two top small forwards in the NBA at that time, two future all-time greats, etc. What makes this matchup so special is that while LeBron would go on to win three NBA championships, this is the only time Carmelo Anthony has ever made the Conference Finals. As a matter of fact, this was the first time Melo has made it past the first round in the playoffs as he wouldn’t do it again until 2013 and hasn’t done it since. This was our best shot of getting a LeBron vs Carmelo NBA Finals matchup but as we mentioned in the last entry LeBron and the Cavs lost to the Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals while Carmelo and the Nuggets lost to the eventual NBA champion LA Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.
2013/2014: Kawhi Leonard vs Paul George
This matchup is not as much about who’s the better player rather it’s more about the What If that comes with it. Although Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are teammates now with the Los Angeles Clippers, people forget they could have been teammates much sooner. In the 2011 NBA Draft, Kawhi Leonard was drafted 15th overall by the Indiana Pacers (Paul George’s then team) only to be traded to the San Antonio Spurs for George Hill not too long after. Neither team would really suffer as a result as both became contenders in their respective conferences primed to win an NBA championship. In back-to-back years, we could have seen these two go at it in the NBA Finals both times the Indiana Pacers lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Miami Heat. Although this is more about the storyline that the matchup, this still would have been an entertaining Finals between two rising stars who would go on to become two of the best in the NBA today.