This Sunday’s showdown between the Cleveland Cavaliers and L.A. Lakers should be savored for many reasons: the teams only meet twice a year, this may be an NBA Finals preview and the superstar matchup between LeBron James and Kobe Bryant features—to borrow the title of one of my favorite basketball articles ever—“The Best the Game Offers”; that description fit Larry Bird and Julius Erving when Tom Callahan penned those words in 1982 and it definitely applies to James and Bryant today. There are even parallels in terms of the age difference, size disparity and stylistic contrasts with those two duos; Bird and James were/are bigger and six years younger than their main rival and were/are considered to be more “pass first” oriented even though Erving and Bryant were/are underrated playmakers.
Bryant just won the Western Conference Player of the Month for January after averaging 27.2 ppg, 5.9 rpg and 7.1 apg while leading the Lakers to a 12-4 record. He had six 30 point games, two triple doubles and four consecutive games with double digit assists; James claimed Eastern Conference Player of the Month honors for January with averages of 27.5 ppg, 9.6 rpg and 8.2 apg, the first player to reach those levels in each category in the same calendar month since Bird in March 1987. James had six 30 point games and three triple doubles as the Cavs went 10-4. Most readers probably know that I give Bryant a slight edge over James due to the greater completeness of Bryant’s skill set—Bryant is shooting .349 from three point range and .860 on free throws while James is shooting just .295 and .763 respectively from those ranges; Bryant also is a much better midrange jump shooter than James—but they are both putting up mind boggling numbers this season. Even more importantly, James and Bryant embrace the challenge at the defensive end of the court and—no matter what anyone says–they have separated themselves from every other great player in the league.
Bryant and the Lakers got the best of James and the Cavs 105-88 two weeks ago in Los Angeles but—assuming that the Cavs take care of Toronto on Tuesday night—Cleveland will own a 23-0 home record when the Lakers arrive at the Q. The Cavs were without the services of Zydrunas Ilgauskas when the Lakers beat them but this time around the Lakers will be sans Andrew Bynum, who will be out for at least eight weeks after tearing the MCL in his right knee. Those injuries are yet another reminder of why we should all savor Sunday’s game: no one knows how many times James and Bryant will have the opportunity to play against each other when both players are at the height of their powers while leading championship contending squads; just five years after Callahan’s article appeared, Bird had already won his final championship and MVP and Erving had retired.