It sounds fair enough: LeBron James for Kobe Bryant. What’s not to like?
In 2007, Kobe was 28 years old and had just dropped 32 points per game on helpless defenders. LeBron was 22 and just finished his one-man show in the playoffs, leading a talent-starved Cavs roster to the Finals.
Forget the fact that LeBron was six years younger and was the franchise’s hometown hero (though those two reasons were probably enough for the Cavs to balk at the deal.) LeBron’s ability to do more with less could not be ignored.
LeBron led that Cavs team in scoring (27.3 per game), assists (6.7) and steals (1.6) while finishing third in rebounds (6.7). He was asked to do virtually everything on a roster that lacked another offensive weapon.
It wasn’t like Kobe, who had championship three rings at the time, was swimming in talent on his roster either (Luke Walton was the third-leading scorer!) But the one thing the Mamba did have was Lamar Odom, who averaged 16 points, 10 rebounds and five assists that season. Odom was easily better than any option LeBron had on his team. Odom’s versatility and ability to handle the ball provided Kobe with a true No. 2 option.
The Cavs’ second-leading scorer was Larry Hughes at 15 points per game. Hughes played mostly shooting guard, leaving LeBron to shoulder most of the ball-handling duties.
LeBron’s ability to carry this team was on full display against the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals. He scored 48 points, including 29 of the Cavs’ final 30, against one of the best defensive teams at the time despite the Pistons knowing he was really the only real scoring option. But LeBron still showed trust in that roster, averaging eight assists during that run playoff run.
Kobe was no joke either in the 2007 playoffs. Despite the Lakers losing 4-1 to the Phoenix Suns in the first round, the Mamba averaged 33 points. It just wasn’t enough against a Suns team that won 61 games that season.
Kobe’s ability to score is undeniable, especially at that point in his career. He was at the height of his powers, virtually unstoppable one on one. But he was never known — even now at the end of his career — as a player who would get his teammates involved offensively. Would he have shown the same trust LeBron did in that Cavs roster? Doubtful at best.
But remember, Kobe was fuming because he wanted to win. Despite the Cavs reaching the Finals in 2007, Kobe, who had a no-trade clause, would have seen the flaws in their roster and balked at the move despite facing an easier path to the Finals in the East.
But forget the on-court debate. How would Kobe react playing in Cleveland? The Cavs had to have known that if Kobe wasn’t happy playing in Tinseltown with the Lakers, how could it ever have worked out in Cleveland?
"I never would’ve approved it. Never. The trade to go to Cleveland? Never," Bryant told ESPN’s Baxter Holmes this week. "That wasn’t one of the teams that was on my list. It was Chicago, San Antonio [or] Phoenix."
In the end, the Cavs made the right decision, though really there wasn’t any real decision to make. LeBron’s importance to that franchise — that city — meant he was untouchable in a way that many NBA stars aren’t. No knock on Kobe, but for the Cavs, this one was a no-brainer.