As a Colorado native and a die-hard Nuggets fan, I'm predisposed to hate Kobe Bryant. But that doesn't mean I don't respect the hell out of his game and appreciate his place in NBA lore...which might jump up a notch if the Lakers beat the Celtics in the 2010 NBA Finals.
Just like it wasn't Michael Jordan's fault that he ducked Hakeem Olajuwon's Rockets en route to six NBA championships, it's not Kobe Bryant's fault that his four championship rings have come at the expense of fairly weak Eastern Conference competition. After all, neither MJ nor Kobe - control freaks they may be - can control who their NBA Finals competition is.
For his first NBA title, Kobe bested an Indiana Pacers squad on the decline of a solid era (after being up three games to one, that six-game series was never in doubt). For his second, Kobe took down Allen Iverson's one-man Philadelphia show in five games. His third NBA championship came after beating the Jason Kidd-led New Jersey Nets in a four-game snoozer sweep. And number four came last summer when Kobe's Lakers defeated Dwight Howard's inexperienced Magic team in five games, all of which lacked drama except Game 4.
Unlike MJ, however, Kobe has lost two NBA Finals. The first to a feisty, balanced and deep Detroit Pistons team that would repeat as Eastern Conference champs the following season, extending the multi-champion San Antonio Spurs to seven games. And in 2008 Kobe found defeat the second time at the hands of the Celtics, his opponent this Thursday.
Fair or not, if Kobe wants to enter the territory of "His Airness", he has to beat a great team in June...and that hasn't happened yet during his so-far brilliant career. Should his Lakers beat the Celtics in this year's NBA Finals, basketball historians can't hang that criticism on Kobe any longer.
There's no shame in losing NBA Finals. Former Lakers great Magic Johnson lost four, former Celtics great Larry Bird lost two and 76ers legend Julius Erving lost in three NBA Finals. But Magic defeated Dr. J's 76ers twice, Bird's Celtics twice and Isiah Thomas's Pistons once. All of those opponents were NBA champions themselves. Bird and Dr. J defeated Magic's Lakers once apiece (although it should be noted that Dr. J was unable to knock out the Lakers until Moses Malone came on board) and Tim Duncan's Spurs knocked out those champion Pistons as mentioned above.
For the first time in his seven (seven!) NBA Finals appearances, Kobe Bryant has the opportunity to do something he's never done: defeat a fellow NBA champion. And after seeing the Celtics take down LeBron James's Cavaliers and Dwight Howard's Magic this year, coupled with their near-defeat of Howard's Magic last year sans Kevin Garnett, it's fair to speculate that this Celtics team - like their Lakers counterparts - could be playing in their third-straight NBA Finals this June had KG been healthy last year. In other words, this is a damn, damn, damn good Celtics squad. Perhaps one for the ages.
In my opinion, four rings and seven NBA Finals appearances has already cemented Kobe as the second-best shooting guard of all time (behind the legendary MJ). And a victory over the Celtics this year won't - again, in my opinion - vault him into the MJ category. Any debate involving MJ must note that he never lost in an NBA Finals and, of course, has six rings. But should Kobe beat the Celtics this year and add a sixth ring to his treasure chest down the road, the conversation admittedly gets a heck of a lot more interesting.
That said, you won't catch me rooting for the Lakers to defeat Boston. After all, I'm predisposed not to.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images/NBAE: Noah Graham