Bryant, Howard the key
Let's start by saying this: We won't see it this year.
The Lakers could rally from their 17-21 start to the season to make the playoffs, but they aren't getting through Oklahoma City if the Thunder stay healthy, not to mention the difficulty the Lakers would have disposing of deep and talented teams like San Antonio, Memphis or the Clippers in a seven-game series.
Does that mean it will never happen? No.
It's an unlikely scenario, but bear with me. Here's what would have to happen:
The Lakers would have to mount that improbable comeback to make the playoffs and maybe even put together some sort of run in the postseason to feel good about where they finished this season. If that happens, the chances of Dwight Howard re-signing in L.A. should improve dramatically and really, the only way Kobe Bryant gets the chance to play in the Finals again is with the help of Howard as a teammate.
On the other side of the matchup, the Heat will have to be poised to potentially make a fourth straight trip to the Finals -- something the Lakers failed to do in Phil Jackson's last season as the coach -- and to do that they'll need LeBron James to stay his dominant self, which shouldn't be a problem. Perhaps more important, they'll need Dwyane Wade to hold off Father Time just enough to continue to be a No. 2 option that gives teams fits and not a player who coach Erik Spoelstra sees fit to bench in the fourth quarter of a game, as he did during a recent Miami loss to Utah.
Basically what I'm saying is, next season is the last chance. After that, there are too many variables for both teams -- Will Kobe sign an extension in L.A. or retire? Will LeBron stay in Miami or explore free agency in 2014? Will guys like Wade, Ray Allen, Bryant, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace continue to be effective championship-caliber players as time goes on?
Odds are the Kobe/LeBron Finals showdown never happens, but there is a slight possibility.
Maybe we'll all be better off if it doesn't happen, however. The 1991 Finals between Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson was a dream matchup in terms of the star power of those two names, but it wasn't a fair fight. Johnson was 31 years old and in his 12th season, Jordan was 27 and in his seventh season, and the Bulls beat the Lakers 4-1. If the Lakers meet the Heat next year, Bryant will be 35 and in his 18th season; James will be 29 and in his 11th.
All of this is to say, enjoy the two regular-season matchups this season between Kobe and LeBron. They're both still playing at an extremely high level, and they'll likely treat those games like a championship is on the line anyway.
Window has closed
I always figured we'd see a Kobe-LeBron finals at least once before Kobe Bryant retired. There was a time where I actually thought we'd see it a few times when LeBron James went to Miami after Bryant led the Lakers to back-to-back titles in 2010.
Nike was so sure the two would face off in 2010, before James took his talents to South Beach, that they had a season-long campaign featuring Kobe and LeBron puppets.
It will forever go down as basketball's version of Dan and Dave, the American decathlon superstars (Dan O'Brien and Dave Johnson) who were supposed to square off in the 1992 Olympics -- a matchup that never materialized.
Looking at the NBA landscape now and where Bryant and James are respectively in their careers, I don't think we'll ever get that dream Kobe-LeBron finals matchup.
Bryant's Lakers are below .500 and simply trying to make the playoffs. Meanwhile, James' Heat are trying to stay motivated during a full 82-game NBA season after winning the championship last season. The chances of the Lakers even winning a playoff series seem slim, and the chances of the Heat going back to the NBA Finals for a third straight year is no slam dunk either.
Bryant and James have been a part of the past six NBA Finals but have never met. Bryant faced the Boston Celtics twice and the Orlando Magic once while James played the San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder. Chances are LeBron will continue that run and make it seven straight years when he faces the Thunder, Spurs or maybe even the Los Angeles Clippers in June.
Sadly, however, it will also continue a seven-year run where we will not have a Kobe-LeBron Finals, and the way things look now, it doesn't look like we ever will.