Has time come for Kobe-LeBron final?
LeBron James against Kobe Bryant, the dream NBA Finals that's never become a reality.
Maybe this is the year.
James' Miami Heat are on top of the league and got even stronger this summer, but nobody loaded up like the Lakers, who acquired Dwight Howard and Steve Nash.
James or Bryant has played in the last six NBA Finals. Now, with more help than either has ever had, they're facing title expectations once again — and a sense they're due for that long-awaited showdown with each other in June.
"If we see that matchup, Kobe vs. LeBron, I think it would break all the records," Lakers Hall of Famer and ESPN analyst Magic Johnson said. "I think the viewership would be off the charts."
It's no guarantee, of course. The Oklahoma City Thunder might still be best in the West, making a James-Kevin Durant rematch in the finals just as likely as James-Bryant. Or maybe the Boston Celtics, who came so close to knocking out the Heat last year, can finish the job this time even after Ray Allen ditched them to join James on South Beach.
But even the guys chasing the King concede how difficult it will be to dethrone him.
"I think everyone knew if he won one that it's going to be hard for everybody. ... I'm hoping there's enough good teams, and we can be one of them, that we can knock him off," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said.
"The good news is he's the clear target. We know who we're going after, there's no doubt about that. But he's awful good. He's a good guy, he's great for the league and he's a great player. That's good for everything. But now let's beat him."
The Celtics get the first shot, visiting the Heat in Tuesday's season opener. The Lakers open later that night against Dallas, and for a change all eyes at Staples Center won't be only on Bryant.
The Lakers acquired the NBA's best big man in Howard after surprisingly adding Nash, long one of the league's best point guards, earlier in the summer. Just like that, a team that couldn't get out of the second round the last two years put itself right back in the hunt for what would be Bryant's sixth championship.
"We're all determined to get there for sure," Bryant said. "The hunger from Dwight and Nash can definitely, definitely help our energy."
Howard's departure from Orlando was lengthy and messy, finally completed in August. James and Bryant were in London preparing to play in the Olympic semifinals on the day the trade was completed, and news of the deal overshadowed their victory en route to the Americans' second straight gold medal two days later.
For James, the gold was the completion of one of basketball's greatest individual seasons. He joined Michael Jordan in 1992 as the only players to win the NBA championship, the Olympic gold medal, and the regular season and finals MVP awards in the same season.
Once Jordan got to the top, he was never really knocked from it, save for one partial season after he returned from playing baseball during his first retirement. James, now considered the league's best player, has similar designs on a lengthy run.
"In a sport like this, I think the ultimate goal and the only goal is to win," James said. "You prepare to win. It doesn't happen all the time. Of course not. But that should be your mindset. Prepare your mind each and every night to win."
Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh should be back at full strength after both were slowed by injuries in the playoffs, and the Big Three is now surrounded by Allen, the league's career leader in 3-pointers, and Rashard Lewis.
League executives are convinced of a trip back to the finals, with 96.7 percent of responses in NBA.com's GM survey picking the Heat to win the Eastern Conference. Miami got 70 percent of the vote to repeat as champion, and James was the choice of two-thirds of the responders to add another MVP award to his collection.
Things probably won't be quite as easy for the Lakers, since the Thunder should be better with their young core another year older — if they keep it together. Sixth Man of the Year James Harden could be a free agent after next season, and the small-market Thunder will have to decide if they can commit more dollars after already giving big contracts to Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka.
"It's a new season," said Durant, the league's three-time scoring champion. "Last year is over with. We've got to start over from day one and see where we're at."
San Antonio has had the West's best record in the regular season each of the last two years and is still hoping for one more title in the Tim Duncan era. The Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies and Denver Nuggets could be threats out West, and don't forget that Indiana had a 2-1 lead over Miami in the second round last season.
There's a new look in New York, which is now home to the Nets but no longer to Linsanity. When the Nets host the Knicks on Nov. 1 in the first regular-season game at the Barclays Center, their $1 billion arena in Brooklyn, Jeremy Lin won't be suiting up on the other side. The Knicks decided not to match the contract last season's breakout star from Harvard signed with the Houston Rockets.
All-Star weekend, David Stern's last before retiring as commissioner in 2014, also is headed to Houston, where James was MVP of the 2006 game.
Now he wins the awards for the games that count.
He used to come up short in the postseason, a big reason the finals matchup with Bryant hasn't happened yet. His Cleveland teams had the top seed in both 2009 and '10, but were bounced by the East teams that ended up losing to the Lakers.
It's clear James has it all figured out, taking his game to another, seemingly unstoppable level when Wade and Bosh were limited last postseason. Now, when it seems he needs it least, he has his best collection of talent around him.
When he hugged the beaten Durant after the finals, it was easy to imagine them doing it again next year. Then the Lakers pushed Bryant's championship window back open with their summer haul, constructing a lineup of Bryant, Nash, Howard and Pau Gasol that could be on its way from Hollywood to the Hall of Fame — with a trip to South Beach along the way. "The Heat are the team to beat because they are the champs," said TNT's Shaquille O'Neal, who won titles with both franchises. "Kudos to Pat Riley for putting great shooters around his big man. The Lakers — on paper — are very, very talented. It's going to be a very interesting year and I wish both of those teams make the finals."