All eyes on LeBron James ahead of 2020 NBA Finals
Three-time champ James goes up against his old team, the Miami Heat, with the LA Lakers seeking a poignant and historic triumph months after the death of Kobe Bryant.
Eight months after the tragic passing of their hero Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers are back in the NBA Finals.
He faces one of his previous franchises, the Miami Heat, in the Finals starting Wednesday (30 September).
So begins the conclusion to this unique NBA campaign in the bubble in Orlando, Florida where the remaining teams have been for the last two months.
Why LeBron matters so much for Miami
LeBron James is the clear focal point for these 2020 NBA Finals.
After seven seasons at the Cleveland Cavaliers, and two consecutive NBA MVP awards, James joined the Miami Heat in 2010.
Such was the attention surrounding where the star forward might go, he announced 'The Decision' in a live television special on ESPN.
They won two NBA Championships in that spell, beating the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games in 2012 before retaining the title with a Game 7 victory over the San Antonio Spurs.
James then returned to Cleveland, leading them to four consecutive Eastern Conference titles having guided them to their first back in 2007.
They met the Golden State Warriors in four straight Finals with the Cavs claiming their sole championship in 2016.
LeBron seeking history for the Lakers
In 2018, James moved to the LA Lakers.
A groin injury sustained during the win over the Warriors on Christmas Day saw James miss the next 17 games and the Lakers slide out of playoff contention.
It was the first time he had failed to make the post-season since 2005.
But the hiring of coach Frank Vogel and acquisition of Anthony Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans have been pivotal in taking the Lakers from 37-45 in 2019 to a Western Conference-leading 52-19 this term.
They have continued that form into the playoffs taking five games to dispatch Portland, Houston, and then Denver in the West Finals.
Now James' former coach Spoelstra stands between him and a fourth NBA title.
Ahead of the series, the two have spoken warmly of each other despite reports of bitterness concerning James' departure from the Heat in 2014.
Speaking to USA Today, James said facing his former team has made no difference to his motivation ahead of the Finals.
"Absolutely not. It's no extra meaning to winning a championship, no matter who you're playing against. It's already hard enough to even reach the Finals, to be in this position. If you're able to become victorious out of the Finals, it doesn't matter who it's against. I'm just happy that I'm here with the opportunity."
He also says Spoelstra did not get the respect he deserved for leading the Heat to two NBA titles.
James added, "He prepares his team every single night. If you watch the Miami Heat, no matter who's on the floor, they're going to play Heat culture. They're going to play hard. They're going to play together."
Spoelstra has nothing but admiration for James who will be playing in his 10th NBA Finals and his ninth in 10 years.
He said, "It is a true testament to his greatness to be able to sustain this type of success year in, year out. Different uniforms. New players and new teams going after him. It's a real testament to that commitment."
James has also indicated that he wants to play at next year's postponed Tokyo Olympic Games.
He missed Rio 2016 citing fatigue after leading Cleveland to the NBA title.
USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo told BasketballNews.com last week, "I was told he wants to plan on being able to play, but no one can totally commit under these circumstances."
With the next NBA season set to start in January, there is a potential clash with the Games which begin next July.
That could affect several national teams as well as USA head coach Gregg Popovich who remains in charge of the San Antonio Spurs.
Carmelo Anthony became the first man to win three Olympic basketball golds at Rio 2016.
James, who was on gold-medal winning teams with Anthony and Kobe Bryant at Beijing and London, could emulate him in Tokyo.
Were the Lakers to emerge victorious from the NBA Finals, they would tie the Boston Celtics on a record 17 NBA Championships triumphs.
It would be all the more poignant after Bryant, who led the Lakers to their last title in 2010, was killed in a helicopter crash in January.
James spoke this week about his regret that the pair never got to meet up after his arrival in Los Angeles due to their busy schedules.
He told Yahoo Sports, "Of course, you think there’s going to be time for us to get together and I understand that there are regrets in life, but I definitely wish I had that moment with him.
"When I decided to come here, he sent me a text right away and said, ‘Welcome, brother. Welcome to the family.’ That was a special moment because at the time, Laker faithful wasn’t [fully in on me]. So to hear from him and get his stamp of approval, it meant a lot. I don’t ever question myself, but when it’s coming from Kobe, it definitely meant a lot."
Barista Butler brings the Heat
The Lakers have long been thought of as championship contenders this year and go into their series with the Heat as strong favourites.
But Miami have more than proved themselves worthy of their place in the Finals, sweeping Indiana before beating Milwaukee in five games and then defeating Boston 4-2 to win the Eastern Conference title.
Despite having something of an abrasive reputation, Rio 2016 gold medallist Jimmy Butler has been one of the stars of their run to the Finals.
A budding barista, the guard says he has "everything" when it comes to coffee-making equipment in his room and charges US $20 a cup.
He told ESPN, "You can't get coffee nowhere here. So I might bump it up to 30 bucks, it just depends. People here can afford it!"
Butler has embraced his role as team leader and seems to be getting hold of things one would not expect in the bubble.
As well as coffee beans, "Jimmy Buckets" has been taking some other special deliveries.
First was team-mate Tyler Herro's high school jersey.
Then he managed to get head coach Erik Spoelstra's college vest.
While Butler has been doing his best to keep morale high in the camp, underneath the cheeky exterior beats the heart of a true competitor.
Spoelstra said of Butler, "He embodies professionalism, work, accountability, of being reliable. And he leads. He doesn't have to make any apologies for who he is. We love him for who he is and what he's all about.
"Anyone in the league that knows basketball knows he impacts winning. It's not about stats or anything else."
"He's set the tone all season long. Jimmy can't do anything without competing fiercely and doing whatever it takes to win." - Erik Spoelstra on Jimmy Butler
Bam Adebayo will carry much of the Heat's hopes on his sizeable shoulders after his first All-Star appearance this year.
The centre was on the shortlist for the USA Olympic team before Tokyo 2020 was postponed.
Also vital to the Heat is Andre Iguodala who will appear in his sixth consecutive NBA Finals, his previous five being with the Golden State Warriors.
He was NBA Finals MVP in his first back in 2015 against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
That award was largely down to him doing an exceptional job guarding his London 2012 team-mate.
This will be the fifth time he and James have met in the NBA Finals, and their duel could have a big bearing on the destination of the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy.
Davis makes the difference
Anthony Davis has had a huge impact since his arrival at the Lakers from the New Orleans Pelicans last year.
The Chicago native led the Kentucky Wildcats to the NCAA title in 2012 before being picked first overall by New Orleans (then known as the Hornets) in the NBA Draft.
He was then selected for the USA Olympic team, playing alongside James as they claimed back-to-back gold medals in London.
Three times the NBA blocks leader, 27-year-old Davis - the proud bearer of basketball's most famous 'Unibrow' - is as potent in attack as he is destructive in defence.
But the Pelicans reached the playoffs just twice in his seven years there, falling to the Golden State Warriors both times.
Within a week of making his debut for his new team, he scored 40 points and grabbed 20 rebounds against the Memphis Grizzlies making him the first Laker to achieve that feat since Shaquille O'Neal in 2003.
In Davis and James, the Lakers have the two best players in the Finals and arguably two of the best in the entire league.
With Beijing 2008 gold medallist Dwight Howard also in the team and seeking his first NBA ring, Hollywood's favourites have the chance to clinch their first title since 2010.
Plus they have Dion Waiters who is guaranteed a ring whatever happens.
The guard started the season in Miami but played just three games before being traded in February to the Memphis Grizzlies who waived him days later.
He then signed with the Lakers at the start of March, making his debut in the Orlando bubble at the end of July.