In 2019, LeBron James missed the NBA Finals for the first time in nine years. There were whispers that Father Time was whittling down his abilities, that he was past his prime.
LeBron clearly listened to the critics and bristled. His agent and close friend Rich Paul orchestrated a massive trade for the Los Angeles Lakers, recruiting superstar forward Anthony Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans. With this, the Lakers had two of the league’s top five players.
The rest of the roster was fitted with high-IQ role-players — shooting guard Danny Green and point guard Rajon Rondo — and centres — Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee — who wanted to prove their relevance in a league tending towards ‘small ball’.
Bolstered by a new, defensive-minded head coach in Frank Vogel, the Lakers ran up the best record in the competitive Western Conference.
Their stars revved up the intensity in the Playoffs — LeBron continuing to dominate the paint and dissect the defence with incisive passing, and Davis proving a match-up nightmare for everyone with his near-flawless inside and outside game.
Even the giant-killing Denver Nuggets couldn’t really challenge the Lakers in the Western Conference finals. So, on paper, the Lakers should have it easy in the NBA Finals (LeBron’s 10th) and get The King his fourth ring.
Except, the Miami Heat, as its All-NBA forward Jimmy Butler asserted, is no underdog. The well-conditioned team might not match the Lakers’ star power but has impressive depth.
Coach Erik Spoelstra’s team has a nice combination of trigger-happy shooters in forward Duncan Robinson and fearless rookie Tyler Herro. It also has a unique centre in hard-working Bam Adebayo, who can make plays from the post, rim-run, defend five positions and block shots, while playing within the intricate Heat system.
Veteran guard Goran Dragic probes defences with ease and still retains a strong passing and shooting ability at age 34, while Andre Iguodala and forward Jae Crowder shore up the defensive end. Butler is the lynchpin, his grit exemplifying the Heat’s determined disposition on the court.
The Lakers will have to summon the best of their role players, for Spoelstra, who coached LeBron during his strong stint with the Heat, will devise ways to constrain him — pack the paint and will him to shoot or, better still, pass.
Davis is the Lakers’ X-factor and will probably be the difference for the club that has won 16 NBA titles so far.