Despite the fact that neither the Los Angeles Lakers nor the Miami Heat are the No. 1 seeds in their respective conferences, both are widely considered as the favorites to be represented in the NBA Finals.
After dispatching the Philadelphia 76ers and New Orleans Hornets in the first round, respectively, both teams have their sights set on an NBA championship.
Kobe Bryant has five titles to his name, and LeBron James has yet to win his first. But to be fair, Bryant has been surrounded by elite talent for each of those five championship seasons while James has always been undermanned in terms of the talent level of his teammates.
This year, the playing field is far more balanced.
This slideshow breaks down the title hopes for both the Lakers and Heat.
What makes Michael Jordan the greatest player in the history of the NBA?
Is it his five Most Valuable Player trophies? His fourteen All-Star appearances? The 10 times he was honored as an All-NBA first-team performer? His inclusion on the NBA's 50th Anniversary All-Time team?
All of those add to his legacy, but the main reason Michael Jordan is universally regarded as the premier player in NBA history is the six NBA championships.
Unless you've been living under a rock for the past several years, you know Kobe Bryant has five NBA titles to his credit.
Kobe Bryant has been advertised as the modern-day MJ for a good deal of his career. In securing his sixth ring, Kobe would be deserving of that lofty comparison.
LeBron James has been a lightning rod for attention from the moment he first set foot on an NBA court in October 2003.
After the entire 'Decision' spectacle and the charades he played throughout the free-agency process, LeBron has become a lightning rod for hatred.
Never before has a star taken as quick a turn from beloved to hated quite like LeBron has done this year.
His critics have a great deal of fodder used to frustrate LeBron, including the fact that he has never beaten the Celtics, he has yet to win an NBA title, he had to join Dwyane Wade's team in an attempt to get said title, and the recurring theory that he quit on the Cavaliers last year sometime in the middle of their heated series against the Celtics.
During the offseason, LeBron vowed he would remember what each and every one of his critics said about him.
He's well aware this is the time to make them eat their words.
When the Los Angeles Lakers triumphed over the Orlando Magic in the 2009 NBA Finals, Phil Jackson surpassed the legendary Red Auerbach with his 10th championship victory as a head coach.
Last year's gritty NBA Finals win over the Boston Celtics officially gave the Zen Master more rings than fingers.
After announcing that this will be his final season at the helm, the Lakers would like nothing more than to 'win one for the Gipper.'
That would send Phil Jackson into a relaxing retirement at his Montana ranch, with an astounding 12 NBA titles to his credit.
Typically when people talk about the Miami Heat, they are referred to as the Big Three.
But opposing players and coaches know it's more like the Gigantic Two.
In Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, the Miami Heat feature two of the three best basketball players on planet Earth in their starting lineup.
Has there ever been as talented a duo in their prime as Wade and James?
Jordan and Pippen? Bird and McHale? Kareem and Magic? Shaq and Kobe? Stockton and Malone? Olajuwon and Drexler?
Maybe, or maybe not.
But in the league today, no team can boast a dynamic duo like the Miami Heat have at their disposal.
The Lakers had a pedestrian regular season by their otherworldly standards, winning 57 games and earning the No. 2 seed in the playoffs.
After a six-game dismissal of the New Orleans Hornets, and watching the No. 1-seed San Antonio Spurs get eliminated, the Lakers path to the NBA Finals just got a lot easier.
The West will go through Los Angeles, and the biggest threats to the Lakers hopes of returning to the NBA Finals for a fourth-consecutive season are the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder and the perpetually-disappointing Dallas Mavericks.
So while the East figures to be a slug fest between three major heavyweights in Chicago, Boston and Miami, the Lakers must only fend off a relatively soft field of teams that on paper they should beat handily.
If you had the chance to place a wager on which team would win the title, where would you put your money?
Chicago? The Bulls have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs and Finals, they feature the No. 1 scoring defense in the NBA and boast the services of the 2010-11 MVP in Derrick Rose. But they are short on experience, don't offer much by way of a bona fide bench, and they are severely lacking at the shooting guard position offensively.
Boston? The Celtics are hungry for redemption after last year's Finals loss, but they quite honestly have not been nearly as intense defensively since Kendrick Perkins' departure. There are major question marks at center, where 39-year-old Shaquille O'Neal has essentially been out for three months and Jermaine O'Neal is a ticking time bomb in terms of injury.
Oklahoma City? The Thunder dispatched the Nuggets, a team that was playing the best basketball in the league just prior to the playoffs, in just five games. That earned them their first playoff series victory in franchise history (I'm sorry, I refuse to include the Supersonics history. Leave the people of Seattle with their own memories). But the youngest team remaining in the playoffs is very short on a key component: experience. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook form a frightening tandem, and this club will be in the conversation for title contention for the forseeable future, but that lack of experience is a major concern.
Dallas? Like clockwork, the Mavericks again won 50 games and earned a playoff berth. But fans and observers alike tend to remember things like a No. 1 seed getting ousted by a No. 8 seed in the first round, or blowing a 2-0 series lead after being up 13 in Game 3 with six minutes left against Miami in the NBA Finals, and a couple more first-round exits in recent memory. I'll pass, thank you.
Los Angeles? Not a lot to not like. Championship pedigree. The best closer in the league. The best coach in league history. The best frontcourt in the league. Sixth Man of the Year. A few factors working against them are the fact that with all these deep journeys into the playoffs, the Lakers have played more than 300 games in the past three years. The other is that they are one of the oldest teams in the league, and they obviously aren't getting any younger.
Miami? The Heat have arguably the most talented roster in the league. They have the best player in the league, and the third (or second) best player in the league playing right next to him. They have the No. 2 scoring defense in the league. A few concerns include their gaping hole at center, the fact that Mike Bibby can't defend a koi pond, and the failures during the regular season in finishing close games.
I would put my proverbial money on Miami. The Celtics are going to prove to be a very tough out, eliminating Derrick Rose and his top seed Chicago Bulls will be a monumental task, and standing in the way of Kobe Bryant to keep him from earning his sixth NBA championship is going to be unbelievably difficult.
But I believe the Heat have many scores to settle. Who else has two elite playmakers to score and set up others? LeBron James wants to turn giant zero in his championships column into a one, Dwyane Wade wants to add to his legacy by securing his second NBA title, Chris Bosh wants to silence the doubters who think of him as soft, just as Pau Gasol has done the past two seasons.
The Heat is on.