Kobe Bryant was hours away from another championship when that large, looming shadow appeared again.
Game 5 of the NBA finals arrived along with a report that the Cleveland Cavaliers, realizing they needed more help for LeBron James, had renewed talks with Phoenix on a deal for Shaquille O'Neal.
The trade for Bryant's extra large ex-teammate went through on draft day, creating the tantalizing possibility of a Kobe vs. LeBron and Shaq final, and perhaps making Cleveland the favorite to face Los Angeles for this year's championship.
Unless it's Boston.
Or maybe San Antonio stops the Lakers from even getting out of the West.
All the top contenders made big moves, and the one that gets the best return on its investment could get the biggest reward next June.
"A lot of teams in the East got better, a lot of teams in the West got better," O'Neal said. "It's going to be one of the most exciting years ever since I've been in the league."
Economic woes this year and the lure of a blockbuster free agent class next kept most teams quiet this summer. Just not those whose championship window is open.
- The Cavs want O'Neal and James to be a championship pairing like O'Neal-Bryant — without the soap opera.
- The Lakers signed Ron Artest, an upgrade in talent on the court but a wild card in the locker room.
- The Celtics inked Rasheed Wallace, hoping the temperamental forward can either fill in for or play alongside of a recovered Kevin Garnett.
- The Magic traded for Vince Carter, believing he can replace what they lost with the departure of Hedo Turkoglu.
- The Spurs acquired Richard Jefferson, giving them some much-needed athleticism on the wing to play with their trio of stars.
Already among the best, those teams all could be even better.
"I think what happens is those teams, actually they were favored before the trades were made, and they became stronger," Boston coach Doc Rivers said.
And least one team may have needed to. James is the headline name in that free agent class next summer, which could also include Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire, Yao Ming, Dirk Nowitzki and Joe Johnson.
Teams are lining up for a chance to be spenders — though a potential significant drop in the salary cap could hamper some plans. The Cavs don't want to risk losing their MVP from down the road in Akron, so they've continued trying to strengthen a team that had the league's best record last season before getting knocked off by the Magic in the conference finals.
Orlando also was busy, realizing it needed something more to finish the job this season.
"Our goal is not just to get back to the finals. We want to win championships. That's it. Championships are what matter, and we want to win a championship now," Magic general manager Otis Smith said. "The pieces we added were the pieces we thought we needed to win a championship. We're not content with just getting back to the finals. That's why we made the moves we made."
The Oct. 27 opening night features three of the contenders. The Celtics visit the Cavs in the first game of the season, an early chance to gauge Garnett's health after knee pain shut him down late last season, wrecking Boston's chance for a repeat. The Lakers raise their championship banner later that evening when they face the Clippers, featuring No. 1 draft pick Blake Griffin.
Those games could be officiated by replacement referees. The NBA has locked out its regular staff during a labor dispute and seems ready to open a season with backups for the first time since 1995.
Other difficulties remain. The economic downturn hit some markets hard and the league is prepared for perhaps a 5 percent decrease in revenues this season. The salary cap dropped this offseason for only the second time and the NBA has warned teams of another decline next summer, a potential damaging blow for teams like New York, Miami and New Jersey, who are hoping to rebuild through free agency and may find they have less money to do it.
But that's for later. For now, the game itself will provide a nice distraction.
"The game is what brought us here. It's always about the game and everything else we do is about making the stage or the presentation of the game even stronger, and the game itself is in the best shape that it's ever been in," commissioner David Stern said. "Our young stars, our future Hall of Famers, our rookies, our international talent pool, have made this a new golden age for the NBA."
Bryant sits at the top of it. James took the MVP award that Bryant won a year earlier, but the postseason belonged to the Lakers star and his teammates.
And they seem in great shape to make a run at a repeat. No team has won back-to-back since the Bryant-O'Neal Lakers from 2000-02, but by adding Artest and keeping sixth man Lamar Odom, Los Angeles might be better prepared than any team since — especially with Bryant saying he feels healthier after a summer off following two straight offseasons playing for the United States.
"We'll just be ready to go. We understand the challenge of winning another one," Bryant said. "We have the chance here, we have the talent to win another one. If we don't, it's because of our lack of focus."
O'Neal would love to be the one to prevent a repeat, and thinks he can. He's already called the Cavaliers "probably the best team I've ever played on, on paper anyway" — which would be quite a feat, since he's played on four champions.
"On paper, we have 1 through 15 covered. That never really matters. You still have 82 games to play and the postseason to play," O'Neal said. "Whichever team is playing at the highest level, has all their guys healthy and has a little luck on their side is the team that makes it all the way. Hopefully that's us."