Are the Lakers for real? We're about to find out.
After a friendly schedule placed them in Staples Center for 16 of their first 20 games, the Lakers find themselves at the top of the Pacific Division – and Yahoo! Sports' rankings – with a 14-6 record. But now comes the test: Eight of their remaining 11 games in December are on the road, including a brutal six-game stretch that takes them to Miami for Christmas.
For the time being, anyway, L.A. has proven to be a top-notch team. The Lakers are deep, well-balanced, unselfish and pretty good defensively. Andrew Bynum and Kwame Brown are improving in the middle, Lamar Odom and Luke Walton are having career years, and Kobe Bryant looks like he's almost made a full recovery from knee surgery. If they prove they can win on the road consistently, they just might be what no one thought they could be: championship contenders – even without Shaquille O'Neal.
Here's a look at this week's rankings (records and statistics are through Dec. 10).
1. Los Angeles Lakers (14-6, Last ranking: 2) – The Lakers are showing their depth. Mo Evans gets 22 in Kobe's place after the sprained ankle, and L.A. beats the Hawks. Then Bryant returns and all five starters score in double figures in a win over San Antonio.
2. San Antonio Spurs (15-6, Last ranking: 4) – The Spurs beat three opponents by a combined 89 points, but then got shut down by the Lakers in L.A. Still, not a bad week.
3. Dallas Mavericks (14-6, Last ranking: 1) – Rumors of an Iverson trade can't be true, can they? Perhaps losses to Washington and Detroit will sway Mark Cuban into making a pitch for A.I., but what a risk that would be.
4. Utah Jazz (15-5, Last ranking: 3) – Slow week for the Jazz. Only two games on the docket, which they split. This week will be tougher: Four games, including dates with the Mavs and Clippers.
5. Phoenix Suns (13-6, Last ranking: 7) – Ten in a row for the smoking hot Suns. The 114 points they put up in Charlotte were the fewest they've scored in the past five games.
8. Cleveland Cavaliers (12-7, Last ranking: 10) – Second-round pick Daniel Gibson has started the last two games in the backcourt, and he's produced, shooting a combined 8-for-14 from the floor (including five three-pointers) and scoring a total of 26 points.
9. Orlando Magic (15-7, Last ranking: 5) – Dwight Howard has the potential to be unstoppable in the paint, so it was good to see him take 43 shots in his last three games. He's much too dominant to only average 10 shots a game (his season average).
10. Denver Nuggets (11-7, Last ranking: 6) – All four games are on the road this week, but fortunately for the Nuggets, they play three Atlantic Division teams.
11. Los Angeles Clippers (10-9, Last ranking: 12) – Chris Kaman is starting to show signs of life, and Elton Brand put together several great games last week. The Clippers' vaunted inside game is on the way back.
12. Minnesota Timberwolves (10-9, Last ranking: 20) – Kevin Garnett leads Minnesota to four straight wins, then makes a public plea for A.I. The problem? Wolves owner Glenn Taylor won't want to pay another guy $20 million per year, will he?
13. Chicago Bulls (10-10, Last ranking: 15) – The Bulls' seven-game winning streak was finally snapped by the Wolves, but Scott Skiles seems to have found the right rotation. Ever since Luol Deng and Andres Nocioni were put in the starting lineup together, Chicago has rolled.
14. Indiana Pacers (11-11, Last ranking: 14) – Another day at the office: Stephen Jackson is banished from the bench after a first-half altercation with Rick Carlisle in the Pacers' blowout loss to Cleveland.
15. Washington Wizards (9-11, Last ranking: 23) – Big win over Dallas might get the Wizards on track. They won three of four games last week.
16. New Orleans Hornets (9-10, Last ranking: 16) – How about the week ahead for the Hornets? Cleveland, San Antonio and Dallas. They are just trying to keep their heads above water in the deep West.
17. Miami Heat (8-11, Last ranking: 17) – Like the Counting Crows song, Miami is "Hangin' Around" until Shaq gets back.
19. Golden State Warriors (10-11, Last ranking: 11) – It took five tries, but Nellie finally gets his 1,200th win. The question is, can he keep the Warriors in the playoff hunt in the West? Six of Golden State's next eight games are on the road.
20. Sacramento Kings (9-10, Last ranking: 13) – The Joe Johnson-less Hawks were exactly what the Kings needed to break a five-game losing streak. Brad Miller is beginning to pick it up after an early season injury slowed him.
21. Atlanta Hawks (8-11, Last ranking: 18) – Joe Johnson's streak of 376 straight games played was finally snapped in Sacramento, and his absence proved how valuable he is to the Hawks. He has led or tied his team in scoring in every game he's played this year.
23. Portland Trail Blazers (8-14, Last ranking: 27) – Still waiting for Brandon Roy to return. Meanwhile, Jarrett Jack is showing why the Blazers were willing to let Sebastian Telfair go. Jack just missed a triple double in the Toronto win.
24. New Jersey Nets (7-12, Last ranking: 19) – Tough week for Lawrence Frank. He berates himself for his late-game decisions in the heartbreaking Phoenix loss, then faces more scrutiny after putting Jason Kidd on Paul Pierce (who hit the game-winning shot) in a last-second loss to Boston.
27. Boston Celtics (6-13, Last ranking: 25) – Danny Ainge announced that Doc Rivers is his coach for at least the rest of the season. The question remains: Can the young players develop?
28. Charlotte Bobcats (5-15, Last ranking: 28) – Adam Morrison was ice cold all week – 3 for 29 field goals for a total of nine points in three Bobcat losses. On the bright side, Sean May is playing the best ball of his career.
29. Memphis Grizzlies (5-15, Last ranking: 30) – The sale of the team to Brian Davis appears to be falling through. Until something happens on that front, Jerry West's hands are tied – he can't make any moves.
30. Philadelphia 76ers (5-14, Last ranking: 26) – It's all come undone in Philly. The impending Iverson trade is critical to the Sixers' future. Can they clear cap space and pick up a good young player?