The Lakers and Suns are tied at 37-17 atop the Pacific Division with a third of the regular season left to play.
Both teams made crucial acquisitions before today's trade deadline: the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol from Memphis, while Phoenix snatched up Shaquille O'Neal from the woeful Miami Heat.
After watching the teams battle in a thriller last night (LA prevailed 130-124), here are five reasons I think the Lakers will outlast the Suns for the Pacific crown.
1. With nine functioning fingers, Kobe Bryant is still the best player in the NBA.
Much has been made of Bryant's injured pinkie, and I doubt you'll see him play without that digit taped anytime soon. The sky-is-falling tone of ESPN commentators last week was definitely premature: Kobe's averaging a healthy 32+ points in his last six games (including a 41-point outburst against rival Phoenix last night).
His shooting stroke looks okay, his defense is as good as it's ever been, and he is enjoying playing basketball for a contender again.
2. Pau Gasol is a perfect fit in purple and gold.
There wasn't much of a doubt that Gasol would score for the Lakers, and he's held up that end of the bargain (22 PPG since joining the club).
Yet, even the most optimistic of Lakers fans couldn't have dreamed how quickly Kobe and Pau would adapt to each other's styles. Pick and roll, slipping a screen, alley-oops, dump-offs in the lane...Gasol has made himself available to No. 24 and the other Laker ball handlers...and the team's offense is clicking as a result.
3. Odom's role suits him again.
Lamar Odom, "Mr. Pass-First", no longer will be relied on as the Lakers No. 2 scorer. This will free him up to be a playmaker for the rest of the lineup, as well as take advantage of the mismatches he is usually presented with (blowing by monstrous 4-men, posting up under-sized 3s, etc.)
Within two weeks of the Gasol trade, LO posted his first triple-double of the season. He's averaging 13 points and 10 boards now, and those numbers should even improve over the next two months.
4. Shooters abound.
Because so much of the Lakers' offense has run through Kobe over the past few seasons, teams have been able to slow down LA by gang-defending No. 24. Bryant's options were few: dump a pass to a big guy and hope he could finish (failure in this area is one of the reasons Kwame Brown is now employed by Memphis)...or kick to a wide-open shooter and pray he could take advantage of the good look (LA didn't enjoy much success in this area either).
We've already addressed the fact that the "big guy" option has been upgraded: Gasol (and young star-in-waiting Andrew Bynum when he returns) both have great hands and are guaranteed to improve Kobe's assist totals.
The perimeter shooter option is also looking more and more promising. The 2006-07 Lakers were dependent on inconsistent marksmen like Smush Parker and Maurice Evans, while this year's edition features returning veteran Derek Fisher (41% 3PT), finally-healthy sharpshooter Vladimir Radmanovic (41.5%), and much improved young guards Jordan Farmar (36.1%) and Sasha Vujacic (42.5%)
5. The depth is outstanding.
When the Lakers were winning titles at the beginning of the decade, depth was a critical factor. Role players like Rick Fox, Devean George, Robert Horry, and Derek Fisher came and went from the starting lineup depending on what other veterans were added (see Ron Harper, AC Green, Horace Grant, Gary Payton, Karl Malone, etc.)
That trend is showing up again in 2008, as part-time starters Luke Walton, Ronny Turiaf, Jordan Farmar, and Trevor Ariza provide spark off the bench against opponents' second units. Once Bynum is 100 percent again, Radmanovic will probably join the ranks of high-powered substitutes.
With a potential starting five of Bynum, Gasol, Odom, Bryant, and Fisher, the Lakers can play with anybody. With an experienced and battle-tested second unit, they should have the weapons they need to get back to the top of the NBA.
28 games to play...and yes, the Lakers and Suns are tied for now, but LA has the edge (as well as the tiebreaker, if needed) and most likely will prevail.
Kobe, aren't you glad you're still a Laker?