As the year comes to an end with more than a third of the season complete, the Los Angeles Lakers have shown flashes of potential and played much better since the return of Pau Gasol and Steve Nash.
However, just to make the playoffs, the 15-15 Lakers will have to climb over teams like the Houston Rockets, Minnesota Timberwolves and the Portland Trail Blazers. Catching the elite Western Conference teams like Oklahoma City, San Antonio and the L.A. Clippers will be an even more difficult task.
Regardless, the Lakers will have to make the best of their situation and continue to get better heading toward the playoffs.
How they fare in these five games in January will be a good indicator of how they are progressing.
The Los Angeles Clippers' meteoric rise to the top of the Western Conference makes them a perfect foil for the Lakers.
While the Clippers continue to push the pace on offense and clamp down on defense, the Lakers have struggled attempting to do the same thing.
There is no doubt that the Clippers play Mike D'Antoni's style better than D'Antoni's team.
The Clippers are loaded with three-point shooters and big men capable of running the pick-and-roll. Furthermore, Chris Paul is a dynamic point guard who is able to run the pick-and-roll just as well, if not better than Steve Nash at this point in Nash's career.
On top of that, the Clippers have a productive bench that has been led by Jamal Crawford and a recently resurgent Lamar Odom.
Despite all of this, the Lakers do have some advantages they can exploit.
Pau Gasol is a very skilled player in the low post. Although Blake Griffin is an athletic juggernaut, Gasol's skill in the low post could frustrate the young star.
Furthermore, although D'Antoni's system works best at a very fast tempo, the Lakers do appear better on paper in a half-court set than the Clippers.
The Clippers have no real post presence while the Lakers have two players capable of scoring in the low post.
However, despite their advantage in the low post, the Lakers have been going away from the isolation post-ups for Gasol and have been focusing on pick-and-rolls, saving the post-up opportunities for Dwight Howard.
If the Lakers wish to prove that they have the potential to make some noise in the playoffs, they're going to have to carve out an identity and make an impression against the Clippers.
The San Antonio Spurs are another team that is playing the way the Los Angeles Lakers are trying to play.
With a skilled big man in the legendary Tim Duncan, the Spurs score in a variety of ways that conform to D'Antoni's ideal offense.
With an emphasis on pushing the break after every rebound, the Spurs try their best to get easy baskets and have a roster loaded with three-point shooters.
Furthermore, Duncan is a very capable pick-and-roll player, and he and Tony Parker have built a dependable rapport over the years.
With such versatility in their offense, the Spurs resemble the Phoenix Suns of old. However, they don't push the break nearly as often as the Suns did, but are very skilled in the half-court set as well.
Having lost a close game to the Spurs earlier this season, the Lakers will need to be ready for a fight against this veteran squad.
Duncan is skilled enough to neutralize an ailing Pau Gasol. Thus, Dwight Howard is going to have to dominate in the low post against lesser big men such as Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw when the Big Fundamental isn't guarding him.
Furthermore, with the Spurs' ability to play at a fast of slow pace, the Lakers will have to execute well in both sets to keep up with the Spurs.
At the peak of his career, Steve Nash struggled to contain fast point guards such as Tony Parker. At this point, Parker may have a field day against the Canadian.
Thus, Howard is going to be relied on to provide a lot of help in the paint.
There is no doubt that the Lakers are going to have their hands full. The Spurs will be one of the toughest teams they'll face this season.
Pulling out a win against these Spurs would go a long way in establishing confidence and momentum as the season rolls along.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have supplanted the Lakers in recent years as the class of the Western Conference.
Despite not having a true post presence, the Thunder have managed to score well in he half-court set as well as on the break.
Although the Thunder play their best pushing the ball and getting transition opportunities, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are two of the best at breaking down a defense.
While Westbrook has room to improve as a decision-maker, Durant has become a more well-rounded player with the departure of James Harden. He is doing his best LeBron James impersonation by involving his teammates more.
Furthermore, Durant has become the most unstoppable offensive force in the NBA. His ability to score at will makes him dangerous no matter the tempo of the game.
On top of his offensive prowess, Durant's length and athleticism on defense has made life difficult for Kobe Bryant.
The Lakers can't outrun the Thunder and can't outgun them either. Their only advantage comes in the post, where Serge Ibaka is more of a help defender than a low-post defender.
Though Kendricdk Perkins is a rugged interior force, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard will have to exercise their dominance in the paint if the Lakers hope to pull out a victory.
If the Lakers can defeat the Thunder, they can beat any other team in the conference.
If the Lakers and their fans still believe in the possibility of a championship run during the postseason, this could be a potential NBA Finals pairing.
With that being said, the Heat seem to be coasting following their championship season. Regardless, they're still the top seed in the Eastern Conference and their brand of uptempo basketball without an emphasis on traditional positions make them one of the deadliest forces in the NBA.
With LeBron James putting up his typical numbers, the addition of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis has bolstered a bench that was competent enough a year ago to win a championship.
With such a loaded roster and the ability to run almost any team out of the building on any given night, the Heat will be difficult for the Lakers to handle in transition.
It has become apparent that despite D'Antoni's implementation of his run-and-gun offense, the Lakers' roster isn't as suited to this style of play as a myriad of other teams in the league. The Miami Heat are one of those teams.
With shooters at every position, the Heat have the ideal roster for D'Antoni's system.
Thus, in order for the Lakers to win, they're going to have to execute their offense flawlessly and help each other out on defense.
Furthermore, they may have no choice but to slow down the pace to help contain James, who is the most dangerous transition player in the league.
If there is any team that the Lakers should try to run-and-gun out of the building, it's the Memphis Grizzlies.
Although they have players like Rudy Gay and Mike Conley, who are more than capable of running a transition game, they do most of their damage grinding it out in a half-court set.
With Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, the Grizzlies have a frontcourt that is able to dominate in the low post, high post and on the boards.
Furthermore, Gay is one of the most talented and versatile forwards in the league. With the ability to shoot from anywhere on the court, post up, dribble and rebound, Gay contributes to a frontcourt that doesn't seem to have any glaring weaknesses.
Neutralizing that frontcourt may be extremely hard to do, especially with Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard still recovering from lingering injuries.
In order to defeat such a team, a run-and-gun style may be required to avoid the physical demands of grinding it out with such a tough and powerful frontcourt.
With this being said, this is a game that can prove or disprove the effectiveness of D'Antoni's style.
Despite the criticisms regarding the Lakers' roster not being a good fit for D'Antoni's system, a win against the Grizzlies utilizing this style would go a long way in silencing the critics.