How do Kobe Bryant and the Lakers match up with the Heat at this point in the season?
The NBA season is a quarter of the way through, providing a pretty good sample size with which to compare the league's two most popular teams.
The Miami Heat came into the season as the NBA Champions...on paper, at least, after combining the forces of Superfriends Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh in free agency.
The Los Angeles Lakers, on the other hand, entered the 2010-2011 campaign as the actual, two-time defending champs, with the likes of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Phil Jackson looking to finish off a three-peat.
Each team has had its fair share of ups and downs so far this season, but how would they stack up against one another right now?
With their Christmas Day match-up just two weeks away, here's the first of a weekly series that will compare the two teams head-to-head throughout the season.
Lamar Odom and the Lakers have been able to get to the basket at will thus far this season.
Statistically speaking, the Lakers and the Heat are pretty evenly matched on the offensive end thus far.
LA currently ranks fourth in the league in points per game at 106.7, which puts them nearly six points per game better than Miami.
However, the Heat hold a slight advantage in field goal percentage (47.7% against 46.4%) and three-point percentage (39.1% against 38.8%).
The tipping point here is the fluidity with which the Lakers can and often do run their sets, with spot-on interior passing and crisp cuts leading to a bevy of layups and dunks.
The Heat, on the other hand, rely far more on the individual talents of their stars to get the job done.
Miami is arguably the best defensive squad in the NBA.
Defensively, the scales tilt clearly in Miami's favor.
The Heat are one of the league's elite defensive teams, limiting their opponents to 91.3 points per game (second-best in the NBA) and a stringent 42.7 percent shooting (best in the NBA). Such has boosted the team's point differential to +9.7 per game (also best in the league).
Meanwhile, the Lakers have struggled at times on defense, due in large part to the absence of Andrew Bynum.
The Purple and Gold sport the NBA's fourth-highest point differential at +7.8, but are allowing their opponents to score 98.9 points per game.
However, the higher number of points allowed may be attributed to a faster style of play, as LA's opponents, at 43.6 percent, are only shooting marginally better than Miami's but are getting nearly six shots per game more than the Heat's combatants.
Kobe Bryant is having one of the most efficient seasons of his career thus far.
The battle for the esoteric title of "best player in the world" between Kobe and LeBron has taken been an interesting argument to keep track of this season, as both are dealing with various impediments to their performance.
In LA, Kobe is still performing very well, averaging 26.4 points (second-highest in the league), 5.4 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per game despite the fact that, at the age of 32, he's in the midst of his 15th NBA season and has only missed the playoffs once.
On top of that, Bryant has ceded much of the Hollywood spotlight to Pau Gasol, who is having an incredible season in his own right.
Shift to South Beach, and LeBron, after some struggles earlier on, seems to be settling into his new situation.
James, at present, owns the NBA's eight-highest scoring average at 24.7 points per game to go along with six assists and 7.2 rebounds. However, in the context of the King, these numbers pale in comparison to what he put up during his last two MVP years in Cleveland.
All of that being said, Kobe's play this season has been slightly more impressive, as he's produced his numbers while playing about three and a half minutes per game less than LeBron has.
Pau Gasol is playing some of the best basketball of his career right now.
Sorry, Bosh fans, but Pau Gasol is winning this matchup hands down right now.
Currently at the peak of his prime, Gasol is averaging 19.8 points per game along with career-bests in rebounds (11.4 per game) and assists (4.3), all while shouldering the burden of switching between power forward and center on a possession-to-possession basis.
Simply put, Pau is the best big man in the game right now, with Amar'e Stoudemire being the only guy in his size range who comes close.
Chris Bosh, on the other hand, has yet to truly find his niche in Miami.
At present, Bosh's stats—17.7 points and 7.9 rebounds per game—are among the worst of his career and are the lowest since his second year in the league.
Interestingly enough, Dwyane Wade and Carlos Arroyo match up pretty closely with Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher, at least on paper.
Sizing up the backcourt tandems for the Lakers and the Heat is somewhat difficult to do in a fair and balanced manner.
At this point, it breaks down to Kobe against Dwyane Wade and Derek Fisher against Carlos Arroyo.
The Lakers clearly have the edge in experience, with Kobe and D-Fish having won five rings together and D-Wade being the lone champ on the perimeter for the Heat.
However, Miami's backcourt owns the advantage in youth and athleticism.
Thus far, the only responsible thing to do is call this one even.
Shannon Brown is a key cog off of the Lakers bench.
The question of depth is also something of a tricky topic to tackle at this point in time, though the Lakers would still seem to have the edge here.
Miami's bench has suffered from the loss of Udonis Haslem, a bulldog on the glass who may miss the rest of the season with a left leg injury. With Haslem out, Pat Riley went out and signed free-agent big man Erick Dampier, who provides little other than a big, warm body to throw in the game for 10 to 20 minutes per night.
Overall, the Heat are lacking talent on their bench, not to mention well-defined roles for those who are there. Only time will tell if the likes of James Jones, Mario Chalmers, Eddie House and Juwan Howard can mesh into an effective second unit.
In LA, the question isn't whether or not the bench will be good, but rather when.
The Lakers' reserves, led by the Phil Jackson-dubbed "Killer B's"—Steve Blake, Shannon Brown and Matt Barnes—have done an excellent job of providing a spark when the starters get tired and begin to lag.
Brown, in particular, has absolutely exploded this season, posting 10.8 points per game (fourth-best on the team) while shooting 48.1 percent from the field and a whopping 45.7 percent from distance.
At present, however, this group lacks size, with rookie Derrick Caracter as the only healthy big man on Phil Jackson's bench.
However, with Andrew Bynum set to return this coming week, Lamar Odom will be headed back to the pine as the Lakers' sixth man, which bodes well for all parties involved.
Phil Jackson continues to demonstrate his mastery of the coaching profession.
The coaching comparison isn't exactly a fair one either, and not because it's close.
Phil Jackson has 11 rings. Erik Spoelstra has none.
Phil Jackson is in the Basketball Hall of Fame and is one of seven coaches in NBA history with at least 1,000 victories. Erik Spoelstra just recently crossed the 100-win mark.
This season, Zen Master has done a fantastic job of working in newcomers Barnes, Blake, and Caracter and a presumably steady job of keeping his team motivated to win, even after three straight appearances in the NBA Finals.
To Spoelstra's credit, he has done an admirable job thus far dealing with the pressure of coaching three of the game's best players on the same team while getting a brand new roster to gel on the court and dodging rumors that Pat Riley is about to pull a Stan Van Gundy on him.
That being said, Jackson still wins this one, unequivocally.
Edge: Phil Jackson
Chris Bosh and the Heat have struggled to live up to their lofty preseason hype.
Both teams have spent the season under enormous pressure to not just win, but win convincingly.
Under those circumstances, both have delivered similar records thus far, with the Lakers currently at 16-7 and the Heat at 17-8.
Neither team has played significantly more road games than the other, so that point is rendered moot for now.
When it comes to the competition, the Heat are currently 3-7 against teams with winning percentages of .500 or better, while the Lakers are 2-4. Hence, both teams have made a living off of beating mediocre teams thus far.
However, the Lakers seemingly win this one by default, as so many in the basketball world had the Heat pegged to break the record of 72 wins in a season, set by Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls during the 1995-1996 season. At this point, it seems highly unlikely that Miami will be able to avoid losing two more games.
Dwyane Wade and the Heat extended their win streak to eight games with a victory at Sacramento on Saturday.
In a league like the NBA, where fans, coaches, players and media personnel alike all have short memories, the Miami Heat are looking like a sure thing these days.
The Three Amigos and their compatriots have wracked up eight wins in a row since losing in Dallas in late November. That streak, however, includes only two wins against teams with winning records, though one of those wins came on the road against Utah, 111-98.
On the flip side, the Lakers have been rather erratic of late. LA has gone 8-7 since starting the season with an eight-game streak of its own.
Four of those losses came in a row, marking the first time the Lakers have lost more than two games in succession since Pau Gasol started wearing purple back in 2007.
Kobe Bryant and the Lakers would likely come out on top in a seven-game series against the Heat right now.
Suppose the season were to end today and Commissioner David Stern were to decide to pit the Heat and the Lakers in a seven-game series.
Who would win?
Right now, it's looking like the two teams would push it to the limit, with LA coming out on top by virtue of experience—both in playing together and playing in big games—as well as a slight edge in depth.
That being said, things could very well change as the season progresses, particularly as Andrew Bynum works his way back into the mix for the Lakers and as the Heat continue to improve as a collective unit.
Edge: Lakers in seven