The Los Angeles Lakers, at 36-16, are third best in the West and sixth overall. They're winning 69.2 percent of their games this season, yet most are predicting that this is the year of their downfall, when the dynasty ends and the championship window closes.
The notion that the Lakers have problems is clear, but the doom is premature. There is still time for them to work out the kinks, find the right rotations, get healthy and focus in.
With 31 games left, let's break down 10 things that concern me about the Lakers as they stand today.
The jury is out on whether Bynum's impact is a net positive or negative.
Andrew Bynum is looking good individually on the court. He's put together some solid, but not spectacular, games in the middle as he's rounded into shape from injury. He's averaging 11.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks a game, which is good or bad depending on how you choose to see it.
The problem is, I don't think he brings a net positive impact to the Lakers.
With him, the Lakers are 18-9 this season. Without him, they're 17-7. Ehhh.
With him, they're slightly better defensively and are better able to protect the rim and block shots. Without him, they're efficient and balanced on offense with the offense being run through Pau Gasol on the low block instead of Kobe Bryant out front.
I feel like the boost he gives on defense isn't worth the drag he is on offense because the Lakers' success is predicated on the way they score, not how many stops they get. Bynum's role has never seemed to solidify, and the Lakers go to him on offense at the weirdest times when they should be getting Gasol touches.
For the post roles to get straightened out, the Lakers need to commit to not using Bynum on offense as anything more than an offensive rebound/putback guy. He needs to hang out near the high post instead of posting up, because he's been killing Pau Gasol's offensive confidence by clogging up the block.
Flip-flop the two of them so that Pau can operate down low, then let Bynum do his thing on the defensive end. That way Phil Jackson can maximize the strengths of both players.
Artest is the most-aged 31 year old I've ever seen on a basketball court.
The accelerated aging process and the acquisition of Matt Barnes have combined to kill Ron Artest's significance to the Lakers.
He has career lows in shots, points, rebounds and minutes as he's slowly being subbed out more often in favor of the more active, younger Barnes.
Artest has been the subject of trade rumors and discord recently, which he quickly squashed by saying that he's content on the Lakers and does not want to be traded.
That affirming statement does not fix the issues on the court, however, as Ron's waning defensive abilities are the only thing he has left to offer.
The Lakers need to figure out a rotation that doesn't ignore Artest, but empowers and maximizes his impact. Once Barnes returns from injury he might enter the starting lineup, but Artest still has value to an NBA team in spite of his rapid career descent.
If nothing else, Artest can make a wide-open, standstill three-pointer, shooting a solid 36.5 percent from behind the line.
In last year's Game 7, that stat certainly showed up clutch for the Lakers.
First off, let me just say this: God bless you, Fish.
Fisher has done so much for the Laker franchise over the last 10 years, both on the court with electrifying clutch shooting and off of it with model citizenship and golden character.
Last year, I couldn't wait until Fisher was gone. I wanted him to be replaced in the starting lineup and never used again because he did absolutely nothing during the regular season.
When the playoffs rolled around, Fisher kicked into gear, looking like 2003 Derek Fisher again. He made clutch shots, played gritty defense, came up with those patented hustle steals and had a marked positive impact on the Laker postseason.
Ever since his playoff performance in 2010, I pledged to never ever criticize or wish professional ill on Fish. It doesn't matter how bad he is during the season, he always shows up when it counts and nails a big shot. He's done it too many times for me to doubt that he'll do it the next time.
All this said, I don't know what to do with him on this team. Steve Blake hasn't panned out like GM Mitch Kupchak thought, and who knows if Shannon Brown can handle increased minutes.
Does Kupchak make a trade for a point guard? He's going to have to run the gauntlet of West point guards with Westbrook, Williams, Paul, Parker, Billups, Brooks and Kidd.
When you're going to battle with Derek Fisher and Steve Blake, that's an alarming thought.
Gasol's hamstrings are the first thing to go when he plays too many minutes.
Pau Gasol is in a two-man discussion about the most important offensive player for LA.
Kobe is obviously the transcendent playmaker who shoulders the most of the scoring and ball-handling burden, but Gasol's impact cannot be overstated: His passing ability, guard skills and team mentality are a rare combination for a big man, and make it near impossible to defend him and the Lakers when things are running through him.
This is why the minute count he's played is such a big deal. At 37.4 minutes per game, Gasol is just behind Blake Griffin in average minutes for all big men who play in the post, and that number is actually down from his early season average before Andrew Bynum returned.
Gasol's performance early in the year was magnificent in spite of logging major minutes. He is currently third in the NBA in field goal percentage among players who average as many attempts as him, and it is 13th in the league overall.
His efficiency is immensely valuable, but his assists numbers are what separate him from the rest and make him so vital to the Laker cause. He is second in the NBA in assists among power forwards and centers at 3.6, which is down from his early season number of four-plus.
When the Lakers are humming offensively, it's because Gasol is the one who touches the ball first. Instead of Kobe bringing it up and calling for a pick (he never hits the screener on a roll), Gasol handling the ball on the low-or-mid post is optimal for kickouts to the three-point line, cutters to the wide open lane, or a face-up one-on-one against a big.
If Gasol gets hurt under his heavy yoke, the Lakers are dead. Without him, Kobe rules the ball with an iron fist and feels like he has to score 100 points for his team to win. The Lakers need Gasol in the lineup and at 100 percent, which PJ well knows.
The decrease in minutes is a positive for the Lakers, but it needs to be sustained in the short term for the team to reap benefits in the long term.
The Thunder are rolling right now, and playing better than they were last year.
Russell Westbrook has made the leap into the top 15 in the league and the point guard elite, and he is unguardable by anyone on the Lakers.
Jeff Green has played through his struggles early and has started to find himself from long range and on the boards, which are what he does best.
Serge Ibaka is playing 25 minutes a game and pulling down about eight rebounds and blocking two shots in that time. His athleticism and size is scary.
The Lakers survived the Thunder in last year's first round for one reason: OKC didn't have an answer in the paint for Gasol. Now they do in Ibaka—who is raw but certainly capable of slowing Gasol's post game—and is improving every day.
Oh, yeah, they have Kevin Durant, too.
The Lakers need Blake to get right so that they can avoid falling into big deficits while the starters rest.
Jerry Buss and Mitch Kupchak gave Steve Blake $4 million over the summer to run the Laker bench. His game is solid defense against big guards, hitting threes and not turning the ball over.
Well, the results have not been flattering so far. Blake is only logging 20.3 minutes per game in relief of Derek Fisher, and he has seen Shannon Brown actually take over some of the ball-handling in the second unit.
My prevailing thought on Blake is that he needs time to acclimate to a new role and to figure out his teammates' tendencies to maximize them. It's been 50 games, but it's only been 50 games, you know?
Blake has experience and has been a steady guard with a calming presence at his previous NBA stops, which the Lakers need on the second unit when they see Kobe and Pau on the bench. Who will they look to to command the offense when the playmakers are out?
Blake needs to fill that space and keep the Laker offense from missing a beat as the competition heats up. They cannot sustain those 8-0 runs that Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Dallas are capable of.
To prevent lulls in the second unit, Blake needs to step into his role and fill the point guard spot with confidence.
The Lakers will exchange the gold for purple quite a bit in February.
Starting with the win in New Orleans on Saturday, the Lakers have this schedule:
Tonight at Memphis, at Boston and New York back-to-back, at Orlando and Charlotte back-to-back, at Cleveland, home vs. Atlanta, at Portland, home vs. the Clippers and at Oklahoma City.
That is one nasty road trip.
If the Lakers emerge from February in the top three in the West, they're almost certain to stay there the way they're currently playing (which isn't that well).
Then again, if they don't get home court, which is almost a lock with the way the Spurs are tearing through the league, then it doesn't much matter what seed they get because they'll still have to beat the Spurs on the road in a seven-game series at some point.
If the Lakers aren't shooting for one of the best records and are just laying low, they at least need to succeed on this trip for confidence purposes. It doesn't matter if you've won back-to-back championships—if you lose to the best teams enough times in a row, you'll start to believe that you can't beat them.
That's why the Lakers need to win at Boston and at Orlando this week; they need to know they can beat those teams straight up on their home floors. The Lakers have no signature wins this season, but this trip will give them ample opportunity to change that.
The Spurs role players are among the most capable and dependable in the league.
The Spurs are all the same guys, but with a new edge and lease on life. Aside from Tim Duncan, whose slow decline continues, the Spurs are night and day compared to last year.
The revitalization of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili after getting their new contracts is a pleasure to watch.
Richard Jefferson isn't the high-flying dunker and scorer he used to be, but he has reinvented himself as a dependable three-point shooter, as he displayed last Thursday against the Lakers.
DeJuan Blair gets better every game and will do so even more as he takes over Duncan's minutes.
George Hill plays either guard spot off the bench and is capable of being their go-to guy every night.
Gary Neal doesn't do anything but shoot threes, but he does that well enough to stretch the floor for Parker and Ginobili to find lanes to get to the basket.
Pop's team is not the defensive-minded lockdown squad it's always been; these Spurs morphed overnight into a scoring machine, throwing up 103.9 points a game, good for sixth in the league. Maybe Pop realized that his team would be healthy for the first time in years and that he could open up the throttle on offense. Maybe he got bored of winning games 86-79.
I don't know the reason, but the Spurs did a stylistic 180, and have executed it perfectly, as usual.
Phil does a lot of sitting on the bench, but he always gets up to yell at the right time.
It has been highly publicized that PJ is not coming back to coach after this season. Buss and Bryant begged him to come back after winning back-to-back titles, and that was barely enough to get him for one more year.
Phil always looks like he doesn't care whether the Lakers win or lose, but this season I'm worried that he actually doesn't care. Let me clarify: he certainly cares because he's got his own legacy on the line, but what lengths will he travel to win the championship and get his unfathomable fourth three-peat?
I have this sick feeling that at some point in the playoffs, the crucial breaking point of do-or-die Los Angeles has always come through, the Lakers and Phil will reach back, and whatever it is that got them through before won't be there. When they jump, the safety net that has always caught them will have a giant hole in it, and they're going to fall through, flat on their face and out of the playoffs.
I think Phil is the purveyor of that certain something that always gets the Lakers through and, knowing that this is his last go-round, he might prematurely turn the faucet off that controls it.
If the Lakers are a ship, Kobe is the captain.
We've seen him put the Lakers on his back on the way to basketball immortality. We've seen him shoot the Lakers out of the playoffs. We've seen those things and everything in between from Kobe Bryant.
The fact is, Kobe is the source of Laker success. If Lakers 2-15 were all having career years and Number One wasn't going well, they'd still lose. If Number One is playing at his best and Lakers 2-15 are stinking, they still can't be counted out.
There are shades of gray, as in Game 7 of the Finals, when Kobe sputtered to a 6-of-24 shooting day and his teammates actually carried him to the finish line. These times are the exceptions, not the rule. The Lakers need Kobe at his best to be successful over a full season.
What does "Kobe at his best" even mean? Here are parts that make up the definition:
1. Kobe needs to be healthy.
2. Kobe needs to be motivated
3. Kobe needs to have a chip on his shoulder
4. Kobe needs to have confidence in his teammates
All these, and maybe one or two more things, mean Kobe is playing at or near his best. Their presence doesn't necessarily mean he's at his best, but the absence of just one means that he most definitely is not at his best.
Kobe and the Lakers seem to go with the tide during the regular season, so glimpses of Kobe at his best are rare and quick, but leave you gasping for more. The beauty of being a 15-year veteran and cold-blooded killer on the court is that you know when you need it and when you don't. This is why the Lakers are such a maddening team to follow during the season. It's like driving a Ferrari in a school zone: you can't see what it's capable of until it gets into the right atmosphere.
Kobe knows when its not necessary to turn it on. He knows when he and his team needs it, and he won't show it a moment sooner.