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Any challengers for the Lakers in the West?

NBA Los Angeles Lakers_20100117213910_JPG
Ron Artest #37, Kobe Bryant #24, and Lamar Odom #7 of the Los Angeles Lakers share a laugh on...
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Randy Hill

Veteran columnist Randy Hill is a frequent contributor to FOXSports.com.
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In the opening scene from the film "Troy," Brad Pitt — portraying Achilles, the Michael Jordan of war-hero mythology — propels his body high into the air and jams a sword into the neck of a Thessalonian giant who was hoping to draw a charging foul. As the giant's life begins a swift fade that reminds us of Sam Bowie's pro career, Pitt strolls toward the shell-shocked remainder of the Thessalonian army and asks this question:

"Is there no one else?"

For the record, Pitt is breathing quite heavily because slaying Thessalonian giants is no hayride.

Anyway, let's slide that question into the mouth of Kobe Bryant, who — as a giant-slayer representing the 32-9 Los Angeles Lakers — is figuratively approaching his Western Conference foes and wondering if any of them are willing and/or able to step up to the challenge. Based on how enemy teams have taken advantage of recent Laker vulnerability (a three-losses-in-four-games slump), we're not holding our breath.

During the holiday season, the defending NBA champs have had to work a few days first without Ron Artest, whose bad Christmas night trip was followed by some time off for Pau Gasol (hamstring) and accompanied by Bryant's broken finger and back-spasm party.

But a quick check of the Western Conference seeding chart shows that the second-ranked Dallas Mavericks are lurking five full games behind Phil Jackson's crew, which — aside from Kobe's digit — now looks relatively fit.

POLL

  • Which West team is the biggest threat to the Lakers?
    • Dallas Mavericks
    • Denver Nuggets
    • San Antonio Spurs
    • Portland Trail Blazers
    • Phoenix Suns
    • Another team

So what gives in a conference that has avoided fielding a large number of awful teams, but seemingly has only one interested in being great? In an effort to examine the widespread mediocrity, we'll start with the No. 2 and work our way down.

DALLAS MAVERICKS

OK, we're not gonna beat up on Rick Carlisle's Mavs, because at 27-14 they're a little better than we expected them to be.

Unfortunately, they still lack enough inside might to take down the Lakers in a four-of-seven situation, even though they're playing a lot better team defense than they did last season. I suppose they qualify as the Thessalonian giant of the moment since a recent, 35-point beat-down by the seemingly exposed Lakers translates into a genuine “Is there no one else?” moment.

On the bright side,the addition of Shawn Marion has given them another wing defender, while Dirk Nowitzki remains great enough to carry the offense and rebound his position. But overall performance has been compromised by the absence of sidekick deluxe Josh Howard, who has missed 15 games this year. His recent return is credited with creating enough chemistry adjustment to help Dallas lose four of its last nine games.

So has bad shooting ... the Mavs were under 44 percent from the field three times in a recent five-game stretch.

I don't think that a healthy Dallas team can threaten the Lakers, but expect owner Mark Cuban to at least attempt a big score before the trading deadline.

DENVER NUGGETS

Last season's conference finalists check at 5.5 games behind the Lakers at 26-14. A recent injury to team superstar Carmelo Anthony left Denver without the league's top scorer for five games; they lost two of those. A nagging groin strain has kept point guard Chauncey Billups off the floor for eight games and the Nuggets just aren't playing with the same defensive urgency they demonstrated last season.

Denver, which checked in as the league's eighth-most efficient defense a year ago, has slipped to 10th — relative to their peers — this season. Even though a tempo upgrade (hello, rookie point guard Ty Lawson) shouldn't change the efficiency numbers, players often buy into the pace and get used to not digging in and playing defense.

The Lakers, by contrast, have improved on D this season.

And, much like last season, the Nuggets are among the league's worst in defensive-rebound efficiency. It's much more difficult to take advantage of Lawson's speed when the big guys are taking the ball out of the net instead of off the glass.

But a healthy Nuggets team possesses the firepower, leadership and inside muscle to give the Lakers a run. If they can muster a higher commitment to defense and take advantage of Lawson in transition, Denver could be a team to worry about.

SAN ANTONIO SPURS

The preseason favorites to challenge the Lakers currently sit in fourth place at 6.5 games behind L.A. The optimism was generated by the supposed offseason trade theft of three-man Richard Jefferson, who has rallied from a slow start but simply has fewer opportunities to make plays on offense.

Although slightly chillier shooting (and 10 fewer minutes per game) has made Roger Mason Jr. less effective than last season, the Spurs are more than OK on offense … but still not great. Manu Ginobili continues nursing a groin strain that certainly doesn't help his ability to get to the cup. His drop in field-goal percentage and free-throw attempts look like swell proof. Tony Parker recently revealed a prevailing issue with plantar fasciitis that could explain his statistical drop.

At age 33, future Hall of Fame center Tim Duncan (if you don't consider him a center, you're just being ridiculous) continues to play at a level high enough to lead the Spurs to glory if everyone else pitches in. Considerable help inside comes in rationed doses from rookie DeJuan Blair, who probably doesn't have the length to handle Gasol or Lakers teammate Andrew Bynum in a playoff setting.

I'll continue the traditional avoidance of writing off the Spurs and their bright coach, even though a recent three-game winning streak was followed by a two-game slide.

Unless Parker and Ginobili are upgraded with miracle cures, don't expect the Spurs to reach the NBA Finals.

PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

At 7.5 games behind the Lakers when this premise was hatched, the Blazers' inability to rise higher is quickly attributed to injury. But the 25-17 Blazers began the season at 13-11, which seems like decent evidence that they weren't exactly tearing up the league before Greg Oden was joined by Joel Przybilla on an injured list that left Portland with a huge hole in the middle.

But the injuries shouldn't be ignored. They've claimed small forward Travis Outlaw, taken some time from super-sub Rudy Fernandez and have kept superstar Brandon Roy limping on his continued path toward greatness.

Explanations for the slow beginning include the arrival of former Philly point guard Andre Miller, who was supposed to make life easier for Roy on the court.

But Roy's comfort in creating plays off the bounce made it a tricky transition for both players, especially with Miller being less interested than most in communicating with coaches and playing defense.

Things are going a lot more smoothly in terms of roles, but that hasn't prevented the short-handed Blazers from losing four of seven.

Even with Miller blending perfectly with Roy, and Oden not doomed by another injury, the Blazers aren't there yet.
 
PHOENIX SUNS

These guys have two victories over the Boston Celtics and one each over the Lakers, Spurs and Orlando Magic. They've also been conquered by some weak teams, which leads me to believe one of the problems must be focus.
Steve Nash_20100117204229_JPG

Steve Nash and the Suns started white-hot, but have cooled considerably.
Christian Petersen


Another is, of course, defense. After starting the season with situational bursts of guarding the opposition when it was needed to secure a victory, the Suns (24-18 after an 8-1 start) have relapsed into the league's 28th-ranked defenders, in terms of points allowed per 100 possessions. With Amar’e Stoudemire at power forward and newly minted sniper Channing Frye at center, Phoenix is 30th in defensive rebounding percentage.

Steve Nash, who does his best to step into a passing lane at the right time or pick up charges, wasn't expected to start preventing dribble penetrations in his golden years.

It should be noted that watchdogs were wondering if keeping free-agent-to-be Stoudemire and re-upping Nash was prudent for a franchise ripe to rebuild. Just remaining viable in the playoff chase (for now) is a mild triumph, and keeping stars keeps people in the seats (for now).

UTAH JAZZ

Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer are stars, but not super enough to make Achilles leave the tent.

HOUSTON ROCKETS

Rick Adelman receives considerable praise for keeping a star-free team in playoff contention, but sometimes coaching relatively low-paid players with something to prove is a lot easier.

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

If they add some inside performance and become more efficient on offense (turnovers, fellas), Coach Scott Brooks' kids could step out of the Thessalonian ranks and actually challenge Achilles ... in a year or two. They already rank among the league's best defensive teams ... even with Kevin Durant on the floor.
Tagged: Mavericks, Nuggets, Rockets, Lakers, Trail Blazers, Spurs, Andre Miller, Brandon Roy, Ty Lawson

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