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At the End of the First Quarter....

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We're now about one quarter of the way through the insanely-long NBA season, a time fans can usually get a pretty good a read on what kind of team they are rooting for and if they should really focus more on a team that can win a title next spring .

While this blogger knows the biggest tests lie ahead , what we’ve learned so far about the Lakers should have us excited — not just for this season but the few years after that as well. They are 14-6, in first place and at least someone thinks they are the best team in the NBA .

At times you can see why, there are games the Lakers have looked like title contenders, for example against San Antonio Sunday night. That was the biggest test of the season and the Lakers passed it with a blend of Kobe being efficient, Odom scoring and grabbing rebounds, Kwame Brown playing solid ball at both ends, Smush Parker actually playing good perimeter defense, all five starters scoring in double digits and the bench stepping up.

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However, then there are the ugly games like the one just a few nights before against the Hornets. Right now this Laker team seems to play to the level of its competition, a sign of youth. Good teams — for example the three-pete Lakers of just a few years ago — were often guilty of lazy nights against bad teams. But they also pulled it together enough in the fourth quarter to get a win. This year’s Lakers don’t do that, at least not consistently.

That said, there is a lot more right with this team than wrong. Here are just a few reasons to be optimistic if you’re a Laker fan:

Depth. Last season, as Kobe went so went the Lakers. This season they are 3-0 when he sits and don't need him to carry the load every game. Kobe is playing about four minutes fewer per game this season compared to last because, well, he can. It's good to rest your star, and Mo Evans has proven a very solid sub. Then you have the energy trio of Jordan Farmar, Andrew Bynum and Ronny Turiaf coming in and giving the squad a boost nightly.

Playing the hot hand. The key defensive problems for the Lakers last couple of seasons have been poor point guard play and no defensive presence in the middle to slow the guys who just drove past the point guard. This season, the team's depth allows Phil Jackson to go with the hot hand on any given night at the point (Smush or Farmar) and in the middle (Kwame or Bynum). Phil has varied his crunch time lineups to go with whoever is playing best, something he didn't have the luxury of doing in the past.

Getting comfortable. The two veteran off-season pickups, Vladamir Radmanovic and Mo Evans, are just starting to figure out the real shape of the triangle, and are showing flashes of what they can do. They will just get better as the season wears on (and into next year).

Luke Walton. Some guys just fit the system, and Walton's passing skills and new-found three point shot make him a perfect triangle offense guy.

The offense has been great. The Lakers have had the sixth most efficient offense in the league so far, averaging 110 points per 100 possessions (and that is important because in any one game you and your opponent have the same number of possessions, so the most efficient team wins). Their shooting has been the second best in the league, what is holding them back is 19% of their trips up the floor ending in a turnover (second worst percentage in the league).

The defense is getting better. Right now the Lakers are giving up 106.8 points per 100 possessions, giving them the 14th best defense in the league (this is right where they were last season). But just a couple weeks ago the defensive numbers were much worse, and the third quarter of the San Antonio game Sunday was the team's best defensive stretch this season. If the defense keeps getting better, the wins will keep coming.

There's a lot to like, and while we're not quite sure they are title contenders this season (at least we're not convinced yet), it's a lot of fun to watch a team grow into something special before your eyes.

AP Photo by Mark J. Terrill

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