The hopeful thinking among Lakers fans is that since the team is better, Kobe Bryant must be happier.
One problem: The Lakers aren't better. At least, not yet.
Los Angeles certainly looks to be an improved team, sitting right behind Phoenix for the Pacific Division lead. But the Lakers' 18-10 record was the same after 28 games as it was last season, when they limped to the finish after a number of injuries and ended up 42-40, getting knocked out by the Suns in the first round.
Perhaps that's why coach Phil Jackson doesn't get too excited about the Lakers' start, and won't predict how the Bryant saga will finish.
``You can't project the future, but you just know as a coach that adversity happens, guys get injured, things happen in a season and we experienced that last year,'' Jackson said.
Los Angeles got to 26-13 last season before the injuries started to set in. Lamar Odom missed 26 games with knee and shoulder injuries. Kwame Brown missed half the season, mostly because of ankle injuries, the same problem that forced Luke Walton to miss 22 games. Vladimir Radmanovic was out 24 games after separating his shoulder snowboarding.
That dropped the Lakers all the way to the No. 7 seed, and they were easily handed by the Suns in five games. Not long after, Bryant said he wanted to be traded, a statement he has never fully backed off.
Jackson thinks the Lakers are better equipped to handle their problems this season.
``We're watching our time on our starters, trying to eliminate hopefully mistakes that can happen that leads to injuries like Lamar and Kwame - and Kwame's been injured a lot of this year - but Luke Walton, so forth,'' Jackson said. ``Radmanovic, can't do much about the situation that happened with him, he brought that on himself, but we've got a good bench this year that gives us some support and it helps us out a lot. Hopefully that'll be eliminated.''
The better bench, the rapid improvement of third-year center Andrew Bynum, and the return to Los Angeles of Derek Fisher are among the biggest reasons the Lakers have higher expectations as they head into the new year - even though Jackson remains realistic.
``We have talent, and talent always doesn't produce exactly the chemistry or the whole package that you want to have,'' Jackson said. ``But we certainly have the pieces that should be able to mature and grow into that.''
If so, Bryant figures to stay happy. The Lakers have no desire to deal him, but Bryant can opt out of his contract and leave following the 2008-09 season. And as good as things seem to be going in Los Angeles for now, Jackson isn't sure they will stay that way enough to keep his superstar in town.
``Just that the idea that this team is going to satisfy Kobe's desire ... what he wants to accomplish,'' he said. ``Kobe wants to win another championship and whether we're ready to move to that level or not, isn't apparent right now.
``We have time to do it, but our players are young and so there's still playoff experience that this team needs, seasoning that they have to go through and ability to weather some tough games on the road.''
GOING FOR GOLDEN: For any Western Conference team looking to duplicate Golden State's playoff success from last season, here's a piece of advice from Don Nelson.
Win more games.
The Warriors used a strong finishing kick to grab the No. 8 seed with a 42-40 record, then stunned the 67-win Dallas Mavericks in six games, perhaps the biggest postseason upset in NBA history.
But Nelson thinks 42-40 may leave a team home this season when the playoffs begin.
other teams have as well.''
At this point, even 45 wins could leave a team short in the powerful West. The surprising Portland Trail Blazers had surged into the No. 8 spot heading into the weekend with a 16-12 record, which put them on pace for nearly 47 victories.
Perhaps the Blazers become last season's Warriors.
``It's hard to predict, but with the emergence of Portland, who would have ever thought they were going to be in the playoff picture this year at the beginning of the season,'' Nelson said. ``And not only are they in it, they're in it solid. That's what is fun about it really.
``(The Trail Blazers) are very well coached and everybody is playing at a really high level and together and that's what you hope your team will do.''
CONTACT-FREE ZONE: Reggie Theus remembers the days when he expected to take an elbow to the nose or eye each time he stepped on the court. That was a while ago, and the first-year coach of the Sacramento Kings misses the old-school NBA.
These are the no-contact times.
and you're getting rid of something over here.''
And for those players who still do get away with being physical, Theus said: ``There are some guys. They stick out like a sore thumb.''
SOARING HAWKS: The hottest teams in the Eastern Conference heading into the weekend were all the usual suspects: Detroit, Boston and Atlanta.
Yes, the Hawks, who are hoping to end the longest current playoff drought in the NBA. They brought a five-game winning streak and a 15-12 record, fourth-best in the East, into Saturday's game at Dallas.
``We're just playing more relaxed, and guys have another year under their belt,'' leading scorer Joe Johnson said. ``Growing up is definitely a part of it. We're just taking our time. In years past, when teams made a run, we tended to try to get it all back at once. But now we're just taking our time on offense, and it's coming easier to us.''
Not much has come easily in recent years. The Hawks haven't been in the postseason since the 1998-99 season, also the last time they had a winning record. But they have balance on the offensive end and are above average defensively, sparking their turnaround.
Atlanta is holding teams to 94.9 points per game, seventh in the NBA and an improvement of 3 1/2 points from last season's average. The Hawks also ranked among the top 10 in steals and blocks, led by versatile forward Josh Smith. He was among the league leaders in both categories and adding 17.3 points per game, second to Johnson's 22.3 per game.
``I think when you're trying to learn how to win, you have to do the same thing night in and night out, and we're starting to do that,'' Atlanta coach Mike Woodson said. ``It started with our defense, and us rebounding as a team, and we're sharing the ball offensively. If we continue to do those things, I think we'll put ourselves in a better position to win basketball games.''
AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley in Sacramento, Calif., contributed to this report.

Top NBA Public Bets

#1 802 Toronto Raptors  68%
#2 803 Miami Heat  67%
#3 812 Utah Jazz  62%
#5 809 Phoenix Suns  55%

NBA Top Stories

Thumbnail Pacers vs. Trail Blazers Pick Are the host Portland Trail Blazers going to cover the spread when they entertain the Indiana Pacers...
Thumbnail Timberwolves vs. Rockets Pick Will the Minnesota Timberwolves reward bettors tonight as an underdog at the Houston Rockets? Tip-off is at...
Thumbnail Magic vs. Cavaliers Pick Is the total set high enough tonight when the Orlando Magic take on the host Cleveland...
Thumbnail 76ers vs. Celtics Pick Can the Philadelphia 76ers pull off the upset tonight when they play at the Boston Celtics? Game time...
Thumbnail Nuggets vs. Clippers Prediction Will the L.A. Clippers hand the Denver Nuggets another ATS loss when the two teams meet at 10:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday night?

NBA Team Pages