By Chris Mannix
December 14, 2009

Right now, pick your winner: Will it be the Celtics or the Lakers?

At the quarter pole of the NBA season, L.A. and Boston have climbed back to the top of the heap. The Lakers have benefitted from the presence of Ron Artest The Player and the absence of Artest The Personality, and they boast one of the most dynamic frontcourt duos in Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. Boston has Kevin Garnett playing like the KG of old, Kendrick Perkins playing at never-before-seen levels and a host of veterans starved for one more shot at a ring.

So ... who you got?

A handful of scouts, executives and players voted overwhelmingly in favor of L.A. "They can score with anyone and, this year, they can defend everyone," said a Western Conference exec. "I don't know how you win four out of seven against them." When a p.r. rep informed members of the media that Kobe Bryant suffered a small fracture in his right index finger last Friday, a scout within earshot asked if he would be sidelined for "three years."

We are six months away from a potential Boston-L.A. matchup. Six months for Orlando, San Antonio, Cleveland and Denver to make statements, six months for Atlanta to mature and six months for Bynum to blow out another knee. But until that happens, it's the Lakers and Celtics - again -- riding high at the top.

(All stats and records are through Dec. 13.)

NBA Power Rankings
1 Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 1
Credit the Lakers for a prolific offense (103.9 points per game, seventh in the NBA), stingy defense (95.5 points, seventh in the league) and their ability to shift into a fifth gear (a 28-6 fourth quarter against Utah last week) almost at will. But let them win a few road games before anointing them as repeat champions. Bryant's crew has played just five games away from the Staples Center this season and they won't be back for their next four games and six of the next nine.
2 Boston Celtics
Last Week: 5
Is it safe to say Boston is now the land of the Big Four? Rajon Rondo has averaged 13.2 points, 10.4 assists and 4.5 rebounds during the Celts' current 10-game winning streak. He has recorded double-digit assists in all but three games during that stretch and his league-best 2.61 steals has him on pace to become the first Celtic to ever lead the league in that category.
3 Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 6
Want more evidence that Joe Johnson will be one of the most sought after free-agents on the market next summer? Johnson is one of three players averaging at least 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists this season. The others? Another pretty good free-agent, LeBron James, and rookie Tyreke Evans. Like Johnson, the Hawks offense has been clicking recently: averaging 119.7 points in three wins last week.
4 Orlando Magic
Last Week: 3
Don't put too much stock in Orlando's back-to-back losses last week. The single-digit defeats to Western powers Utah and Phoenix came at the end of a brutal stretch that saw the Magic play nine of their last 11 away from the Big O. Luckily, they only have one more road game this month.
5 Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 2
The key to beating Denver is to keep them off the free-throw line. The Nuggets currently lead the NBA in both made free throws (26.8) and attempts (33.1) per game this season, while their .808 free-throw percentage ranks as the second-best in the NBA. It's no surprise Carmelo Anthony (9.6 attempts, 87 percent) and Chauncey Billups (7.1, 89.5 percent) leading the charge.
6 Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 4
Championship teams don't drop close overtime games to the young Grizzlies and have their offense shut down by undermanned Houston. They just don't. Carelessness doesn't win titles, either: LeBron James may be the front-runner for a second straight MVP award, but he hasn't been taking very good care of the ball this season; he's averaging a career-high 3.7 turnovers per game.
7 Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 10
When the Mavs win the battle of the boards, they win the game. At least, that's been the case this season. Dallas is 12-0 when they out-rebound opponents. They are pretty good when Dirk Nowitzki plays well, too. In wins over Phoenix, Miami and Charlotte last week, Nowitzki shot 50.0 percent (36-72 FGs) from the field, 60.7 percent (2-3 3FGs) from 3-point range and 90.9 percent (20-22 FTs) from the line, while averaging 31.1 points and 6.3 rebounds in 42.0 minutes.
8 Utah Jazz
Last Week: 12
Utah Jazz (14-9)
The Jazz were spared from being embarrassed by their six-point fourth quarter against the Lakers last week. In addition to Utah's win over L.A., the Jazz got quality home wins over San Antonio and Orlando. What's more: better: Saturday's win over L.A. was the first time the Jazz has dressed 12 healthy players all season.
9 Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 7
Phoenix Suns (16-8)
December hasn't been especially kind to the Suns. After a 1-2 week, Phoenix has now dropped five of their last seven this month. Some home cooking might help: they play eight of their next 11 games at U.S. Airways Center, where they are undefeated (8-0) this season.
10 Houston Rockets
Last Week: 11
Chuck Hayes' D has made him a popular player in the Rockets locker room. After holding Shaquille O'Neal to seven points last week, Shane Battier couldn't shower Houston's 6-foot-6 center with enough compliments: "Chuck Hayes is my personal hero," Battier told reporters. "One day I want to grow up and play defense like Chuck Hayes. He's awesome. He's awesome. I've run out of words for how good he is."
1 - 10 11 - 20 21 - 30

You May Like

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)