It's scary to think of just how good the Los Angeles Lakers are going to be when they really hit their stride. For them, the first month of the regular season was just a preseason shootaround; the real games are just beginning.
These are the real, complete, ready-to-roll, all-systems-go Lakers. Pau Gasol and all.
Gasol went down in early October with a severely strained right hamstring, keeping him out of action for the entire preseason and the first 11 games of the regular season.
Without Gasol, the Lakers went 8-3. With him back in action, they're even better. And the rest of the NBA better take notice.
We're just now beginning to see the NBA's defending champions at full strength. With five star players in the rotation all 6-foot-6 and taller, we're going to see the size, depth and versatility of a Lakers squad that might be the best one since Shaquille O'Neal skipped town five years ago.
In Gasol, the Lakers have a versatile big man that can score high and low, rebound with the best of them, and defend both opposing centers and power forwards. In Andrew Bynum, they have a rapidly improving low-post presence and an inside scoring machine. In Lamar Odom, they have an athletic scorer with great instincts and a deadly jump shot. In Ron Artest, they have one of the game's best defensive stoppers.
And in Kobe Bryant, they have the best competitor on the planet.
Basketball isn't a game of putting together the best collection of players on paper. It's an art. It's about building a team that's greater than the sum of its parts, a cohesive unit of men working toward a common goal. And we're just now beginning to see that together, these five men can bring another championship to L.A.
With a newly signed Artest and a finally healthy Gasol on the floor together, the Lakers' results are undeniably scary. Six wins, all by double digits, including an impressive 110-99 win over the Hornets on Tuesday night in which Bynum, Gasol, Artest and Bryant all scored in double digits.
Gasol's numbers over that six-game stretch: 17.7 points, 10.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.5 blocks per game. In his first game back against the Bulls on Nov. 19, he gave the Lakers 24 and 13. Against the Knicks five nights later, he pulled down 16 rebounds. He's scored in double figures all six times out, recording three double-doubles. He's even shooting 87.5 percent from the free-throw line.
But you listen to the way he talks about his return, and he makes it sound as though he's not even at full strength yet.
"I think I'm making progress," he told the L.A. Times on Monday. "Like I said, every game, I'm taking a step forward. I'm feeling better. My conditioning is better. My moves are stronger and a little quicker, too. I'm just continuing to get better and continuing to play well."
Imagine if he actually hits 100 percent.
Imagine Gasol and Bynum as the ultimate 1-2 punch of imposing big men. Imagine Odom and Artest as the perfect tandem of able-bodied forwards, with one providing the offensive punch and the other getting the stops. Imagine Kobe at the top of his game. Imagine Derek Fisher, Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown giving the Lakers a little speed and athleticism to boot.
This is going to be a powerful, dynamic, explosive Lakers team. They've already broken 100 points with ease in all six games since getting Gasol back. And when Gasol really hits his stride, that's when these Lakers will click.