Lakers have real challengers in West

In some ways, it's business as usual in the Western Conference. Just like last season, the Lakers stand several games ahead of the pack. They've had their share of struggles, sure, but as things stand today, it's hard to find a single breathing soul who expects any team besides L.A. to represent the West in the NBA Finals.

In other ways, however, it's all different. L.A. won 65 games last season, and most expected the Lakers to roll toward a similar total this season. Instead, they're on pace to win just 56, based on today's Playoff Odds. Although they've offered hints of their ceiling -- a string of 11 straight wins (10 of them by at least 10 points) around Thanksgiving and last week's 35-point beatdown of Dallas -- their overall body of work is nowhere near championship-caliber.