Watch out, L.A.: Contenders are coming

Contenders don't faze Kobe Bryant. Past champions don't concern him too much, either. In the world of the man known as the Black Mamba, known as much for his ability to demoralize with enjoyment as for winning titles, any threat to the Los Angeles Lakers' supremacy in the Western Conference is purely a figment of someone's elaborate imagination fueled by ignorant pundits and destined for exposure and humiliation in April, May and June.

But make no mistake, the contenders are coming.

"Luckily, some of us may actually have some say in the matter before it's all said and done," Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle told me recently. "Hey, if you don't believe you can change things … if you don't believe you can win … if you're not intending to go for it all, then why even bother playing?"

As great and intriguing as this NBA season has been, all indications say the best has yet to come. The Lakers, the reigning two-time defending world champions, may be 24 games above .500 (43-19), winners of five straight and a top-three seed in the West. But there's something to be said about one's aura of invincibility, and in the Lakers' case, they don't have it right now.

They still appear to be a shell of themselves. Whether it's age and attrition gnawing at Kobe's arsenal or Derek Fisher's production, mixtapes and sneaker deals poking at Ron Artest, reality TV and Khloe Kardashian distracting Lamar Odom or all of the above being just a bit too much for Pau Gasol's nerves, the Lakers are not what they were. But the threats aren't just within the team.

The San Antonio Spurs, at 50-11, are 7½ games better than L.A., relatively healthy (despite the recent knee injury to Tony Parker that will leave him out for two to four weeks) and clearly gearing themselves for a championship run. The Mavs are the second seed out West, tougher and more athletic with Tyson Chandler in the middle instead of Erick Dampier. They have Dirk Nowitzki playing like an MVP and seem destined for big things if Caron Butler somehow manages to come back from his knee injury in time for their postseason run.

Then there are the Oklahoma City Thunder, arguably the biggest threat to the Lakers because of a superstar in Kevin Durant, an All-Star who always seems to love abusing the Lakers in Russell Westbrook and a recent trade that added muscle to their front line in center Kendrick Perkins.

The Portland Trail Blazers are a threat, too, especially if Brandon Roy gets healthy, now that they acquired an athletic defender and rebounder in forward Gerald Wallace from Charlotte before the NBA's trade deadline. And guess who the Lakers would play in the first round if the postseason began today?

"Who cares?" Bryant deadpanned a few days ago. "I told you before, when you've won championships and you're with that same crew, you worry about yourself. You don't preoccupy yourself spending time worrying about anyone else."

Normally, that's a beautiful strategy. Perfect for implementation, actually, when things are firing on all cylinders. But there's a reason that plenty of Lakers fans haven't hesitated to hit the panic button as this season has progressed. They've seen a less focused Lakers team. They've wondered aloud about the production and reliability of Andrew Bynum and the collateral damage that his absence -- literally or figuratively -- could cause.

Such matters are called legitimate concerns, particularly when the Lakers could have two or three series in which they would yield home-court advantage in their pursuit of a three-peat.

"Hey, I'm not about to antagonize a champion," Carlisle added after beating the 76ers in Philadelphia on Tuesday night. "The Lakers have what all of us want. They've earned it. But if we're being honest, no matter how good they still are, a few teams have gotten better this season. And I've got news for you: All of them are not in the Eastern Conference.

"There's been a lot of talk about LeBron [James] in Miami, Derrick Rose in Chicago. Boston is obviously real, real tough. So is Orlando, and now you have Carmelo [Anthony] in New York with Amare Stoudemire. But Tim Duncan is still around. So is Manu Ginobili.
"There's [Nowitzki] and Jason Terry and Jason Kidd with us. We're tougher, more athletic and hungrier than we've been in the past, in my opinion. And guess what: We're not the only ones. As far as I can tell, this league is as wide-open as it's been as far as I can remember in recent history, and quite honestly, I'm loving it. We're looking forward to it."

Yeah, but Kobe is, too.

For all the talk about the toll taken after 14-plus seasons in this league, few ever give Bryant credit for pacing himself to be at peak condition come playoff time. As Tim Grover, the famed trainer for Michael Jordan who's done some work with Bryant, once told me:

"There are talents, and then there are some who are just on another level because of their focus, commitment and dedication to being the best … at pivotal moments when only the best are summoned to be the best. Kobe is one of those rare individuals. He wants it so bad. We've seen the evidence."

Indeed, we have. For years now, actually.

But never against this level of competition. With so many question marks, to boot. Stay tuned.

Follow Stephen A. Smith on Twitter: @stephenasmith