So, can anyone touch L.A.?
The Lakers juggernaut kept rolling with a win over Sacramento last night to improve to 11-1. L.A. now rates as having an 89.4 percent chance of earning the West's top seed for the playoffs, and a 57.2 percent chance of representing the West come June, according to today's Playoff Odds.
Phoenix looked to be among the most qualified challengers, sporting a huge frontline that was built partly with the idea of matching up against Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, and posting some solid results in the early going. But the Suns were clearly outclassed by L.A. on Thursday, more so than the 105-92 final indicated -- in fact, that's probably why both coaches took the unusual step of emptying their benches as early as you'll ever see (with three minutes left in a 13-point game).
And if not Phoenix, who?
As of today, no other Western team projects to win 51 games, and only one is within eight points of The Juggernaut in the Power Rankings. That team, surprisingly, is Portland, and while the Blazers are certainly young, exciting and ready to claim a playoff berth, they're also suspect defensively and reliant on jump shooting; at this stage they're also likely being overly rewarded for a 42-point win over Chicago.
Meanwhile, traditional Western powers like San Antonio, Houston, Utah and Dallas all have struggled in the early going, struggles that are even more glaring in contrast to The Juggernaut's dominance. Instead of the usual multi-team melee out West, it has quickly degenerated into a one-team race, with several stragglers trying to push into second.
Ultimately, if there's a genuine challenge for the Lakers in the West, it will come from either improved health or an improved roster. On the improved-health front, neither Utah nor San Antonio has been able to put its full arsenal on display yet, and both are essentially treading water while their star point guards recover from ankle sprains; the Jazz, in particular, seem dangerous once Deron Williams comes back. Houston can make a similar, if less strong, argument as to injuries. Nobody would be shocked if one of those three got hot in mid-December and started a charge up the standings.
And as far as improved rosters go, we still have three months until the trade deadline, which is an eternity for another team to come up with a game-changer. Denver, for instance, is sitting on a trade exception worth nearly $10 million; the Nuggets project as the West's No. 3 seed at the moment, and if they're pushing for No. 2 at the trade deadline they might decide it's worth paying luxury tax to supplement the Billups-Anthony-Nene core.
Meanwhile, those Blazers are sitting on a gold mine of an expiring contract in Raef LaFrentz, and despite their youth might be able to make a run if they can use his contract in a swap to upgrade the point-guard spot. Dallas (Jason Kidd) and Houston (Ron Artest) also sit on large expiring deals that could be game-changers in February. Of course, so are the Lakers with Lamar Odom, so L.A. might be able to trump the field anyway.
So for the other 14 teams in the West, the good news is that there's plenty of time for things to change. But the results of the first dozen games have cemented the idea that something will have to change, and change fairly severely, for the Lakers not to repeat as Western Conference champions this season.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.