Updated: December 12, 2009, 1:36 AM ET

Daily Dime TV

Portland A Pretender?

By John Hollinger
ESPN.com

Will a plausible rival to the Lakers in the Western Conference please step forward?

A month into the season the Lakers look as good as ever, but their competition for the conference crown seems deeply flawed. Not only do today's Playoff Odds project no West team besides L.A. to win more than 52 games, today's Power Rankings place only one West team -- the aforementioned Lakers -- in the league's top five.

Suffice it to say that most of L.A.'s potential foils have disappointed. Denver, its chief rival a year ago, has looked like a champion on some nights and a lottery team on others. On Thursday night, for instance, the Nuggets managed to lose to a Detroit team that was missing Will Bynum, Ben Gordon, Tayshaun Prince and Richard Hamilton. San Antonio, another rival on paper, may scramble just to make the playoffs as age and injuries continue to chip away at the Spurs' nucleus. Similar cases apply as we call the roll: The Hornets, Rockets and Jazz also look well short of their standard of the previous two seasons, while Dallas doesn't seem any better than last season's second-round speed bumps.

And then there's Portland. If there was one team I thought could provide a legitimate threat to Laker hegemony in the Western Conference, it was the Trail Blazers. They were young, they had size and they seemed to match up well against L.A.

But at the one-quarter mark of the season, the aspirations in Portland are no longer the sugarplum dreams of reaching the Finals but the less lofty concern of making the playoffs. The 14-9 Blazers are a far cry from the squad that won 54 games a year ago and boasted the league's best scoring margin after the All-Star break, especially at the offensive end.

Read the rest of Hollinger's PER Diem Insider

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