The hopeful thinking among Laker fans is that since the team is better, Kobe Bryant must be happier.

One problem: The Lakers aren't better. At least, not yet.

Los Angeles certainly looks to be an improved team, sitting right behind Phoenix for the Pacific Division lead. But the Lakers' 18-10 record was the same after 28 games as it was last season, when they limped to the finish after a number of injuries and ended up 42-40, getting knocked out by the Suns in the first round.

Perhaps that's why coach Phil Jackson doesn't get too excited about the Lakers' start and won't predict how the Bryant saga will finish.

"You can't project the future, but you just know as a coach that adversity happens, guys get injured, things happen in a season and we experienced that last year," Jackson said.

Los Angeles got to 26-13 last season before the injuries started to set in. Lamar Odom missed 26 games with knee and shoulder injuries. Kwame Brown missed half the season, mostly because of ankle injuries, the same problem that forced Luke Walton to miss 22 games. Vladimir Radmanovic was out 24 games after separating his shoulder snowboarding.

That dropped the Lakers all the way to the No. 7 seed, and they were easily handed by the Suns in five games. Not long after, Bryant said he wanted to be traded, a statement he has never fully backed off. ...

For any Western Conference team looking to duplicate Golden State's playoff success from last season, here's a piece of advice from Don Nelson.

Win more games.

The Warriors used a strong finishing kick to grab the No. 8 seed with a 42-40 record, then stunned the 67-win Dallas Mavericks in six games, perhaps the biggest postseason upset in NBA history.

But Nelson thinks 42-40 may leave a team home this season when the playoffs begin.

"It looks like (42 wins) may not be good enough this year. It may be 44-45," he said. "Once we start playing against the West we beat each other up, so you never know. But I think most of the West teams that go east are doing pretty well. We have taken care of business out there and I think most other teams have as well."

At this point, even 45 wins could leave a team short in the powerful West. The surprising Portland Trail Blazers had surged into the No. 8 spot heading into the weekend with a 16-12 record, which put them on pace for nearly 47 victories.

Perhaps the Blazers become last season's Warriors.

"It's hard to predict, but with the emergence of Portland, who would have ever thought they were going to be in the playoff picture this year at the beginning of the season," Nelson said. "And not only are they in it, they're in it solid. That's what is fun about it really.

"(The Trail Blazers) are very well coached and everybody is playing at a really high level and together and that's what you hope your team will do." ...

Reggie Theus remembers the days when he expected to take an elbow to the nose or eye each time he stepped on the court. That was a while ago, and the first-year coach of the Sacramento Kings misses the old-school NBA.

These are the no-contact times.

"In some ways they're trying to take contact out of the game and it's taking away from the game," Theus said, noting he got into only one fight during his 13-year playing career. "It is soft. You went into the game expecting to get hit. ... It's also hurt the skill level. I think they've taken the physicality out of the game. It's like an ecosystem: You take away this insect and you're getting rid of something over here."

And for those players who still do get away with being physical, Theus said: "There are some guys. They stick out like a sore thumb." ...

The hottest teams in the Eastern Conference heading into the weekend were all the usual suspects: Detroit, Boston and Atlanta.


Yes, the Hawks, who are hoping to end the longest current playoff drought in the NBA. They brought a five-game winning streak and a 15-12 record, fourth-best in the East, into Saturday's game at Dallas.

"We're just playing more relaxed, and guys have another year under their belt," leading scorer Joe Johnson said. "Growing up is definitely a part of it. We're just taking our time. In years past, when teams made a run, we tended to try to get it all back at once. But now we're just taking our time on offense, and it's coming easier to us."

Not much has come easily in recent years. The Hawks haven't been in the postseason since the 1998-99 season, also the last time they had a winning record. But they have balance on the offensive end and are above average defensively, sparking their turnaround. ...

Larry Johnson, the former NBA star received a degree in social science at UNLV's winter commencement. Johnson is back in Dallas and has told friends he wants to teach at his former middle school.