By: Jim Eichenhofer,, @Jim_Eichenhofer
December 29, 2010

Two teams that started a combined 16-0 this season meet in New Orleans, for the first of four head-to-head matchups between the Hornets and Lakers. These same clubs will square off again in less than two weeks, on Jan. 7 in Los Angeles. The Lakers will return to the Big Easy on Saturday, Feb. 5, which is Super Bowl eve, before the teams wrap up the season series March 27 in the City of Angels.

Like the Hornets, the two-time defending NBA champion Lakers began their regular season slate with eight consecutive victories. They then went through a bit of a rough stretch, especially by their lofty standards, with a 5-6 mark that put them at 13-6 overall.

The Lakers are again headlined by future Hall of Fame guard Kobe Bryant, who ranks among the NBAs leading scorers. Second offensive option Pau Gasol has continued his ascension as one of the premier frontcourt players in the league, while forward Lamar Odom is having a career year. Los Angeles also made a pair of excellent summer additions by signing free agents Matt Barnes and Steve Blake to contracts. Despite the injury absence of 7-footer Andrew Bynum, who returned to action in mid-December, the Lakers remain in the hunt for the best record in the Western Conference. Theyre seeking their third straight NBA championship, as well as a fourth consecutive conference title.

Lakers head coach Phil Jackson continues to build a case as the most successful sideline leader in NBA history, with a record 11 league championships. Jackson twice three-peated with the Chicago Bulls (1991-93 and 1996-98), while doing so once with the Lakers (2000-02).


Small forward, Trevor Ariza vs. Ron Artest
Interestingly, Ariza won a championship as the starter at this position for the Lakers in 2009, with Artest doing likewise in 2010. Many fans and media questioned whether Artest could replace Ariza as Los Angeles new starter last season, or if the mercurial Artest might disrupt team chemistry. Ultimately, the Lakers edged Boston in the 2010 NBA Finals, with Artest serving as a somewhat unlikely offensive star in Game 7 when Kobe Bryants shooting touch faltered. Adding to the unique parallels between Ariza and Artest, Ariza replaced Artest in Houstons lineup last season..

A closer look at the Los Angeles Lakers:

Kobe Bryant

Pau Gasol

Although several rising superstars such as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have made challenges to his title over the past few years, in a recent Sports Illustrated poll, Kobe Bryant was voted the NBAs best player by his peers. Now in his 15th season and at age 32, Bryant is one of the premier shooting guards in league history. While spending his entire pro career with the Lakers, hes captured five championships (2000-02, 2009 and 2010) and was named the NBAs Most Valuable Player in 2007-08 (the Hornets Chris Paul finished as the runner-up that season). Bryant has put together another excellent season in 2010-11, although his individual stats are a bit lower than usual, partly because the talent around him makes the Lakers arguably the deepest team in the NBA.

At age 36, NBA observers continue to predict the decline of longtime Lakers stalwart Derek Fisher, but the wily point guard always manages to make big shot after big shot each spring during the NBA postseason. Fisher produced one of the most memorable shots in NBA playoff history when he beat the Spurs at the buzzer in Game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference finals. San Antonio won league titles in 2003 and 2005, but was foiled in 04 by Fishers heroic shot, which he fired off an inbounds pass with only four-tenths of a second remaining.

Shannon Brown is making an early bid for the NBAs Most Improved Player award in 2010-11. Mostly known prior to this season for his athleticism, Brown has upgraded his shooting touch considerably. As a result, the fifth-year pro has been the Lakers most important reserve and their only second-unit member averaging double figures in scoring.

In a Lakers offensive attack that is often dependent on point guards being able to make open shots that are created by Bryant and Pau Gasol, backup Steve Blake appears to be an excellent fit. The eighth-year pro from Maryland was at a red-hot 46 percent from three-point range through the teams first 28 games. In his first game as a Laker in October, Blake drained a game-winning shot vs. Houston.

With center Andrew Bynum getting a late start to this season due to offseason surgery, Lamar Odom stepped into the starting lineup from Game 1 and has put together repeated superb performances. Odoms career-best season has consisted of him nearly averaging a double-double (15.8 points, 9.8 rebounds), while shooting extremely well from the field and three-point range. The multi-skilled left-hander is unique in his ability to handle the ball and pass, despite being 6-foot-10, 230 pounds.

Ron Artest has been one of the most polarizing players in the NBA over his 12-year career, with includes stops in Chicago, Indiana, Sacramento, Houston and now Los Angeles. In his prime, Artest was regarded as perhaps the NBAs best two-way player, meaning he was an valuable contributor on offense and defense. In 2004, Artest was voted the NBAs Defensive Player of the Year.

In terms of playing style and competitiveness, Matt Barnes is cut from the same cloth as Artest. It took several years for Barnes to cement a permanent role in the NBA; en route to doing so hes been known as a defender who can get under opposing players skin. In fact, when Barnes was a member of the Orlando Magic last season, he was involved in multiple minor on-floor scrapes with his now-teammate Kobe Bryant. Barnes is a former outstanding high school wide receiver who briefly considered an NFL career prior to securing a guaranteed NBA contract.

Luke Walton, the son of Hall of Fame center and outspoken NBA analyst Bill Walton, has been hampered by injuries in recent years. Hes started a total of 138 games for the Lakers, but none since the 2008-09 season.

Joe Smith was acquired by the Lakers in a December trade with the Nets. The 35-year-old is a former No. 1 overall draft pick who now provides teams with experience and depth in the frontcourt.

Rookie second-round picks Derrick Caracter and Devin Ebanks were stars at UTEP and West Virginia a season ago, respectively. Theyre periodically called upon to play, with Caracter a bit more likely thus far to get onto the floor.

People often forget that prior to the Lakers stunning acquisition of Pau Gasol midway through the 2007-08 season, Los Angeles had not been considered a legitimate championship contender. Even with the individual exploits of Kobe, the Lakers did not make the playoffs in 2005 and were ousted in the postseasons first round in both 2006 and 2007 by Phoenix. Gasols arrival from Memphis was a pivotal move that changed the shape of the Western Conference and NBA title races. As a Laker, Gasol has frequently dominated opposing big men, while being named an All-Star the past two years. His deft shooting and passing ability make him one of the most skilled frontcourt players in the league.

Andrew Bynum underwent offseason knee surgery, which delayed his season debut until Dec. 14. Through his first handful of games, the Lakers were gradually attempting to integrate Bynum into the mix. The 7-foot, 285-pounder is a true center who gives L.A. another solid option in the paint.

Theo Ratliff, 37, was added this summer partly to provide depth during Bynums absence. However, Ratliff was expected to be sidelined four to six weeks after undergoing knee surgery in mid-November.

Players the Lakers want shooting free throws in a close game
Name Career FT percentage (through Dec. 27)
Derek Fisher 81.7
Off to best start of his 15-year career from foul line.
Shannon Brown 80.3
Over 90 percent this season for first time as a pro.
Slightly more accurate than Bryant (77.8). Gasol is at 74.5.
If the Lakers need a three-pointer, three of their best options are
Name Career 3-PT% (through Dec. 27)
Steve Blake 39.4
Of first 123 total shots this season, 87 were from beyond arc.
Derek Fisher 37.4
Ranks sixth all-time with 224 career NBA postseason treys.
Kobe Bryant 34.0
Has made countless game-winning jumpers in recent years.

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