By: Ryan Ganzenmuller

Senior Sports Writer

By: Justin Tasch

Assistant Sports Editor

There are a lot of dangerous teams in the NBA this year, and the Lakers are always at the top of the list. But I don’t see another three-peat in LA’s future (sorry, Clippers fans).

There are two tiers of top teams in the NBA this year: those who have proven themselves in the postseason and those who haven’t. Despite some of the overwhelming talent on some of these young rosters, the simple fact is that dethroning heavyweights is a lot easier in the NCAA than it is in the NBA. Over a seven-game series, true colors come out, and I have to go with a team that has proven time and again that it belongs with the elites: the San Antonio Spurs.

Before I tell you why, I have to explain why other teams aren’t ahead of the Spurs in my mind. In the Eastern Conference, the Celtics are the top dogs, but if people were worried about their old and tattered superstars LAST year, this year can’t be much better. They have a great record, but I think they will wear down when it counts this time. Everyone is talking about the Heat, but I don’t think they have the constant cohesiveness of a championship team, and neither do the retooled Magic. The Bulls and Knicks haven’t proven themselves in playoff situations, and the Hawks always suck in the playoffs.

In the West, the Thunder are also unproven postseason contenders but I love their talent. The Nuggets shouldn’t have Carmelo come playoff time, the Jazz don’t have enough talent, the Hornets are proving to be too streaky with not enough scoring pieces and the Mavericks are perennial playoff losers as well. This essentially leaves the Lakers and Spurs, and this is why I like the Spurs this year.

San Antonio is 39-7 right now. The team has lost back-to-back games only once all year. It has players that have won championships and hungry young bench players who haven’t. Manu Ginobili is playing phenomenal basketball and Tony Parker is running the point particularly well. Tim Duncan isn’t scoring like he used to, but the Spurs are playing him an average of just 29 minutes per night. Even Ginobili is under 30 minutes a game. The Spurs are doing what the Celtics have done in recent years: resting their weary older players for a playoff run.

Now put that into perspective: the Spurs are playing at less than their full potential by resting their guys and they’re STILL not losing. What are they going to be like when they’re playing at 100 percent? I think we’re back to the days of a few years ago when the Lakers had trouble contending with the Spurs. My problem is that we have seen just one Spurs-Lakers matchup; there are three to be played in the second half of the season. Nevertheless, the Spurs are the team to beat in the NBA right now as they gear up for a deep playoff run.

The 2010-11 season has marked the beginning of a new era in the NBA. The Miami Heat has taken the league by storm with “The Big 3,” the Knicks and Bulls have returned to prominence and the young Thunder has emerged as legitimate title contenders. Some of the mainstays, including Boston and San Antonio, are holding off the rising teams. By season’s end, though, it will seem as if nothing has changed. The Los Angeles Lakers are the two-time defending NBA Champions and despite being six games behind the Spurs in the conference standings, the Lakers are the team to beat.

The return of Andrew Bynum from injury in mid-December gave the Lakers back the extra length and youth that make them one of, if not the, most well-rounded team in the association. After a slow start coming back, he’s averaging 13.3 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game during the month of January, a month in which the Lakers have lost just three games. Bynum’s return has paid dividends for Pau Gasol, who was able to return to his more natural power forward position.

Bynum’s return also forced Lamar Odom to the bench, which may not have pleased Odom too much, but has created an ideal situation for Los Angeles. Odom will now be the favorite for the Sixth Man of the Year award. Odom’s minutes have dropped about seven minutes per game in January, but he’s still averaging 14.9 points and 9.5 rebounds per game in that time while shooting 56.5 percent from the field. I have seen a big push from NBA broadcasters for Odom to make the All-Star team. Although I don’t think it will happen, he certainly deserves to be in the conversation, which does speak to how valuable Odom is to the Lakers.

I haven’t even mentioned Kobe Bryant yet. The 13-time All-Star is averaging 24.9 points per game, just 0.3 points below his career average. His statistics across the board are all on par with his career averages, showing that he is still the best player in the game, despite playing in his 15th season. Bryant’s skills have not diminished on the defensive end either, as he remains one of the best defensive guards in the NBA. Ultimately, though, it will be Bryant’s clutch shooting late in games that will bring the Lakers back to the NBA Finals.

Bryant is far from calling it quits, but the same cannot be said for his coach, Phil Jackson. Jackson has stated that he will retire following the conclusion of this season. The first nine of Jackson’s 11 rings as a coach came in the form of three-peats. I couldn’t think of a more fitting way for this season to end than to have Jackson clinch his fourth three-peat to cap off what has been an outstanding coaching career.