- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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What makes the Los Angeles Lakers a great team?
Is it their elite pieces up top? A Hall of Fame coach in Phil Jackson. An all-time great in Kobe Bryant. A perennial All-Star in Pau Gasol. A do-everything gold medalist in Lamar Odom. A captain who is particularly great in crunch time in Derek Fisher. A defensive dynamo in Ron Artest. A burgeoning big body in Andrew Bynum.
Or is it their excess of talent down low? An early Sixth Man of the Year candidate in Shannon Brown. A championship-hungry Matt Barnes. A point guard perfectionist in Steve Blake. A pair of second-round steals in Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter. A couple of triangle-trained veterans in Luke Walton and Sasha Vujacic. A consummate professional like Theo Ratliff.
Take away the top half and you have a team mired in mediocrity but fueled by the promise of the future.
Take away the bottom half and you have a team capable of inspired spurts but vulnerable to being run down.
Together, neither is more valuable than the other because each makes the other better.
"It's the strength of our team ... our depth, our ability to get production from different guys," Odom said Tuesday after the Lakers' reserves outscored The Second City's second unit 39-10.
It's not something new for L.A. What made the difference in the team's Game 6 win against Boston in last season's Finals wasn't Kobe and Pau doing what they always do, it was the bench outscoring the Celtics' subs 25-13 in the 22-point runaway victory in that pressure-packed elimination game.
This season it's just been more consistent.
"If you think about us practicing against each other, that's how you get better, that's how you grow," Odom continued. "Shannon gets better because he guards Kobe, and Devin gets better because he has to get past Ron Artest, and Drew and Pau go at it. We kind of push each other and that's how you grow."
It seems almost greedy for a back-to-back championship team with a 13-2 record to worry about improving upon those already ridiculously successful achievements. But it's not. There's a little bit of John Wooden's philosophy behind it ("Complacency if the forerunner of mediocrity") and there's a little bit of Andy from "Shawshank Redemption" ("Get busy living or get busy dying").
When I was at Syracuse there was a saying that strength and conditioning coach Todd Forcier used to toss around when he was working out guys after practice and a player wanted to head to the locker room while a teammate stayed for extra drills. "So and so is getting better today, you don't want to?"
It was part athlete speak, appealing to a player's prideful side as a sort of guilt trip, but it was also a way to see results.
The Lakers' schedule has been easy. Nine of the first 15 games were played at home and only six of those opponents (Denver, Portland, Chicago, Milwaukee and Phoenix twice) were playoff teams a season ago.
Ten of their next 15 games are on the road and five of those 15 games are against teams with better than .500 records (Utah, Chicago, Miami and Indiana twice). After that they have a road back-to-back against San Antonio and New Orleans, two of the best teams in the West.
The encouraging thing for the Lakers is that their bench is showing it not only is using practices to push the first team to be better in games, but it is readying itself to play when it matters as well.
A kid can know all the motions and mechanics required to ride a bike, but he can't actually know that he's able to do it until the training wheels came off.
The Bulls took Gasol out of the game Tuesday, holding him to just 3-of-10 shooting and generally shutting down the passing lanes to reach him, but the Lakers' bench band played on without Gasol holding the back of their bicycle seat for support.
"We got things accomplished anyway and that's important," Jackson said about dissecting Tom Thibodeau's defense that gobbled up Gasol and doubled up Bryant. "When you can do that, then you feel good about it as a team."
The Lakers took Chicago's best punch and came back with jabs from all directions from just about every player who stepped onto the court.
"We definitely learned some things tonight about our team and we can play in those kind of games," Barnes said. "Game after game, practice by practice, we just try to get better."
Improvement is an inexact science. The only way to measure if progress is truly being made is if the end result is met. For a defending champion, that means continuing to beat the betterment drum until another championship is earned.
"You don't gauge it," Bryant said. "You just continue to improve and move on to the next game."
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
The scariest thing about the Lakers these days is that they have grown a bench.