For weeks this past summer, there was no shortage when it came to comparing the Miami Heat to the Los Angeles Lakers. The reigning champions and the would-be champions.
Then something rather curious happened last week: Comparisons began in the other direction, with the Lakers emulating the Heat's mid-November slide by coming up with their own losses to the Utah Jazz, Indiana Pacers and Memphis Grizzlies.
It by no means is a stretch to compare what ails each of the teams.
The Heat went into the season lacking quality front-line bulk; the Lakers joined the Heat in that predicament with Theo Ratliff joining Andrew Bynum on the sidelines.
The Heat went through the early stages of the season torched by opposing point guards; the Lakers remain unable to contain dribble penetration.
The Heat had LeBron James bemoaning his big minutes early; Lakers coach Phil Jackson is now lamenting the big minutes being force fed to forward-turned-center Pau Gasol.
The Heat, amid their struggles, all too often relied on James and Dwyane Wade forcing the action, running little in the way of a system; the Lakers have become less triangle and more high-volume Kobe.
The Heat has had Erik Spoelstra feverishly waving his arms as his players all too often walk the ball up court; Bryant has said of his Lakers, "It looks like we're running in quicksand."
And there is one more common bond, a bond of confidence.
When the Heat slipped to 8-7 a week ago in Orlando, forward Chris Bosh spoke of how the truest lessons come through failure, and that it was better than opening 15-0 but with a flawed approach that would be exposed later in the season.
Similarly, former Heat forward Lamar Odom parroted that thinking amid the Lakers' four-game losing streak.
"Muhammad Ali lost. Mike Tyson. Michael Jordan lost games and so on and so on," Odom said. "The best can lose. The Yankees."
Having listened to Heat players dismiss concerns these opening six weeks of the season, it's as if Odom was channeling James, Wade or Bosh.
"Whatever we're going through is probably good for us, to be humbled and brought down to earth and to understand we can lose basketball games if we don't play the right way and do all the little things we need to do as a group," Odom said.
"Being humbled is good."
Winning, of course, is better.
The Lakers' height problems will disappear when Bynum returns, assuming that this time he actually makes it all the way back. That also will alleviate the overreliance on Kobe and the minutes for Gasol. Unlike with the Heat, the Lakers have established a proven formula.
Yet, like that Heat, there is that pesky concern at point guard. For all the little things Steve Blake provides in support of Derek Fisher, on-the-ball-defense is not one of them. And in the West, the playoffs mean Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul.
If anything, what these opening weeks have shown is there is no perfect team, be it the New Orleans Hornets' return to reality, the San Antonio Spurs' loss to the Los Angeles Clippers or this latest Lakers lapse.
The Heat might have stood alone in terms of offseason arrogance. But in terms of early-season unevenness, there is plenty of respectable company.
IN THE LANE
COMMON DECENCY: Give Washington Wizards center Hilton Armstrong credit. From the moment he committed his flagrant foul last week on Heat backup center Joel Anthony he knew it was a mistake, one he paid for with a one-game NBA suspension. "It put chills in me. I didn't mean for that to happen at all," he told the Washington Post. Armstrong then was shoved aside by Juwan Howard as he attempted to help Anthony up. "I saw the way he fell, so in my mind, 'I hope he's OK'," Armstrong said of his immediate reaction. "I tried to go get him to see if he was all right and I got pushed."
ANOTHER PRECINCT: Add Celtics coach Doc Rivers to those who dispute the doubters when it comes to the Heat. "'I'm amused by all the talk," Rivers said before clearing out of Cleveland for the Heat's appearance. "Every game, they're evaluated. It's so early in the season. It's just going to take them time, but they're going to be good. I can guarantee it." Others, though, have had their fill. Take Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, after Wednesday's victory over the Chicago Bulls. "I didn't think this game meant anything," the former Heat coach said. "How did the Heat do? Is everybody happy there? That's all that will be on ESPN."
SPEAKING OF STAN: No, Van Gundy was not overly impressed with the middling Cavaliers leading the league in bench scoring. Of the stat in general, Van Gundy said, "People like to put that stat up on the ticker. All that means sometimes is that your starters stink."
MORE MCHALE: Which brings us to this week's latest criticism of the Heat by NBA TV analyst Kevin McHale. This week's topic was LeBron James' shoulder bump into Spoelstra. "I bumped into coaches a lot, sometimes on purpose. But when I wasn't mad, I would turn around and say, 'I'm sorry coach,' " McHale said in regard to last week's moment in Dallas. "Neither one said, 'I'm sorry.' It looked like Spoelstra said, 'I'm not moving,' and LeBron saying, 'I'm not moving.' "Actually, McHale mixed in a bit of praise. "I like," he said, "that Erik stood up there and said, 'This is my team and I'm going to coach it the way I want to coach.' "
BY THE NUMBERS
4. Times over the Heat's 23 seasons a Heat opponent has failed to place at least one starter in double figures in the scoring column, which happened this past week against Detroit, when Richard Hamilton led the Pistons' starters with nine points.
"When I see Miami highlights, I just go in the kitchen, get something to eat, get something to drink." -- Cavaliers coach Byron Scott, on removing himself from the LeBron James debate.