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2008, November 11: ESPN.com Daily Dime – Checking Out Club 5W

November 18, 2008

 ESPN.com Daily Dime – Checking Out Club 5W
November 11, 2008.
By Jalen Rose – ESPN

Looking at the standings today, we've got six teams with five wins or more. Let's briefly break down how these fast-starting clubs have moved past the velvet ropes of the elite Club 5W. In no particular order…

• Los Angeles Lakers (5-0)
The best all-around team early in the season — dominant defensively and offensively even while Kobe Bryant is playing "just" a team brand of basketball. However, the NBA schedule always tests you. They will keep winning, but they're not going 82-0. There will be some tough losses that should allow coach Phil Jackson to work his magic.

• Phoenix Suns (6-2)
Amare Stoudemire will be an MVP candidate, and this team has as many offensive weapons as any team in the league. New coach Terry Porter is stressing balance on both ends of the floor.

Steve Nash will still have chances to push pace when he gets opportunities to run. Most importantly, for the Suns to be an elite team, they need to get Leandro Barbosa and Boris Diaw to play at a high level. We saw Barbosa give them exactly that effort in Monday's 107-102 victory over Memphis, in which he had 16 points in the fourth quarter.

However, over an 82-game schedule, when you have a team that includes several players above the age of 30, the schedule tests your legs. A lot of times shots that fall earlier in the season don't drop at the end. Also: Will the Suns be able rely on defense to win some games?

I think they will be a playoff team, a No. 6-8 seed — they should win well over 50, but 60 is pushing it.

• Atlanta Hawks (5-0)
This team is growing up, and the young players are contributing. Josh Smith is one of great defenders in the game, and Al Horford is showing himself to be a consistent young big man who can score, rebound and play defense. Joe Johnson is an all-around talent — one of only a handful of guys in the game who can start at the 1, 2 or 3 and still be just as effective. Off the bench, Ronald "Flip" Murray has made positive contributions.

The pitfall in the short term is going to be Smith's health. While he recovers from an ankle sprain, the Hawks will miss him.

I think we still need to wait and see on this team. Last season's 37-win team showed it can compete in the playoffs — now the challenge is having the energy and competitive drive to secure a better playoff seed.

• Cleveland Cavaliers (5-2)
LeBron James is off the charts with 41 points twice already this season against the Bulls. He gave the Bulls a chance to look in the mirror and see a different No. 23 dominate. Mo Williams is finding his stride.

But I still want to see how the Cavs' small backcourt holds up — and having Delonte West and Mo in the backcourt makes for a small tandem. That's something teams might try to take advantage of. Still, I saw Cleveland as a top-three team in the East, and I still feel that way.

•  Boston Celtics (7-1)
Paul Pierce is my MVP so far, boosted by his huge fourth-quarter performance against the Raptors on Monday night. His maturation and confidence in being the champion is very evident by the way he's performing. This is a complete team and a joy to watch. You can't minimize Kevin Garnett's excitement and enthusiasm, and Ray Allen still has the sweetest stroke in the game. Kendrick Perkins is a physical presence who is helping control the paint.

Doc Rivers is officially in the NBA's coaching elite. His team understands they won the championship by playing defense, a quality that puts them head and shoulders above the rest as the best team in the East.

• Utah Jazz (5-1)
This team just began a five-game East trip with a loss in New York. Playing without an injured Deron Williams on the road is about to catch up with them. Mehmet Okur is gone, too, tending a family matter in Turkey. This is going to be uphill battle.

It's early, but this trip might be crucial. The Jazz play very well at home — the toughest home court in the league — but getting W's on road is vital. If they get some consistent intensity on the road, that will help them finish as a top-four seed — which will be imperative for them to advance.

It was great to see coach Jerry Sloan get his 1,000th win with the Jazz — his consistency and character make him one of those stories that transcend sports.

Jalen Rose is an NBA analyst for ESPN and a regular Daily Dime contributor
http://sports.espn.go.com/nba/dailydime?page=dime-081111