It may be somewhat surprising the Los Angeles Lakers aren't in first place. It's much more stunning the Philadelphia 76ers are.
Kobe Bryant would like to change the Lakers' status soon, but improvement on the road is needed.
Bryant gets a chance to climb the NBA's all-time scoring list while trying to help the Lakers bounce back from another road defeat as they face the 76ers on Monday night.
Los Angeles (14-10) has won the Pacific Division four consecutive seasons, winning two NBA titles and making a third finals appearance in that span. Things aren't going as smoothly in 2011-12, as the Lakers are second in the division, 1 1/2 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers.
Their 3-8 road record is one of the reasons for that gap, and those struggles continued with a 96-87 loss at Utah on Saturday.
"We just have to be patient, just be calm. We've been in this situation before," Bryant said after scoring 26 points.
Los Angeles has split the first two of this season-high six-game road trip, and will have to make do without Mike Brown on Monday. The league's 2009 coach of the year was suspended one game for making contact with an official while picking up two technicals in the fourth quarter against the Jazz.
Former 76ers assistant John Kuester will coach the team in Philadelphia.
Bryant leads the NBA with 29.4 points per game, an increase of 4.1 points from last season. The All-Star guard is also 24 points shy of passing former Lakers teammate Shaquille O'Neal (28,596) for fifth on the league's all-time scoring list, and he's averaged 25.0 points in helping the Lakers win nine of the last 11 versus the 76ers (17-7).
Bryant, though, scored just nine in his last visit to Philadelphia on Dec. 17, 2010, but Los Angeles overcame that to win 93-81. He was much better at home Dec. 31, 2010, scoring 33 points to power a 102-98 win and sweep of the season series.
The Sixers, however, might be the most improved team in the NBA this season. They're the surprising leaders in the Atlantic Division after finishing .500 last season and being eliminated in five games by Miami in the opening round of the playoffs.
Philadelphia also leads the Eastern Conference with a 12-3 home record despite a 99-79 defeat there to the Heat on Friday. The 76ers regrouped a day later by winning 98-87 at Atlanta, getting their fifth victory in six overall games.
They're also proving to be very balanced offensively, and that was clear against the Hawks. Six players - five reserves - reached double-digit points with rookie backup forward-center Nikola Vucevic leading the way with a season-high 15. He averages 5.5 points.
"That's what you've got to have," center Spencer Hawes said. "That's the measure of teams that are able to thrive in this kind of setup."
Philadelphia may need Vucevic and the rest of the bench to continue contributing, as Elton Brand's status is unknown after he sat out Saturday's win with a sprained right thumb. The forward is averaging 10.1 points and 6.7 rebounds.
Hawes believes the compressed schedule due to the lockout is one reason the Sixers are getting balanced scoring. Six players are averaging at least 10.0 points, with Louis Williams leading the way at 15.1 points per game.
"This season is going to be weird like that." said Hawes, who is averaging 10.7 points and 8.5 boards. "There's going to be different guys every night."