Usually there is quite a wait for NBA drama . . . like until April. But not this season, not with the Lakers in last place, Dallas still undefeated and Yao Ming humbling Charles Barkley on national TV. Even the winless Memphis Grizzlies have been worth watching because of a 69-year-old coach who was old-school in the 1970s and now has the task of connecting with a kid whose game is so flavorful his nickname is White Chocolate.

That the Grizzlies and Lakers have anything in common three weeks into the season has to be completely unsettling to the three-time champions. It's not often a champ needs to demonstrate a sense of urgency in November, but at 3-9 and nine full games behind the Mavericks in the Western Conference, the Lakers really did need Shaquille O'Neal to return to the lineup and they need to go on a riff right now. You know how Phil Jackson and Shaq exude Zen and cool, respectively, regardless of the apparent emergency? Well, that's over for now.

As Jackson said Thursday in Los Angeles, "We're just holding our breath." The Los Angeles Times reports that Kobe Bryant stood in the middle of the locker room the other night and said, "We're going for a four-peat. It's only right that we make the story really, really difficult and complex. It has to happen."

It would certainly give the season a Perils of Pauline quality about it. Ideally, Shaq would have come back Dec. 1 (about the same time the Grizzlies should win their first game). Jackson said he told Shaq on Thursday, "Don't [come back] because of our record; do it because you are healthy." True enough, worse than missing another week would be Shaq coming back too soon, playing on a foot that isn't ready, and having to sit for three or four more weeks. As fabulous as Bryant is -- and I think he's the best all-court player in the game along with Tracy McGrady -- there's ample evidence now that Bryant is the Scottie Pippen to Shaq's Jordan. Since the start of the 2001 season, the Lakers are 13-3 without Bryant, but 15-20 without Shaq.

But with Shaq back, the Lakers will be back. Of course, it's that simple. All the guys who have a hand in their face now, like Rick Fox and Derek Fisher and Robert Horry, will find a little more shooting room because Shaq is wreaking havoc inside. You think the teams have been afraid of Samaki Walker thus far? As the Mavericks' Dirk Nowitzki said the other night, "Shaq is the Lakers, pretty much."

A champion on a rampage is good stuff for any league, especially when there's an attractive new challenger threatening to run off with the regular season. Okay, there are plenty of seats aboard the Dallas Mavericks' bandwagon for the simple reason that nobody believes Dallas will be able to play a lick of defense come springtime. It looks good early, the Mavs holding teams to 88 points a game while scoring more than 100, and 7-foot-6 Shawn Bradley rebounding and blocking shots in the middle better than he has in five or six years.

This doesn't appear to be a team built for being nasty. Even though Don Nelson played for Red Auerbach, Nellie's teams in Milwaukee, Golden State and Dallas have always been mostly eye candy. He's Don Coryell on offense. The Mavericks are every bit as lovely to watch as Sacramento, but don't ask Dallas to get dirty on the tough end of the floor. I don't want to sound like too big a skeptic however, because the truth of the matter is Sacramento was dogged, legitimately, by the same criticism two and three years ago but the Kings learned last year during the regular season that they had no shot without improving their defense, and did so. That's where Dallas is now, should Nellie and his players really want to keep playing late in the spring.

That the Mavericks could be 12-0 going into this weekend and not be the biggest story in the state would seem implausible -- but it's true. Was it just a week ago that Barkley was saying on Turner Sports that he'd kiss co-analyst Kenny Smith's backside if Yao scored 19 points in a single game all season? Smith brought a live donkey on the show and Barkley obliged with a buss.

Somewhere on this page you've read Tony "Hangtime" Kornheiser ridicule Yao for being either a stick or a stiff or both who was a wasted first-round pick and unimportant to the league, blah, blah, blah. We need to find something for Kornheiser to kiss now that Yao has scored 20 points, then 30 in two of his last three games, while making 31 of 35 shots. Oh. See, here's what Yao Ming is that a lot of folks don't want to acknowledge: an athlete. As Rockets setup man Steve Francis said the other day, Yao Ming has been here less than two months. He missed most of training camp, he's still learning English (though I have spoken to him in English that is perfectly understandable), and he's still learning that "throw it down" isn't a luxury in the NBA, it's a prerequisite.

One thing you can say about foreign-born players who have come straight to the NBA in recent years is that they tend to max out. They're not spoiled rotten, they accept coaching and they aren't distracted by posses and leeching relatives. They come from Eastern Europe, Africa and now Asia for the specific mission of becoming as good as they can be at playing basketball. Some of them, like Nowitzki and Peja Stojakovic are becoming great players.

I remember in 1997, Jordan talking about how disruptive Big Gheorghe Muresan was. Muresan was immobile. Yao Ming isn't. Oh, and while Jordan's old club, the Chicago Bulls, was being reintroduced to Shaq on Friday night, Jordan's current team, the Wizards, got their first eyeful of Yao Ming. In fact, the Wizards get tossed right into the big national storylines, having to play at Houston and at Memphis this weekend.

Sidney Lowe was 0-7, and now Brown, who was brought in by new boss Jerry West essentially to teach a bunch of kiddies how to play the game, is 0-4. If anybody other than West had made this hire, it would have been assailed (including in this space) as insane. As it is, while they're in route to probably an 0-17 start, the Grizzlies have grown more competitive, and if they learn to play the game at the knee of a truly knowledgeable basketball guru, maybe they can take themselves out of the headlines before the holidays.

Shaquille O'Neal's return from foot surgery almost certainly will help turn Lakers around, though they must hope that he isn't coming back too soon.