Should the Lakers try to surpass 72 wins next season?
The topic has come up for the last two seasons, been met with a mixed reaction from the Lakers and then used as a false barometer to measure their success: namely, the pre-season prediction that the Lakers could surpass the Chicago Bulls' 72-game win record in the regular season that Michael Jordan and company set in the 1995-96 campaign. Some embrace it (Kobe Bryant). Some think it's misguided (Lakers Coach Phil Jackson). And then others milk it for everything it's worth (the media).
I don't mean to bring up this topic because I'm part of the circus and there's really nothing to talk about anymore during the NBA off-season. OK, part of that is true, but I'm bringing this up now as opposed to later because ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy recently told the Miami Herald that the Heat will surpass both the 72-win plateau and the 33-game consecutive winning streak set by the 1971-72 Lakers. I can write another separate post detailing why that prediction is unfounded, mainly because Miami will go through inevitable chemistry issues with the SuperTeam, every Eastern Conference team is gunning for them and a few squads that missed out on the LeBron sweepstakes (Chicago, New York, Cleveland) will throw everything at them to spite James.
But this being a Lakers blog, I think this issue also matters in terms of how the Lakers should approach the 2010-2011 season. Should the team set that as a benchmark? Or is it really a waste of time?
I see both sides to the argument. Proponents would say the Lakers surely have the talent to accomplish such a feat, and it would serve as a great motivating tool to get them through the grind at the regular season. Detractors would say the goal is misguided because it creates too much media pressure, serves as a false barometer and doesn't exactly equate with postseason success. Case in point, Cleveland finished the regular season with the league's best record the last two years and then imploded in the playoffs.
Given the makeup of the Lakers' roster, I think it's best to stay away from this idea for plenty of reasons. The Chicago Bulls accomplished that feat and prided themselves on doing so because they had a team that was completely dialed into winning. The team featured a superstar (Jordan), a sidekick (Scottie Pippen), a crazy but reliable specialized player (Dennis Rodman, in this case rebounding) and a pretty big supporting cast (Steve Kerr, Toni Kukoc, Luc Longley, Bill Wennington). On paper, it appears the Lakers would have a similar identity with a superstar (Bryant), a sidekick (Pau Gasol), a crazy but reliable specialized player (Ron Artest, in this case defense) and a pretty big supporting cast (Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum, Derek Fisher, Steve Blake, Matt Barnes and Shannon Brown). But the personalities are completely different. The '96 Bulls all appeared on the entire page, while I believe the Lakers would have a split between some embracing the challenge (Bryant, Artest, Barnes, Blake and Brown) and others seeing it as a meaningless exercise that will just burn them out in the postseason (Fisher, Gasol, Bynum, Odom). The reasons for the likely detractors would be varied, with Fisher wanting to save his fuel for the playoffs, Gasol fighting mood swings, Bynum worried about getting hurt and Odom being his unpredictable, laid-back self. So the only way this approach would work is if the team completely embraced the goal, proudly used it as a rallying cry and welcomed the constant media attention when they appeared to be falling short of reaching it.That won't happen. Instead of the goal becoming an exercise to help the team strive for constant improvement throughout the season, the Lakers would become fixated on a number. Add in an unpredictable injury or a tough spot in the schedule (which will be released later Tuesday) and you already set yourself up as being seen in not being able to surpass expectations. If history has proven anything, Jackson has tried motivating the Lakers by dangling short-term carrots, such as challenging his team to go undefeated during a home or road stand or finishing off a month undefeated. It was often met with mixed results last season, but I'm afraid raising the ante would only increase the likelihood that the Lakers would begin playing not to lose instead of trying to win.
Although it would be difficult, the Lakers have the talent to pull off the feat. But playing not to lose isn't a good attitude to have in the post-season, a mindset that could only make it more difficult to three-peat.
Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant with the Larry O'Brien NBA Championship Trophy as the team rides along the parade route in Los Angeles this year. Credit: Bryan Chan / Los Angeles Times