Lakers should not pursue 72-win mark set by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls
There the Lakers sat on the bench laughing as frequently and quickly as a sitcom soundtrack.
With ice bags wrapped around his right knee, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant huddled between Lamar Odom and Shannon Brown. With Bryant's arms wrapped around each of them, they all bore wide smiles across their face. A few seats down, Lakers forward Ron Artest cusped his hand over his mouth and whispered to Pau Gasol. In return, Gasol let out the kind of boisterous laugh you'd see out of an uncle amused by the antics of his young nephew. What they said during the final minutes of the Lakers' 121-96 victory Sunday over the Portland Trail Blazers wasn't so much important. But their body language revealed a lot about the Lakers' current state of being.
The Lakers' 7-0 start, the fifth time the franchise reached such a mark, has given the team a shot of confidence and closeness. A walk into the locker room a few minutes later reveals that positive vibe remaining, but with a more measured attitude. Bryant bore a smile at his looker while his feet were in water not just because of the Lakers' start, but because the team's strong play allowed him to play only 25 minutes. Artest remained upbeat because of his suffocating defense on Brandon Roy that resulted in a one of six mark from field-goal range, but he said very little about Roy and his defense, a new effort in minimizing his silly yet harmless statements that attract plenty of media attention. Gasol reveled the spotlight surrounding his fourth career triple double, but stressed he's simply just trying to fill a void left by Andrew Bynum's absence. And Lakers forward Lamar Odom clarified a reporter's question on whether the Lakers can lose, and using it as a launching point into what the team's current mindset.
"You expect to almost fall short a little bit of perfection," Odom said. "But you should always strive for it. Go for the moon and hit a star."
Of course, the latest barometer being discussed involves whether the Lakers can surpass the 72-win regular-season mark, a record set by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls and a topic that seemingly comes up at the beginning of the regular season. For the same reasons the 2008-09 Lakers and 2009-10 Lakers didn't surpass the mark are the same reasons the Lakers shouldn't pursue.
I listed plenty of reasons why the Lakers shouldn't fall into this trap, but with Bryant expediting his rehabilitation process, Gasol and Odom proving almost unstoppable on the frontline, Artest providing his usual tough defense in a more mobile form, Derek Fisher shooting as efficiently as he does in the postseason and a bolstered bench featuring Shannon Brown's marksmanship, Steve Blake's offensive directing and Matt Barnes' effective cutting and hustle, it might be another good reminder to explain again.
The reasons go beyond Phil Jackson's contention to reporters before the Portland game that his 1995-96 Chicago team played better on defense. Meanwhile, the Lakers have allowed at least 100 points in five of the seven games, though some of those numbers point to the bench making mistakes in inconsequential minutes, the Lakers' frontline fighting fatigue and the team still ironing out defensive rotations among its corps and newcomers alike.
Still, the Lakers' 11 remaining games only feature three teams that made the playoffs in Denver (Nov. 11), Phoenix (Nov. 14) and Utah (Nov. 25), and even those teams look different than in the 2010 postseason. It's also unclear how the Lakers' current strategy in ensuring long-term health among their starters will work, whether it's out of their control or not. And though I don't think the Lakers are already looking ahead to its matchup with the Miami Heat on Christmas Day as much as ESPN already has, a seven-game sample size can't properly predict how much their professional attitude and team-first mentality will last for the entire season.
For now, however, the Lakers are saying and doing the right things.
"We're winning, but we're just continuing to get better," Bryant said. It's not a big deal. We're 7-0 and you're all excited. We play for June so we just have to continue to get better."
The reason not to get excited about a 7-0 record is the same reason why the Lakers' 108-103 grind-it-out win Friday over a sub. 500 Toronto team shouldn't be viewed with the same lens as the team's 121-96 dominating victory Sunday against a playoff-contending but injury rattled Portland team. Both appear as nothing more than W's, but they convey different stories. The Toronto game showed how the Lakers lacked the necessary defensive communication to respond properly to screen-and-rolls, help defense and defensive rebounding. The Portland game showed how team work will produce winning results for both starters in decreased minutes and for reserves in increased opportunities. That's why it's smart the Lakers aren't playing to pursue Chicago's regular-season record because it will only serve as a false barometer for their team' success.
"We don't really try to go for the best record," Gasol said. "We just try to deal with the everyday situations. So far, we're doing good and we're playing well."
The reasons also point to the increased chances that the Lakers burn out, which directly contradicts their current strategy in sustaining an experienced and basketball-mileage heavy lineup. As The Times' Mark Heisler mused: "Since Lakers fans deserve an update on their team's chances — now far better than Miami's since they only have to finish 65-10 — here it is: 0%. Here's my methodology: I take the hype from their 21-3 and 23-4 starts the last two seasons and note their win total at the end, 65 and 57, respectively. Then I multiply by Coach Phil Jackson's inclination to push them — zero — and come up with zero!" Heisler then continued: "Coming off two long title runs, yet to finish a season with their whole team healthy, pushing that hard is not on the Lakers' agenda. The trick is to play hard enough to play well enough to win the West."
This may open up temptations for the Lakers simply to mail in performances, a tendency they've known to follow during their three-peat from 1999-2002 and had displayed at times last season. But this shouldn't be a test on how much the Lakers can skate by on talent alone, but how smartly they manage their resources. That means playing well enough for starters to earn rest, reserves to play minutes and sustain leads and everyone making incremental improvement as the season progresses.
Actively pursuing the 72-win mark would only lead the Lakers astray in becoming more worried about the result than the actual process. It would also lead to a different strategy in which the Lakers play to win the game than to actually improve and remain healthy. The win-at-all costs mentality only proves necessary for the playoffs, a standard that will prove more important for the Lakers' own success and well-being. So even if the Lakers' 7-0 record reveals very little about the ability to break the 72-win plateau, it reveals the ingredients necessary for a championship.
"Intelligence, toughness and unselfishness," Bryant listed as qualities championship teams need. "We have all three. We also have size and everyone can make plays. Normally teams have one or two guys who can be playmakers but here everybody can make plays for everybody else."
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Photo: Portland forward Nicolas Batum, left, tries to prevent Lakers guard Kobe Bryant from getting off a shot during the Lakers' 121-96 victory Sunday at Staples Center.Credit: Barbara Davidson/Los Angeles Times
Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, right, looks for a way past Portland forward Nicolas Batum during the first half of the Lakers' 121-96 victory Sunday at Staples Center. Credit: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times