In case you've been distracted by other stuff, like the Mars Rover landing or the Chicago teachers' strike or the TomKat/K-Stew and R-Pattz splits, the Los Angeles Lakers have had what you might call an eventful offseason. They traded for Steve Nash, then they signed Antawn Jamison, then they traded for Dwight Howard, then their signature star won a gold medal and their stalwart Spanish (former) second banana won silver by being an all-world low-post force. They'll enter the upcoming season among the favorites to take the 2012-13 NBA championship alongside the defending champion Miami Heat and runner-up Oklahoma City Thunder, whose top guns, Lebrun James and Kevin Durant, recently made some headlines by working out together during the offseason (despite the fact that they did it last year, too).
During a recent radio interview with Max Kellerman and Marcellus Wiley on ESPN 710 AM in Los Angeles, transcribed by Chris Fedor of Sports Radio Interviews, enigmatic Lakers forward Metta World Peace said he would have loved to take part in the LBJ/KD workouts, "but they're Nike guys and Nike guys like to stick together." (The former Ron Artest is a BALL'N guy, which I'm sure is the only reason why they didn't invite him along.) But while World Peace does think players can learn something from one another in training, he doesn't see anything that James or Durant gleaned from their workouts helping them much, because "the way the Lakers look initially, I can't see nobody getting past us at all, so I don't think they're going to have a chance to see each other in the championship."
Pretty confident, Metta. But are you "make reckless claims about historic dominance" confident?
What he thinks about the team possibly not having Dwight Howard at the start of Training Camp:
"We definitely want to beat the Bulls record and go 73-9, that's definitely something that I want to do. Whoever is out there at the beginning of the season then we gotta get it. It's as simple as that. We just have to go get it. [Host: So that Bulls record is something you're thinking about?] No question. You try to snatch records before you leave this earth. You gotta try to do a lot of great things so it's definitely a goal. With Dwight Howard, [Steve] Nash, Kobe [Bryant], myself, Pau [Gasol] and then [Antawn] Jamison and a lot of great additions, it's something that's possible."
First off, solid answer to the question you were asked. "What do you think about Dwight missing some time?" "Well, we definitely want to win 73 games." Asked and answered, counselor. Moving on!
Now, to the meat of the matter: This is obviously going to be very difficult to do.
The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls are considered by many to be the greatest team in NBA history, and while reasonable people can argue that assessment — some might prefer the depth and array of weapons on the 1985-86 Boston Celtics, or the dominance of the Wilt-and-West-led 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, or another of the myriad great teams lauded in league lore — it's inarguable that no other team's even won 70 regular-season games. Two others (those '71-'72 Lakers and the follow-up '96-'97 Bulls) have won 69, two (the '66-'67 Philadelphia 76ers and '72-'73 Celts) won 68 and four (the '91-'92 Bulls, '85-'86 Celts, '99-'00 Lakers and '06-'07 Dallas Mavericks) won 67.
To win more than 85 percent of your games over the course of an 82-game season, you need to be consistently excellent, consistently healthy and consistently lucky; to suggest that a Lakers team that's integrating key new pieces like Howard, Nash and Jamison alongside Gasol and Kobe will be able to hit the ground running that smoothly and maintain its forward momentum no matter what seems like an awful lot to ask.
And that's even before you remember perhaps the most important feature — whereas the '95-96 Bulls had a 32-year-old Jordan who'd played just over 800 total NBA games, was entering his first full season following his minor-league siesta and was out for blood following a playoff defeat at the hands of the upstart Orlando Magic, the Lakers' star shooting guard is two years older, has nearly 600 more games on his odometer and took a slight (but real) step backward last season. The Lakers should be good, and could even be great, but considering all that'd have to go right (plus the fact that they'll face an improved Los Angeles Clippers team four times, have four matchups with the defending Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder, a pair of contests against the defending world champion Miami Heat and a tough seven-game road trip in early February), that level of all-time achievement seems like a bit of a stretch.
The [1995-96 Bulls] didn't have Dennis Rodman for the first month of the season, due to a calf strain, and for a spell in early spring after a suspension. A team that saw Scottie Pippen work on an MVP level for the first half of the season, and then limp around with a bad back and bum ankle for the second half of the season. A year that saw Toni Kukoc struggle with a back injury late, Luc Longley struggle with confidence all season long, and Michael Jordan still struggling to get his NBA legs back.
Despite all that, they won 72 games. They had so many chances, so many reasons, to lose a few more, and they didn't. [...]
When I think of the 1996 Bulls, I think of a struggle. I think of Jordan and Pippen and Ron Harper really gutting through the finals against Seattle. I think of those February and March road games, where it seemed like it was a floor-bound Michael just having to take teams down by himself.
In terms of sheer will to win, there are few NBA players more competitive and relentless than Bryant and Nash, and despite the occasional jeers from those who continue to read "European" as a synonym or "soft," Gasol's long since proven his bona fides as a gamer. We know Howard can be a game-changing force in the middle on both ends of the floor, and that the pick-and-roll he figures to run with Nash should be devastating, and that the addition of those two All-Star bookends should make the L.A. offense all but unguardable at times. We know the Lakers will be able to score a lot of points on just about anybody; that much seems secure.
What we don't know yet is how healthy and effective Howard will be coming off back surgery, how well World Peace will fit in as a floor-spacing small forward in the Lakers' starting five (he's reportedly worked extensively on canning the corner three this offseason) and whether a bench led by the likes of Jamison, Jordan Hill, Devin Ebanks and Steve Blake can outstrip the contributions of folks like Toni Kukoc, Bill Wennington, Steve Kerr and the immortal Jud Buechler, which you figure they'd need to, because this Laker team doesn't have the two best players in the league, like those '95-96 Bulls did.
Also, the idea that you should try to go 73-9 doesn't quite track, because the goal is to win a championship, not to win the most regular-season games, and with as many veterans as the Lakers will feature, coach Mike Brown might be better served to rest some weary legs to keep his guys fresh for the second season come springtime.
(Also, the whole "Mike Brown isn't Phil Jackson" thing could nip Metta's plan in the bud.)
It's not impossible, but it's improbable. Of course, if there's anyone in the NBA who seems well equipped to perform the improbable, it's the man who delivered a Canadian weather forecast, booked roles as a detective in a Lifetime movie and an "overtly sexual vampire elder," won a race at the "Yo Gabba Gabba!" Olympics and released a not-really-suitable-for-work 10-minute rap video all in the same summer. It's hard to bet against a man who has that kind of control over reality. And before preseason, when everybody's undefeated and can dream of going 82-0, why would you?
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