Every so often, the NBA pundits roll out the 73-win albatross when they sniff a potentially dominant team. This past summer, Jeff Van Gundy was the latest to trot it out with his prediction for the SuperFriends Heat team. It makes for great press and hype, but it’s almost impossible to do in today’s NBA. Take it from a well-informed authority on the matter. Phil Jackson said that when his Bulls did it, it was a perfect storm: veteran players who knew how to get it done, who had a burning desire to bring it every night, and — possibly most importantly — a centrally located team that didn’t suffer long cross-country flights. Those three elements are pretty hard to come by, even without the unstated pre-requisite that the team’s level of talent must be otherworldly. I’m not sure we’ll see a 73-win team any time soon, considering how soft/indifferent most of today’s NBA players are.
There was another prediction this past summer. A prediction by a well-informed authority on the matter (who, admittedly, benefits from the press and hype). Jerry Buss, steward of 10 NBA titles in 31 seasons of owning the Lakers, told the L.A. Times this past August: “As of now, I feel there’s a good chance this could be the best team we’ve ever had.” When I first read that, I thought to myself: he could be right; I’m not entirely sure they could knock off my beloved 1986-87 team from their mantle, but he could be right.
After a lackluster pre-season of Euro-hopping and injury recovery, the Lakers have come out on a tear. They’re currently 7-0, winning their games by an average of over 13 points. I know, I know, they’ve played relatively mediocre teams and have played 5 of the 7 games at home. But I’ve seen two things from this Laker team that I haven’t seen in a long time: (1) they’ve not screwing around for 3.5 quarters and expecting to turn it on at the end — they’re actually laying waste to teams early and thoroughly; (2) they’re extraordinarily deep this year, even with Bynum in street clothes — the addition of Blake and Barnes (not to mention the strong early performance of Shannon) was genius…another feather in Kupchak’s cap. I haven’t been this bullish on a Laker team in a long time (which my wife would tell you is saying a lot).
What does all of this mean? It means that if they get a few breaks, this could be a very special team. Maybe, just maybe, this is the right mix of talent, depth, experience, external forces (next year’s looming lockout, Jackson’s alleged retirement), and internal fire (Kobe catching MJ, the Lakers catching the Celtics) to do something spectacular. And by spectacular, I don’t mean a 73-9 regular season…that’s a fool’s errand for the reasons I mentioned above, particularly with the average age of this Lakers squad. What I mean is playoff perfection, playoff immortality: 16-0. I’ve always found it strange that people talk about 73 regular season wins as the holy grail of the NBA, when it’s so clear that a 16-0 playoff run is much more impressive: the overall level of talent is much higher and teams have time to study each other thoroughly to devise specific strategies for each other. There have been 64 NBA champions, but there has never been an NBA champion who didn’t lose a playoff game.
Yes, it means that the Lakers would most likely have to sweep a better Thunder team than the one who pushed them to 6 games last year, as well as sweep the Celtics or Heat. With a little luck (well, a lot of luck for Bynum), I think this team could do it. If the 2001 Lakers could go 15-1 in the playoffs, this Laker team could go 16-0. With a little luck. As Chick Hearn used to say, “I’d rather be lucky than good — and if I’m both, look out!” He also used to say, “The Good Lord and four disciples couldn’t beat the Lakers tonight!” I think these 2010-11 Lakers can live up to those Chickisms, particularly in the playoffs.