1. Can The Lakers Win 72 Games This Season?
The proper question isn't "Will the Lakers win 72 games?" There are too many variables to give an accurate answer. We can't predict injuries, flight delays or mood swings. What we can assess is whether the Lakers have what it takes to win 72 games. For that, we turn to the coach of these Lakers, who also happens to be the only man to coach an NBA team to a 72-win season.
"Not the same defense, unfortunately," Phil Jackson said in comparing this team to the 1995-96 Bulls. "We have a lot of offensive prowess."
Enough prowess to lead the league in scoring, an average that was enhanced by Sunday night's 121-96 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers. The Lakers are also in the top 10 in shooting percentage, 3-point shooting percentage and assists.
But they're in the middle of the league when it comes to points allowed. It's partly a function of their reserves logging so many inconsequential minutes marked by turnovers and easy baskets for the opponents. The sloppy stretches haven't cost the Lakers a game or even forced Kobe Bryant to take the ice bags off his knees and return to the fray, but they do affect the stats.
So far, the team's identity has been its offensive efficiency. You can see the cohesiveness almost every time down the court, the products of invaluable minutes logged everywhere from practice to Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Bryant and Derek Fisher are in their 12th season together. Lamar Odom and Bryant are in their seventh as teammates. And Pau Gasol fit in immediately when he arrived almost three years ago.
Here's the thing: The Lakers don't have to be as good a defensive team as the 1995-96 Bulls (who allowed 93 points per game) because defense isn't as important a part of the league right now. Among the rule changes and emphasizes since then, the NBA has disallowed the use of the forearm to defend players facing the basket and has prohibited defenders in the low post from using both their hands and their forearms simultaneously against a player. The offensive stats have been trending upward for the past 15 years, and so far this season, scoring and possessions per game are on track to be their highest since the mid-1990s.
We know that seven teams have tried but none has beaten the Lakers so far, giving them the fifth 7-0 start in franchise history. And if the Lakers lack the abundance of No. 1 overall picks and surefire Hall of Famers as the 1980s incarnations, if they're not quite as awe-inspiring -- they don't have to be. They don't face an abundance of competition in the current Western Conference. And they don't have any fundamental flaws. They have a little of everything and will get even taller and tougher to score inside against when Andrew Bynum returns, perhaps at the end of the month.
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let's remember that the Lakers have won five of their seven at home, and last season's team used an even friendlier schedule to start 23-4 before settling for a good-but-not-memorable 57-win season. The worst is yet to come.
But the Lakers do have the components Bryant seeks in a great team.
"Intelligence, toughness and unselfishness," Bryant said. "We have all three. Everybody can make plays. Normally we have one or two guys who are playmakers. Here, everyone can make plays."
Yes, when they have a center who can produce a triple-double (as Gasol did with 20 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists Sunday) and a power forward in Odom who can bring the ball up the court when he's not scoring 21 points and grabbing 12 rebounds himself, a backup guard who's worked on his jumper so much that Jackson said he's "enamored" with his shooting (Shannon Brown made half his shots and half his 3-pointers for 15 points), the Lakers can beat the toughest opponent they've faced to date even on a night Bryant scores only 12 points, they can claim an abundance of playmakers.
That doesn't even include Steve Blake, whom Jackson credited with providing some extra intel about his former team, or Matt Barnes. Or even Ron Artest's defense on All-Star Brandon Roy, who made only one field goal on six shots Sunday night. Speaking of All-Stars, Portland coach Nate McMillan said Odom is "an All-Star. His numbers and what he's doing for that team, shooting the ball, rebounding, handling the ball -- he's playing great basketball for them."
Odom is averaging 16 points and 11 rebounds and is shooting better than 60 percent from the field and almost 70 percent on 3-point shots. But he isn't caught up in the numbers, and he figures they'll diminish once Bynum comes back and Odom returns to his sixth-man role.
He recognizes that he's part of a team, one that's clicking as well as any team around.
"The playoff experience, playing in big games, helps your confidence and our cohesiveness. Everything that we do is pretty tight," Odom said. "We know how to get stops, how to cover for each other. Right now we've got a team, a group of guys that play together and are really comfortable."
I can't see 72 wins just yet. But there's a 7-0 next to the Lakers' name in the standings, and the evidence of something great formulating is starting to outweigh the skepticism.
2. Erratic Knicks Deep-Sixed By Philly
NEW YORK -- The blame for Sunday's defeat? It goes all the way back to the end of the Isiah Thomas era.
It's a stretch, but that's sort of what coach Mike D'Antoni said after the New York Knicks were outscored 13-2 in the final 4:27, failing to make a single field goal during that span, in a 106-96 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday that erased several days' worth of positive momentum.
"We had wide-open shots, and we didn't run some plays exactly as they were drawn up," D'Antoni said. "That stuff happens, and it happens when you're trying to dig yourself out of a hole, and it's been a hole here for two years.
"We don't have that swagger, and that's where we just lost it a little bit."
There's no arguing that swagger is a quality that is built up over time, fueled by the successes of the past. But this season's revamped Knicks have no collective past, and they're proving to be a hot-and-cold team that can kill you from downtown one night (see Thursday versus Chicago) and then kill itself with an inability to finish in the fourth quarter (see the home opener versus Portland and this game).
The Knicks actually were given a standing ovation by the matinee crowd before halftime after they survived a 70 percent shooting performance by the Sixers in the first quarter and took a 56-54 lead into the locker room at intermission.
The Garden fans remained into it throughout a tight second half, their emotions peaking when Amare Stoudemire stole an entry pass by Jrue Holiday and raced downcourt for a fast-break layup and three-point play that gave them a 92-90 lead. Raymond Felton recorded his 10th assist of the game on the play, becoming the first Knicks point guard since Stephon Marbury in 2005-06 to reach double figures in assists in three consecutive games.
Problem was, that three-point play came with 6:46 left, and a tip-in by Stoudemire (on which he may have gotten away with offensive goaltending) with 4:27 remaining ended up being the only field goal the Knicks converted the remainder of the game.
"Tough game, early game, but no excuses," said Felton, whose 2-for-11 shooting was the worst among the five New York players who each attempted at least 11 shots. "They wanted it more than we did. They played with more energy. The better team won today."
To read the entire Sheridan column, click here.
3. Felton Continues To Share The Rock
It had been five years since a member of the Knicks had 10 or more assists in three straight games (Stephon Marbury was the last), but Felton accomplished it by feeding Stoudemire on a fast-break three-point play that put the Knicks up 92-90 midway through the fourth. The Knicks were hurt by Felton's 2-for-11 shooting, but at least he didn't miss 10 shots as both Stoudemire and Wilson Chandler did.
To read the entire Knicks blog, click here.
4. Timberwolves Blown Out Again
For the third time in seven games, the Timberwolves lost by at least 25 points, this time 120-94 at Houston. In the past 20 seasons, only two other teams have suffered three 25-point losses in their first seven games: the Bulls in 2003 and the SuperSonics in 2005. New York also scored 120 or more points against the Bulls three times during the 1988-89 regular season.
• Elton Brand led the 76ers with 20 points in their 106-96 win at Madison Square Garden. Brand averaged more than 20 points per game in five of his first eight seasons, but his current streak of four straight games with at least 20 points is his longest since then. (His last such streak was in April 2007.)
• John Wall, who had 10 assists in Washington's loss to Cleveland on Saturday night, has handed out at least seven assists in each of the five games he has played in the NBA. Oscar Robertson is the only other player in NBA history to record at least seven assists in each of his first five career NBA games. "The Big O" did it in each of his first 10 games in the NBA in 1960-61.
5. Extreme Behavior
Pau Gasol, Lakers: The big man is known for getting points and rebounds in bunches, but against the Blazers, the stat that jumped off the page was his 10 assists that, sandwiched with 20 points and 14 boards, earned Gasol his fourth career triple-double.
Stephen Curry, Warriors: He missed a tying 3-point attempt in the closing seconds during a loss to the Pistons that capped a poor shooting night. He finished 3-for-12 from the floor for 10 points.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
"We were mentally prepared for the game, but we couldn't throw a pea into the ocean."
-- Minnesota coach Kurt Rambis after the Wolves fell to the Rockets by 26 points
6. NBA Video Channel
7. Pointed The Right Way
8. C's 'Bench Mob' Stars
Because of injuries and suspensions, the Celtics' reserves were limited in number and certainly didn't seem to be causing too much of a ruckus (save maybe for Glen Davis, who totaled nearly half the bench's total point production in the first five games, thanks in large part to extended minutes with the starting unit).
To read the entire Forsberg column, click here.
9. Missing In The Middle
ESPN Los Angeles
LOS ANGELES -- Lakers versus Trail Blazers has been defined by player matchups over the years.
From Kareem Abdul-Jabbar versus Bill Walton in the 1977 Western Conference finals when The Captain's 34.6 points and 17.7 rebounds per game weren't enough to avoid a sweep at the hands of Big Red; to Magic Johnson versus Clyde Drexler, which featured Los Angeles ending Portland's season in the playoffs in '85, '89 and '91 before the Blazers finally broke through in '92; to Shaquille O'Neal versus Rasheed Wallace being summed up by Shaq's Game 7 alley-oop on Sheed's head in the 2000 conference finals; to the recent battles between All-Stars Kobe Bryant and Brandon Roy.
The 7-footers were supposed to be the center of attention not just when they were on the court together but when the All-Star results were released every February to see which one of them won the spot as Yao Ming's backup in the West.
It hasn't happened yet, and even though Bynum is just 23 years old and Oden's only 22, it doesn't seem likely that we'll ever hear a "Bynum ... Oden ... next on ABC!" tease before a Sunday national broadcast.
Oden has played in only 82 out of a possible 254 regular-season games to start his career. Bynum has missed 103 games since the start of the 2007-08 season, or about 41 percent of all the games L.A. has played.
Bynum's expected to be back playing in games in two to three weeks. He'll see some on-the-court work for the first time in his rehabilitation process toward the end of this week as he prepares for a comeback from right knee surgery sometime around Thanksgiving.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson said Bynum will retain his starting role because he doesn't want the center's knee to stiffen up by sitting on the bench after getting loose during warm-ups. Even if he starts, that doesn't mean he'll get the lion's share of the frontcourt minutes with the way Lamar Odom is playing right now. Odom racked up 21 points and 12 rebounds on Sunday, collecting his fourth double-double in the seven games the Lakers have played this season.
"We're going to be deeper, we're going to be stronger," Pau Gasol said about Bynum's eventual return. "It will take a little time for him to probably get back into the swing of things, but I hope that it takes a short period of time, and I'm sure he'll be pumped to get back playing."
Bynum might be excited, but fans aren't pumped to see him toil with Oden the way they were a couple of seasons ago before Bynum admitted, "I guess I am kind of injury-prone" and Oden caused more of a buzz by sending inappropriate photos from his phone than by doing anything in an NBA game.
Although Bynum's comeback is near, the Blazers are adjusting to an indefinite life without Oden.
"We have to work with the group we have," Portland head coach Nate McMillan said. "Yes, we do expect him to come back. When? We can't say that, but we do expect him to be in uniform this season. So for me, my focus is on the players that we do have healthy."
McMillan said that Oden is "getting better" but said he couldn't provide an estimated return date because Oden hasn't progressed to any live basketball activity.
"Until a player is at that point, you really can't say when he'll be back," McMillan said.
Both Bynum and Oden will make it back to the court, but hype surrounding their future battles going against each other won't.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.