How good can the Lakers be?
Despite early talk of record-breaking, Phil Jackson isn't counting his chips just yet
The Los Angeles Lakers' commanding 5-0 start to the season has even the most guarded fan bouncing numbers around his head like John Nash in "A Beautiful Mind."
The New York Knicks' NBA record 18-game winning streak to start the 1969-70 season? It's on the table.
The overall record of 33 in a row by the '71-72 Lakers? Sure, why not?
The best single-season record of 72-10 by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls? Hey, Phil Jackson already did it once...
After the Lakers dismantled their latest victim in Sacramento on Wednesday, Lamar Odom sounded downright Jeff Van Gundy-like when talking about what the Lakers are striving for this year.
"Being perfect is like a realistic goal for us," Odom said. "It's a way of thinking. It's a thought process."
Van Gundy put his reputation as an ABC/ESPN NBA analyst on the line this summer when he predicted the Miami Heat would win 72-plus games and go the entire season without dropping two in a row.
"We try not to get numbers on it," Jackson said after practice Thursday. "Last year, I said if we didn't win 60 I'd be disappointed in the season as far as their effort, but we had extenuating circumstances with injuries last year and those things happen."
The Lakers stumbled to just 57 wins last season, losing seven of their final 11 games, including a 2-3 mark on a five-game road trip when Jackson set the bar of expectations at 5-0. In Jeanie Buss' new book "Laker Girl," she reveals that Jackson often looks at the slate of Lakers games for the upcoming week and writes a goal on the board in the locker room, perhaps 3-1 if the team is playing four games, for instance, to give the team a number to focus on. So Jackson does use numbers, even though he said Thursday that "numbers aren't important."
"What's important is getting out ahead of the rest of the pack and somehow or other putting them in the back so that you have that home-court advantage that looms important at certain times in the playoffs," Jackson said.
Read "rest of the pack" as Miami, Orlando, Boston, Dallas and Oklahoma City -- considered to be the early challengers to Los Angeles' plans of securing the No. 1 overall record in the league.
The two major things a team has to take care of to make a run at the best record are (1) take care of the teams it's supposed to beat and (2) stay healthy.
The Lakers have gotten off to a fast start by taking care of non-playoff teams like Golden State, Memphis, Houston and Sacramento, while the Celtics lost to the Cavaliers, the Thunder lost to the Clippers and the Mavericks lost to the Grizzlies already. Plus, Boston has already beaten Miami, and Miami has already beaten Orlando -- a tortuous round-robin cycle that's sure to continue between the East's elite throughout the season.
Out of the 13 games remaining in the month of November for L.A., only six are against teams that made the 2010 postseason and only two are against a team with a better-than-.500 record so far (Portland is 4-2; Golden State is 3-1 with, the Warriors' one loss vs. the Lakers).
If L.A. just splits its games against the playoff teams and wins all the rest, it would have a 15-3 record heading into December, which is precisely the time center Andrew Bynum is expected back from his right knee injury.
Even if Bynum's return ends up being delayed, or if another Lakers player comes down with an injury, the team is deep enough to withstand losing a player or two to rehabilitation and keep on winning.
Jackson surmised that his bench is the deepest it's been since the 1999-2000 season. Not coincidentally, that was the winningest team (67-15) Jackson has ever coached that didn't have Michael Jordan on it. The '99-00 Lakers started Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Glen Rice, A.C. Green and Ron Harper and brought the likes of Derek Fisher, Robert Horry, Rick Fox and Brian Shaw off the bench.
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"That team won a championship," Fisher said. "This team still has 100 and however many games to go before we get that opportunity. But it's comparable. I think the biggest similarity is just the level of professional and maturity with the bench ... I think this team represents the closest we've had to that in a while."
Bryant, who said "intellect and patience" is the theme he is infusing into the team this season, sees the parallels between a Steve Blake, a Matt Barnes and a Theo Ratliff with a Shaw, a Fox, a Horry.
"You have a lot of grown men," Bryant said. "Everybody on our team is pretty much grown and has been around the league for a while. Every piece complements each other extremely well and it's very deep. We have a team full of playmakers."
Bryant was asked about Odom's statement about perfection after the Kings game and shrugged off the idea of 82-0 the same way he took little special enjoyment in the numbers he racked up in the game -- the 17th triple-double of his career and his 37,492nd minute played as a Laker, which broke Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's franchise record.
"We just try to take it game by game, that's what he means by that," Bryant said. "Now we just think about Toronto [on Friday]. We're not even thinking about three-peat."
Bryant's got the right idea.
When you start thinking in terms of numbers, a Lakers championship isn't just a three-peat; it's the unprecedented fourth three-peat and 12th championship for Jackson; it's the Jordan and Pippen-tying sixth ring for Bryant and Fisher; it's the Celtics-tying 17th title for the Lakers as a franchise ...
Simply winning a game at a time is good enough for the Lakers. And the Lakers are good enough to make it look simple in the process.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.