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Can Kobe Bryant's 2011 LA Lakers Rival Shaquille O'Neal's 2001 Team?

Hadarii JonesSenior Writer IAugust 3, 2010

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 17:  (L-R) Pau Gasol #16, Kobe Bryant #24, Derek Fisher #2 and Lamar Odom #7 of the Los Angeles Lakers run up court in Game Seven of the 2010 NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics at Staples Center on June 17, 2010 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Until the end of the 2009 NBA season, the Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant had always existed in the shadow of Shaquille O'Neal's championship teams of 2000-02, but Bryant's fourth title captured in Orlando ended that.

The 2010-11 season is an opportunity to stake Bryant's own claim as the leader of a dominant Laker era, and to finally stand on equal footing with Shaq's three championships as the conductor of the train.

Bryant surpassed O'Neal in career championships with the Lakers' Game Seven victory over the Boston Celtics in last season's Finals, and he let the world know how he felt about that in an interview after the game.

I suspect a third consecutive championship in the same manner as Shaq's Lakers teams of 2000-02 would end the ridiculous debate of which team had the better era.

The debate is ridiculous because Bryant was a member of all of the teams that Shaq led to the championship, and his numbers in each postseason suggest he was a primary piece of the puzzle.

When Shaq departed Los Angeles, he forfeited the right to ever lead a team again, and the championship he captured in 2006 with the Miami Heat was gained on Dwyane Wade's coattails.

But Bryant and the Lakers have transformed themselves into a team that is capable of matching O'Neal's in championships, and Bryant's career as a Laker will already be held in a much more favorable light than O'Neal's.

The only thing missing from Bryant's postseason resume is a signature period similar to the one the Lakers had in 2000-01, when they raced through the playoffs with a NBA best 15-1 mark.

That may have been the best championship run in the history of the league, and O'Neal averaged an astounding 33 points and 15.8 rebounds for the postseason, while Bryant chipped in with 24.6 points per game and 5.8 assists.

The Lakers ran through Portland, Sacramento, and San Antonio unscathed, before eventually losing in Game One of the Finals to Allen Iverson and his Philadelphia 76ers.

It was a remarkable feat, and one Bryant and his Lakers will be hard-pressed to equal. But could Bryant lead the Lakers to his own signature postseason run in the Lakers' quest for a three-peat?

Bryant has stamped his name on the last two Lakers' championships and the consecutive Finals' MVP awards are proof, but the Lakers have yet to impose their will on a postseason like the team from 2001 did.

Bryant's Lakers have had some playoff series in which they were ultimately dominant like the Finals' series against Orlando, which they clinched 4-1, but that series could have been different if the Magic could have converted a few key plays.

The Lakers' team of 2001 will likely never be equaled, but this version of the Lakers may be the best that Bryant has ever directed, and it may be his best chance to stage his own defining playoff run.

Bryant's Lakers are deeper and more skilled now than at any point during the team's three-year Finals run, and the balance between offense and defense could make Los Angeles the NBA's most complete team.

Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, and Theo Ratliff provide an imposing frontline that is capable of overpowering an opponent with sheer physical force or a smooth finesse style.

The back court is littered with talent, experience, size, and athleticism, and if the Lakers can convince Shannon Brown to resign, the perimeter corps will be complete.

Matt Barnes, Bryant, and Ron Artest should form the best defensive perimeter trio the Lakers have seen in either Shaq or Bryant's era, and coach Phil Jackson will have a roster capable of adapting to any situation.

I'm not suggesting Bryant's Lakers will cruise through the postseason because there are a number of teams who could challenge them, but they do have the potential to make a dominant run.

Bryant's 30 points per game average during this year's postseason was lost in his 6-24 shooting performance in Game Seven of this season's Finals, but 2010-11 is a chance for Bryant to make amends.

The Lakers have the deepest, most talented roster in the NBA, and if they can remain healthy, Bryant may have a chance to add another piece of lore to his already distinguished career.

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