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"They will break the single-season win record."
Jeff Van Gundy made the bold prediction this week that Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls regular season record of 72 wins set in the 1995-96 season will fall this season.
He went on to claim, "I just think if they're healthy, the discrepancy between their talent level and and the next level is so great, that I just don't see how they lose games. I think they're that good."
The problem is that Van Gundy, former head coach of the New York Knicks and the Houston Rockets, and now a NBA analyst for ABC/ESPN, wasn't talking about Kobe Bryant's Lakers. Instead, he was talking about the Miami Heat, led by Dwyane Wade and LeBron James.
Lakers fans have since been lighting up the blogosphere, Twitter and Facebook with indignation and anger at what is apparently regarded as a "dis" to the Lakers by Van Gundy.
"How could he?!" some Lakers faithful cried.
"We're SOOOOOO much better than the Heat!" others chimed in.
And what began as one man's opinion snowballed into practically a grassroots campaign by the "Laker Nation" to urge and cheer on Kobe and company to be the team that breaks the Bulls' record instead of the Heat in this upcoming season.
Now Lakers fans understandably have been a bit unnerved and annoyed this summer. After winning the second of back-to-back titles, rather than being allowed to bask in the glow of glory and enjoy the unassailable bragging rights of having supported the NBA championship team, Lakers fans instead have been frying and bad-tripping in the "summer of LeBron".
First it was the media circus of LeBron's free agency, which even dared to rear its ugly head during the NBA Finals, when the Lakers were competing against the Boston Celtics.
During Game 1, fans watching the game at home were constantly interrupted by promotions of LeBron's interview with Nightline that would be aired after the game. Even though this interview was a repeat and the timing undoubtedly schemed up by the network executives at ABC, it felt to Lakers fans as another cheeky and classless attempt by LeBron to draw more attention to himself at a critical time in a post-season that he had already been eliminated in.
After having to suffer through non-stop LeBron free agency coverage in the immediate weeks after the Lakers won the title, rather than savor the traditional media victory lap that's awarded to the NBA championship team, Lakers fans were again deluged with LeBron coverage when he announced his "decision" to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers to play for the Miami Heat.
As the weeks went on, that ad nauseum coverage then metamorphosed into evaluating Miami's "super team" and how good they will be, despite never having played a single NBA game together.
All that coverage came to a head with Van Gundy's wild prediction, and understandably, Lakers fans have had enough. They want blood in the upcoming season, and they want it messy. And winning 73 games would be like massaging a chainsaw into the soft-flesh gut of the Miami Heat.
But would it be wise for Kobe and the Lakers to heed the call of the true purple-and-gold?
Now records understandably have a significance, and we often use records and statistics as benchmarks to compare teams in history. And with a doubt, owning the regular season win record is an impressive statistic that would legitimize the wishful claim of Lakers fans that this Lakers team is the best in history.
But is it worth it if it costs the Lakers their second three-peat? Kobe's ring to match Jordan's? The chance to equal the Celtics in championships? And sending Phil Jackson off into the sunset with the beauty and perfection of owning four three-peats, a record that will stand longer than Wilt Chamberlain's 100 points?
While being the best team, the best-ever team, in the regular season sounds great, and if it happens organically, then it was meant to be. But to make a goal of owning the best-ever record would be to take away focus of what's really important, that of winning the championship.
We have to look no further than 2007, when the New England Patriots enjoyed a "perfect" regular season, amassing 16 wins and zero losses, and "beating" the former record of 14 wins and no losses in the regular season set by the 1972 Miami Dolphins, to see the folly of chasing records in the regular season.
Despite having already locked up the top seeding for the playoffs late in the season, the Pats refused to rest their starters in their quest for setting the all-time regular season record, and the fatigued team barely scrapped by a win in the last game of the regular season by a score of 38-35 against the New York Giants. Though they went on to win the AFC Championship, their quarterback, Tom Brady, suffered a right foot injury in that game, which set up their eventual loss in Super Bowl XLII against the same Giants team that they had defeated in the regular season.
By not making winning the Super Bowl their only focus, but rather giving equal weight to their regular season record, the Patriots traded the immortality of winning the championship for the perfection of a regular season record, which was rendered meaningless by their Super Bowl loss.
Now when the Lakers' superstar player Kobe Bryant is coming off an injury-addled season and needing arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, on top of having an untreatable arthritic index finger on his shooting hand, do they really need to put him through the wringer in the regular season just to chase a record that loses all meaning if they don't win the championship?
And when they have Andrew Bynum, their starting center that despite being only 22 years-old has missed a combined 96 games in the past three regular seasons due to injuries, and who could blow out either or both of his two surgically-repaired knees any time during the season, like he has in the past, is this record more important than having their starting center healthy and ready for the playoffs?
The only goal the Lakers should have in the regular season is to own the best record in the league, which would guarantee home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Last season the most wins by a team in the NBA was 61 by LeBron's Cavaliers, far from the 73 wins that it would take to beat Jordan's record.
And when the difference between 73 and 61 wins in terms of affecting the Lakers' seeding in the playoffs is zero, then setting this regular season wins record is nothing but "fool's gold".
Keep in mind that even if the Lakers do win 73 games, there will always be naysayers that claim that Jordan's Bulls really should have had a record of 74-8. In particular, they would point out two games late in the season in which the Bulls lost both by a single point, which they say was resulting from bad calls by the referees.
And they would be right.
In their second-to-last loss against the Charlotte Hornets, the refs made a very questionable foul call against the Bulls in the final seconds of the fourth quarter. As the Hornets were losing by a point, the resulting two made free throws gave them the victory.
The Bulls' final defeat that season, which robbed them of a single-digit loss record, came in the second-to-last game of the season against the Indiana Pacers, in which questionable calls late in the game also contributed to their loss.
If there is a record that the Lakers should chase next year, it would be Kobe's own 15-1 NBA Playoffs record, which was set in 2001. That year, the Lakers with Shaquille O'Neal swept through the Western Conference playoffs, and suffered only one defeat, in a Game 1 overtime loss in the Finals against the Philadelphia Sixers, rebounding to win the next four games in a row to win the championship.
The difference between this record and the regular season wins record is that chasing the playoffs record increases the Lakers' chances to win the championship. A team should try to win every game in the playoffs, which leads to winning the series and moving onto the next round until reaching the Finals. And by playing as few games as possible in each seven game series, the Lakers will conserve their energy and reduce their chances of injury, allowing them to be as fresh and healthy as possible for the Finals.
So let the Miami Heat have the single-season wins record, if they so desire and are capable of it. Lakers fans know what's important, and it's rings, not records.
* * *If the Lakers do win the 2011 NBA Championship, "Kobe, Phil or 17: Which Title Milestone Will Be Sweetest for Laker Fans?"