LA Lakers: Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol: NBA's Best 1-2 Punch Has 3-Peat in Sight

Ethan Norof@ethan_norofCorrespondent INovember 22, 2010

A remarkable duo.
A remarkable duo.Jeff Gross/Getty Images

This Los Angeles Lakers team isn't as good as the squad that won it all last season.

They're much, much better.

And while many have pointed to the improved bench and the increased efforts from Lamar Odom as prime reasons for success, the elevated play of the team's two superstars, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, have really been fueling the charge thus far.

There was an extraordinary amount of conversation throughout the offseason talking about Kobe finally beginning to look "old". His shot was off, he couldn't get his timing right after offseason knee surgery and he didn't seem to have the same fire that he possessed for so many years.

And then the season got underway.

Talks of Bryant beginning to weaken aren't just premature, they're downright dumb. If the Lakers go on to enjoy the same success they have over the last two seasons, Bryant's sixth ring will place him the closest he's ever been to the incomparable legend of Michael Jordan. 

Perhaps the reason Bryant continues to be disrespected by fans league wide is because it's so much easier to discredit someone. If Kobe's play had fallen off, then that's a logical basis for the argument, but it hasn't. Had he and his team lost Game 7 of the Finals last season against the Celtics, there would've been clamor for him to step up his game, but he didn't.

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Most importantly, if Bryant's Lakers weren't far and away the best team in the conference, that would provide just enough to question if his age is catching up with him, but they are. 

While some continue to miscast the Black Mamba as selfish, it's simply not accurate.

The definition of a facilitator, Bryant looks to get his teammates involved first before getting his own game going. Additionally, he is a teacher on the floor, and it's like having an assistant coach on the hardwood who is also the team's best player.

Hardly a one-trick pony, regardless of who your favorite team might be, Bryant is hands-down the best clutch shooter in the league. There is nobody else that you'd rather have with the rock when your team is down late in the game.

It's much easier to dislike him rather than to respect him, but really, what is not to like? This guy will go down as one of the top three players to ever play the game, and if you're a basketball fan—there's no way that you can't respect that.  

Somehow, someway, Gasol's greatness continues to get overlooked. Not only is he the most well-rounded big man in the conference, but he's the most talented big in the league. While he's had to do more with Andrew Bynum sidelined—Gasol will continue to produce at this clip even when the center returns to action. 

Currently averaging career-highs in both points per game (22.8), rebounds per game (12.1) and even assists per game (4.1) as well, it's clear that the Spaniard is unwilling to let much stand between him and championship ring No. 3.

With every counting person that continues to overlook his unique skill set and underestimate exactly what he's capable of doing, Gasol collects more and more motivation to prove his critics wrong.

An unbelievable shooter for someone of his size, his dynamic passing ability and solid rebounding abilities have exploded since he was labeled soft after the 2008 NBA Finals defeat at the hands of the Celtics. After being manhandled by Kevin Garnett, Gasol is now trucking through his individual opponents like a bulldozer through an old building.

Displaying the toughness, grit and heart that have attributed to his evolved play ever since he first arrived in Los Angeles, Gasol will stop at nothing to go down as not only one of the most successful Europeans to ever play in the NBA.

More importantly, much like Kobe, Gasol wants to be seen as one of the best ever to wear a Lakers uniform.

That's elite company. 

Ethan is a contributing consultant to Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.