The Chicago Bulls' NBA-record 72-win season is a seemingly unapproachable mark. Since the Bulls accomplished the feat in 1995-96, only three teams have reached 67 wins and only one, the '96-97 Bulls, has cracked 69.
There is one member of that record-setting Bulls team, however, who believes there is a team equipped to make a run at it this season.
"The Lakers have a chance," Scottie Pippen said. "They have the luxury of a young center like [Andrew] Bynum, a young power like [Pau] Gasol and even Josh Powell is a guy who deserves minutes. They have a lot of depth. If anybody can challenge [the record], it's them."
The parallels between the two teams are eerily similar. Like Pippen's Bulls, the Lakers have a dominant superstar (Kobe Bryant), a dynamic No. 2 (Gasol) and a bevy of talented role players (Lamar Odom, Bynum, Derek Fisher). They have the same serene, rarely rattled coach who prides himself on his ability to handle oversized egos. And like Chicago, L.A. also has an intriguing wild card, a talented-but-troubled star capable of making or breaking its season. For the Bulls, it was Dennis Rodman; for the Lakers, it's Ron Artest.
"Ron is an infant compared to Dennis," Pippen said with a laugh. "Dennis was off the charts."
According to Pippen, one of the keys to the Bulls' success with Rodman --which included three championships in Rodman's three seasons with the team -- was not to focus on preventing the distractions. It was dealing with them when they occurred.
"Dennis skipped practices, he was late for practices [and] he showed up late for games," Pippen said. "But was that a distraction? No, that happens in the game every day. Even though Dennis was still trying to be Dennis with us and self-promote, he was never really a distraction."
When problems did arise, Pippen credited the Bulls' strong veteran leadership and the unwavering backing of Jackson for being able to keep Rodman's antics in check. That same responsibility, Pippen says, now falls to Bryant, who must figure out a way to harness Artest's talent while keeping his mind focused on the team goals.
"Everybody should police themselves and it is about individuals being responsible for themselves," Pippen said. "But ultimately, it falls on Kobe. When Artest hauls off and does something totally out of character for the team, that's not going to be taken well by Kobe. He has to talk to him in practice, get him on the right page and let him know what [his] demands are as a leader of the basketball team. So when game time comes, it's about a routine."
Now, on to the mailbag ...
Is this Blake Griffin injury the start of a bad omen for the Clippers?--Jon, Los Angeles
The Clippers' next encounter with Lady Luck will be their first, but I'm not ready to push the panic button on their season just yet. The stress fracture in Griffin's kneecap is a disappointing development, but he didn't tear any ligaments and no one is speculating that he will be out longer than six weeks. Griffin will receive bone stimulation PRP (platelet rich plasma) treatments over the next month, and by early December, he should be the same explosive, dynamic player who wowed everyone in the Las Vegas Summer League and during the preseason. Griffin will not join Michael Olowokandi, Danny Manning and Bo Kimble as footnotes in Clippers history.
As a Rockets fan, how worried should I be that Yao Ming's career is over? What's the plan if it is?-- Andrew, Dallas
Anytime a 7-foot-6, 310-pound man has a chronic foot problem that requires surgery, a high level of concern is warranted. But Yao is still young (29) and has the best doctors in the world working on him. When I spoke to Rockets general manager Daryl Morey a couple of weeks ago, he reiterated that Yao's surgery was a success and now they have to see how the foot responds when he's able to put pressure on it. If all goes according to plan, Yao should be ready for basketball drills by the end of the season and be set to go by training camp. You could tell that Yao is eager to get back on the floor, too. When I saw him during the preseason, he was taking shots from a chair on the practice floor.
Greetings from Lima, Peru. Do you think there is a way to improve the Heat roster to keep [Dwyane] Wade and maintain salary-cap flexibility in 2010?--@fernandomerino
The Heat could explore trading Jermaine O'Neal, but with his history of knee problems, they likely wouldn't get an impact player in return. Plus, O'Neal's $23 million expiring contract has long-term value to the franchise. The Heat's best hope this season is that O'Neal can regain the form that made him a six-time All-Star in Indiana and that power forward Michael Beasley can become the answer at small forward. There is a lot riding on it because free-agent-to-be Wade won't like having to carry the team like he did last season.
Could all the Knicks who are essentially playing for contracts prevent any chemistry this season?--@ChrisELundberg
With six of their core players set to become free agents after the season, it would be a miracle if the Knicks develop any chemistry. Al Harrington is going to shoot too much. Nate Robinson is going to shoot too much. Larry Hughes might shoot from the bench. The Knicks have all the makings of a selfish, me-first team, and there are no real leaders to prevent it from happening. Knicks president Donnie Walsh has done a superior job excising most of the bad contracts, but the price he pays will likely be an ugly '09-10 season.
Who will have the better year -- Tyreke Evans or Stephen Curry?--@Kris81to
It's probably a toss-up this season. Evans will have free reign in Paul Westphal's offense that will lead to big numbers. But Curry could be a 15-to-17-point scorer playing Nellie ball. If you're asking which player I would rather have on my team, I'm taking Evans. Curry has the potential to be an explosive scorer for a long time, but Evans has franchise guard written all over him. In talking to executives who worked out Evans before the draft, more often than not I could hear some surprise in their voices at how dynamic Evans really was. Whether it's at point guard or shooting guard, Evans is a future All-Star who has the ability to lead a winning team someday.