As the Los Angeles Lakers embark on the quest for a fourth consecutive NBA title -- a feat last achieved by the Boston Celtics, who won eight straight from 1958-59 to 1965-66 -- they are aware of the difference between being among the greatest teams, and being considered the greatest.
They are determined to step out from the shadows of Phil Jackson's previous squads, and cast some shadows of their own, for as great as the Lakers may be, Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls teams won three consecutive championships. Twice.
No one is more conscious of this than the Lakers themselves. After all, they are the ones who have embraced Jackson's Zen philosophy and triangle offense, taking what worked for the Bulls and applying it with similar success.
"We'd like to distance ourselves, especially seeing as our coach coached those teams," said forward Rick Fox. "If we win a fourth in a row, we'd stand pretty much above and beyond a lot of teams."
But the Lakers (2-4) don't even stand atop the Pacific Division as they enter Friday night's game against Washington at MCI Center. Superstar center Shaquille O'Neal has watched this season's games in street clothes from the bench, healing from toe surgery. Though he is eligible to be activated for the game against the Wizards, O'Neal is projected to return on Nov. 12. Fox returns to the lineup Friday after serving a six-game suspension for a preseason fight against Sacramento. The Lakers were overmatched in their first two games, losses to San Antonio and Portland, rallied in victories over the Los Angeles Clippers and Trail Blazers, but slipped in losses at Cleveland on Tuesday and at Boston Thursday night, 98-95 in overtime. Tuesday's embarrassing effort at Cleveland produced an 89-70 loss, the lowest point total since the team moved from Minneapolis in 1970.
Since the rocky 0-2 start, during which Lakers assistant coach Tex Winter reportedly told Kobe Bryant he "played stupidly," Bryant has been a selfless example of leadership and sheer brilliance.
Bryant labored hard over the summer, priming himself for the coming championship run. He subjected himself to a rigorous weight training schedule, adding 15 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot 6-inch frame. He pushed himself in the preseason, playing longer minutes than necessary to improve his stamina. All of this, he says, was done for the team's benefit, rather than his own.
"I don't have any personal goals," said Bryant. "I really set them aside in order to win championships. My personal goals revolve around making my teammates better and winning games. Those are my personal goals."
That may sound like Jackson talking, but given the way that Bryant has begun his seventh season, one is inclined to believe him.
In the Lakers' win against the Clippers, Bryant recorded his fourth career triple-double by the end of the third quarter, finishing with 33 points, 12 assists, and a career-high 15 rebounds. Two days later, Bryant had fans seeing triple-double vision, finishing with 33 points, 12 assists and 14 rebounds in an overtime win over Portland.
If he was happy to be the first Laker since 1991 with back-to-back triple-doubles -- Magic Johnson did it last -- it was hard to tell. Bryant seemed more pleased that forward Devean George, who was on the receiving end of a number of his assists, had scored a career-high 25 points.
"Seeing the expression on Devean George's face after he got a career high -- for me, that's like scoring 56 points," he said.
In subsequent road games against Cleveland and Boston, the Lakers struggled, but Bryant continued to involve his teammates. He came within one assist of another triple-double against the Cavaliers, but in the fourth quarter appeared to be looking for the elusive 10th assist instead of trying to score. Thursday night Bryant scored 41 points on an up-and-down night in which he hit just 4 of 15 in the first half, scored 18 in the third quarter and then missed 10 consecutive field goal attempts in the fourth quarter and overtime.
"He's at a point now where the game has slowed down for him," veteran guard Brian Shaw said of Bryant. "He can pretty much do whatever he feels like doing out there. The added muscle he put on in the offseason, you can see it paying dividends already in his rebounding . . . We're just watching the maturation process happen right before our eyes. It shows how unselfish he is and how much trust he has in his teammates."
Added Derek Fisher, who has played with Bryant since both entered the league in 1996: "He's making it look really easy."
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Bryant's recent play is that he's doing all of this without the superstar center, O'Neal, and Fox. Bryant, for one, is eager for both to return. "Once you add Shaquille back to the mix, once you add Rick Fox back into the mix . . . we suddenly become a much deeper team," he said.
Make no mistake: It isn't that Bryant has suddenly become unconcerned about his individual development. Far from it. After all, since leaping from high school to the NBA, he has been routinely hyped and rejected as the second coming of Michael Jordan. For much of that time, Bryant has not only tried to live up to the comparison, but perhaps, encouraged it.
The fact is that whether by coincidence or conscious effort, the similarities between Bryant and Jordan's mannerisms are unmistakable. The steady, loping strides as Bryant drives the ball upcourt, tongue wagging; the backward strut, head nodding, after he buries a jump shot; even the timbre and rhythm of his speech when he addresses the media are all vintage Jordan. And with Bryant's new bulk, the physical similarity between the two -- they are the same height and virtually the same weight -- is impossible to ignore.
"A lot of people throw . . . Michael's cape on Kobe, and it's not fair to either one of those players," said Jackson. "Yet they both have this competitive standard that everybody can recognize, a competitive level they carry themselves with on the court."
Being on the same team as O'Neal hasn't made it any easier for Bryant to define himself. O'Neal, a league most valuable player, a three-time NBA Finals MVP, has firmly established himself as the one of the premier centers in NBA history. Not that O'Neal doesn't still aspire to even greater accomplishments. He badly wants to surpass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's six league titles, but there is a calm about the 30 year-old O'Neal, a confidence that comes from having proven himself to his own satisfaction.
That kind of certainty, at this point, remains elusive for Bryant. Where will he fall out among the pantheon of all-time greats?
"When you win championships it's not just Shaq," Jordan said. "But you need that versatile player who can grab the rebound and go down and create his own shot. There's no way you can eliminate what his value is to that team. . . . The two make a pair you can't mention one without the other."
Still, for perhaps the first time, Bryant is beginning to understand that bucking the weight of Jordan's legend is more about playing his own game than trying to emulate No. 23.
"We're different players," said Bryant, asked to compare himself with Jordan. "We have the same height, the same hunger or whatever, but we're different, we actually do different things for our teams. Mike was more of a scorer for the team, he was the primary focus for the Chicago Bulls. Here, that's not the case. I defer to Shaquille O'Neal, and rightfully so. It's my job to create opportunities for everybody else, and score when the time is right. So it's a little different. Our paths, our careers have gone separate ways."
The irony, in true Jacksonian Buddhist form, is that the further Bryant distances himself from Jordan, the closer he comes to succeeding him. No other player may have as realistic a chance of actually reaching the skill and dominance of Jordan at his prime. Remember, Bryant is barely 24 years old.
At that age, Jordan was midway through just his third NBA season, still four years from winning his first NBA championship. Bryant already has three titles and was the MVP of the 2002 All-Star Game -- an honor that eluded Jordan until his fourth year in the league.
"There's only one Michael Jordan," said Shaw. "But Kobe at 24, in my opinion, is further along than Michael. He has six years already under his belt. One of the things I wouldn't hesitate comparing between the two of them is their competitiveness and their will to win. No matter what situation that we're in, it always feels like he's going to be able to do something to pull it out and make us win."