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New season set for tip

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Lakers won 65 games in the regular season, followed it up with their 15th NBA championship and then took part in a day-long party downtown before scattering for three months, going their separate ways with a lifetime's worth of memories rolled into a nine-month period.

What next?

As they begin a new season tonight against the Los Angeles Clippers, with a wealth of talent and an abundance of expectations, there's a question being bandied about quietly: Can the Lakers beat the almost mythical regular-season record for victories in a season, set by the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan in 1995-96 on the way to an NBA championship?

Kobe Bryant is already chasing Jordan's six NBA championships — he has four — and he has mentioned the Bulls' 72-10 record privately to some of the Lakers.

Bryant didn't go into much detail when asked about it by the Los Angeles Times, other than to say, "That's the goal, try to get better every year. Last year we had games where we lost maybe three right at the buzzer, and we could have won 68 games."

Sixty-eight wouldn't quite do it. Then again, the Lakers are chasing a legendary collection of characters.

Thanks to Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the flamboyant Dennis Rodman, a blast of hysteria followed the Bulls in every city they visited, making them more Beatles than basketball team.

The Bulls led the league in scoring in 1995-96, averaging 105.2 points a game, and were third in defense, allowing only 92.9 points a game. They had an 18-game win streak, lost only two home games and won 33 road games, another NBA record.

Yet some Lakers think it's not out of the question to try to top 72.

Lakers veteran forward Lamar Odom is on the "anything's possible" side.

"I think there's a shot. It would be cool, too," he said. "If we can get the Bulls' record and win a championship, I'd take that. But if we won only 58 and won a championship, I'd take that. At the end of the day, you want to be the best team standing in June."

The Lakers' resemblance to that legendary Bulls team is obvious, if not slightly peculiar.

Each team had the best player in the clutch — the Bulls had Jordan, the Lakers have Kobe Bryant. Each team had a talented No. 2 guy — Pippen for the Bulls, Pau Gasol now for the Lakers. And each team had a wild card, someone as flamboyant off the court as on it, the Bulls' Rodman and Lakers newcomer Ron Artest, two players with unpredictable personas.

They also share a head coach — Phil Jackson is in his 10th season with the Lakers, after guiding Chicago to that regular-season record, plus six championships.

It says a lot about the current Lakers squad that another title seems so plausible, although the Bryant-Gasol era has produced just one championship, versus five collected by the Magic Johnson-Kareem Abdul-Jabbar "Showtime" teams in the '80s, or the three consecutive titles by the Bryant-Shaquille O'Neal teams to start this decade.

However, the Lakers' 65-17 record last season included a 32-game absence by center Andrew Bynum, who played a minor role in the team's playoff run because of a knee injury. Bynum, who turns 22 today, is healthy and the Lakers have a favorable schedule to start the season, with 17 of their first 21 games at Staples Center.

Now in his fifth season, Bynum may be the Lakers' X-factor. In January the 7-footer was playing the best of his career, averaging 26.2 points, 14 rebounds and 3.2 blocked shots in his last five games before he was injured. This fall, Bynum was impressive in exhibition games, averaging 20.3 points and scoring almost every one of his baskets on a dunk or a layup.

As for Jackson, now 64, he has no desire to repeat that record-setting 72-win season, caring little about how many victories the Lakers collect as long as the season ends in another championship next June.

Beating the Bulls' mark is "not important," says the coach with the best winning percentage in NBA history. "It just takes so much out of you to push that all the time and just keep pushing it."

There are other doubters, among them a former Lakers player.

Ron Harper won two championship rings with the Lakers earlier this decade and was also a guard on that historic Bulls team. He's not exactly buying into a record-setting season for this Lakers squad.

"If they go 73-9, that means the Bulls team I played on would probably go 75-7, because if we would be playing all the weak teams they are playing now, we wouldn't lose," Harper said. "The league was much stronger when we played than what they are playing now. If they were to beat the 72-10 record, which I don't think they will, I'll take my hat off to that team. But if they ever want to compare basketball teams, they're not even in the top 10 teams."


"It takes you going out playing every game like it is a championship game, because every team comes out and plays extra hard against you," he said. "And you have to be a very good defensive team. We were a great defensive team. Now let's compare L.A.'s defense.

"Ron Artest is a good defensive player. Kobe Bryant is a very good defensive player. Derek Fisher is a very good defensive player. What else can you say about the rest of them? You can't have guys that are hurt. You've got to have guys that are healthy. You have to play hard. You can't take games off. If they think they are that good, show me."

Wherever the Bulls went, they were greeted like rock stars.

"There was a lot of energy that went into that year," Jackson said in an understatement.

Can the Lakers get there?

Bryant added one final thought.

"I guess it all remains to be seen."

Kobe Bryant led the Los Angeles Lakers to the NBA title last season. It was his fourth with the franchise, and LA begins its quest for another tonight. - NY182