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Lakers - Heat Preview: Gut Check Time

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As this season moves along, we've had the pleasure of watching Kobe Bryant continue to move up the NBA records ladders. He's put together a resume that will rival any great put next to him, be it past, present or future. One thing Kobe realizes is that while memories fade, rings and things do not. In 10-15 years, there will be a generation of fans that only know Kobe. Their only experiences of previous greats such as Jordan or Magic will be as sneaker brands or TV personalities. So, as Kobe collects rings and records, and there's a generation of kids and middle-aged adults who got the full Kobe experience, how do you tell them Jordan is better? How do convince them Magic is the greatest Laker when Kobe's memory is freshest? They never saw the beauty of Magic's game in person, nor Jordan's domination. No matter how crazy it seems, Kobe has a legitimate shot at being considered the GOAT simply due to the fresh memories of a generation, and record upon record to back them up.

This is the problem with comparing generations. Jordan's era began in Magic's, so it's easy to compare them. Jordan even won his first ring from Magic when Magic was still in his prime. It's not so easy to compare Magic to Kobe other than accomplishments. When we can't compare players head to head, we also judge the other greats they played with. When Kobe Bryant tells us he has no rivals, he's right. Not the generation he came in with (he mentions Allen Iverson or Vince Carter), nor the next generation that's yet to make a mark, like Miami's Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. Eventually, the argument always turns into Kobe vs LeBron.

No matter how many times we watch LeBron fail in the final moments of games, there's still an overall sense that he'll get his championships. We can bash him all we want. We laugh at his crunch time failures. We enjoy seeing him disappear in the crucial moments because it validates everything most Lakers fans know, Kobe has always been better. We just want him to be better now, but viewed as such 10-15 years from now. But deep down, you have to know Jordan's career path and LeBron's look eerily similar.

What if Lebron figures it out? What will everyone think then? Would it matter that Kobe dominated his peers for 16 seasons? Or will they point to Kobe's head-to-head match-up versus LeBron? So far, Lebron's teams are 11-5 against Kobe's. If 'Bron gets it together, critics will point to his regular season dominance vs.Bryant as validation of why LeBron was better, regardless of how long it took him. Only a fool could compare the two when one player has five rings and the other has zero, but time changes things. What if...? Then counting rings turns into, "Just look at their head-to-head match-ups!"

We feel this playing out with every loss to LeBron James. This is why these Kobe vs. LeBron match-ups always have extra meaning to us Lakers fans, and extra pain when they lose. Personally, I'm tired of being let down. It'd be nice for the Lakers to pad Kobe's record, so that we can have something to argue about in 15 years.

Okay, I got the obligatory Kobe vs. LeBron talk out of the way. Did I mention this is the most important game of Andrew Bynum's career?

This is a huge game for the Lakers today against the Miami Heat. Although the Heat have yet to accomplish anything, they're widely considered the standard of the NBA at this point. They're good, fast, young, athletic, and boast two of the top 5 players in the NBA in LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. In spite of their Finals loss, they should be considered the favorites to be champs. For a Lakers team getting better, but still figuring themselves out, this game should be used as a measuring stick for where they stand moving forward.

In recent years, this would be far from the case. The Lakers are usually championship favorites, and typically the stick other teams measure themselves with. This season is different for the Lakers than in years past, since they're no longer odds-on favorites to make the Finals, never mind win it all. They sport a new coach, system, and players, in a condensed, lockout-shortened season. That would make it hard enough for any team in flux. Excuses aren't enough in Lakerland. We like to be in it to win it.

The situation is made stickier with the trade clouds hanging over the team. Lakers fans aren't content to see the team as an also-ran in any year. Now there's great pressure on the organization to give Kobe Bryant the best opportunity to eat "cuhkies" before he gets too old. So far, it seems like the Lakers front-office is indeed in love with Andrew Bynum enough to pass on Dwight. Who knows for sure? As the player who could potentially net Dwight Howard, Lakers fans will never forgive Jim Buss for not pulling the trigger come March 15th, if the Lakers prove not to be championship ready.

Today's the day the Lakers measure themselves against the NBA's elite without the excuse of new surroundings. Most importantly, we really get to see who Andrew Bynum is. Make no mistake, this is an absolutely huge game for him. He was great this past week against the Minnesota Timberwolves and Sacramento Kings. Although he's been an All-Star caliber player all season, he's once again displaying the nimbleness that makes him such a compelling talent. Like Shaq, it isn't just Bynum's massive size that makes him the special talent that Jim Buss seems to not want to part with. When he's comfortable in his movements, his decisions are made faster, spin-offs are immediate, and reaction is quick. He's catching alley-oops, passing to cutters, blocking shots, and running the floor. As a result, he's resembling the Andrew Bynum that made the Lakers seem unbeatable for a 17-1 stretch last season. If this is the Andrew Bynum Lakers fans can rely on, the lust we have for Dwight Howard lessens a great deal.

But we need to believe. We need to be convinced. As great as Drew looks, he's never been in this position. Competitively, this is far from the biggest game of his career. He already has two rings, and he's played in a Game 7 of the Finals, against Boston no less. Those accomplishments came as a 4th-option at best, behind Kobe, Pau, and Lamar Odom. Most games, Phil had him on the bench during crunch time. He's never been in a leadership role with the Lakers until this season, and Lakers fans haven't been this anxious since....'07? I know, spoiled aren't we?

The Lakers are pretty good. Throughout all of the quirkiness of the season, and even with a few major flaws, they currently sit tied for first in the Pacific Division and hold a top-4 seed in the West. They're great at home (16-2), but remain a questionable road team (6-12). They're improving on the road though. Last month they went 4-5 away from Staples Center. This team might not need to swing for the fences, if they do keep improving as a team, and can make one or two minor adjustments at point guard and small forward. Kobe's giving us a season for the ages. Pau has been nothing but a true professional since nearly getting traded for Chris Paul. Bynum seems primed. Steve Blake has been playing well enough to balance out the bench, and has helped make Matt Barnes effective. The Lakers are closer than we think.

Whether or not they take that swing is entirely dependent on Bynum. Last Sunday, he got the chance to eat at the big boy's table as he started the All-Star Game against the man he might be traded for. If the Lakers do decide to move forward with Bynum instead of pulling the trigger on Dwight, it's moments like today's game against the Heat that Andrew has to prove his All-Star status. He has to prove that a Kobe-Bynum combination is worthy of competing for a championship and that the future of this franchise is secure on those big shoulders.

Kobe won't be around forever, and his fate is likely tied to whomever is our starting center after March 15th. With the likes of Kobe, LeBron, and D-Wade on the floor, the eyes of millions watching, and Joel Anthony and Udonis Haslem defending him, Andrew Bynum must finally show us what he's made of when it counts. The Kobe vs. LeBron debate will be re-hashed, and Kobe vs. Wade will be visited to death, before we even get to Drew or Dwight. If Bynum's star doesn't shine in the big moments he's expected to show up for, he risks losing the faith of millions anxiously wanting the Lakers and Kobe to return to glory. Flashes of brilliance are no longer enough. If you're the guy Drew, be the guy.

Show us what you're made of kid. We're ready if you are. Or else it's going to be a long 11 days until March 15th.

Follow me on Twitter: @wondahbap

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