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J.A. Adande, who lives in L.A., and Israel Gutierrez, who lives in Miami, are teaming up this season for a look at the NBA from two perspectives.
J.A., before we get to our latest multi-era discussion/comparison, let's get this much out of the way: These aren't contrived comparisons the media create just to have something to talk/write about. Oftentimes, it's players or former players themselves who bring the discussion to the forefront. For example, Scottie Pippen was one of the earliest contributors to the legitimate LeBron James-Michael Jordan comparison, saying LeBron may end up being better, and that was a year before LeBron ever won his first title. And now, with the Heat in the midst of a historic streak, it's Walt "Clyde" Frazier who's spurring the discussion of the 2012-13 Heat's place in NBA history by telling the "Michael Kay Show" in New York last week that while the Heat are the best team in the league right now, he wouldn't call them great and they're not even in the discussion as one of the greatest teams ever. Now, to me, that seems pretty silly when you consider that this team has all the elements that most of the all-time great single-season teams have had. Miami has the best player in the game, another player who remains among the top five in the league, a third All-Star and a group of "supporting" players that includes the best 3-point shooter in league history in Ray Allen and one of the best "glue guys" in the league in Shane Battier. You take that roster, then project the possibility of a record-breaking win streak and a second straight NBA championship, and you'd have to consider this one of the greatest regular seasons and teams ever. So let's do this. Whether we're making those assumptions on the win streak and the NBA title or not, what's the ceiling with this Heat team? When late June rolls around, are we talking them up in the same conversation as the '95-96 Bulls, '71-72 Lakers, '85-86 Celtics, '66-67 Sixers, Frazier's '69-70 Knicks, or any other of the great singular seasons?
The Heat already took themselves out of that conversation with the way they started this season. The great teams announce themselves right away, bursting through the door and yelling, "We're here!" The Heat had the doorman call up to notify the residents of their arrival. Nine games into the season, they were 6-3. The 1985-86 Boston Celtics took their third loss in Game 20. The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls had their third loss in Game 26. One thing that's both a qualification and a reflection of truly great teams is a mentality that makes them want to show it every night, from the outset of the season. We didn't have that from the Heat this year. If anything, what they're doing now only demonstrates that we didn't see the best of them in November and December. Of course, Dwyane Wade was still working his way back from knee surgery. Allen was adjusting to new environs. And LeBron James was pacing himself after the championship run followed by the Olympic gold medal left him with little more than a three-day weekend for an offseason. It was a smart play by LeBron. He already has a 66-win regular season in Cleveland on his résumé and that never comes up when assessing his place in the NBA hierarchy. Why expend so much energy on something that won't help the argument? More important, why go so hard after the best record when you didn't need the home-court advantage that comes with it in the NBA Finals last year? Don't underestimate the special circumstances that led to the Bulls' 72-win season: a rested Jordan, who played a total of 27 NBA games the previous 28 months, extra-motivated by his second-round playoff defeat in 1995. What often gets overlooked is what happened the next season: With the roster largely intact, the Bulls won 69 games and repeated as champions. In other words, they followed the best regular season ever by matching the second-best regular season ever. And you could argue that their playoff squad, supplemented by Bison Dele, was even better than the previous year. Maybe we should refine the parameters. We shouldn't wonder where the 2012-13 Heat could rank among the all-time great seasons, we should wonder how they can rank among the great defending champions. In my lifetime, that's a field of three: the 2000-01 Lakers, the 1996-97 Bulls and the 1991-92 Bulls. As good as the Bulls were with Rodman in the mid-'90s, I thought the '92 version, with a younger Michael and Scottie and a more-versatile-than-Rodman Horace Grant, were even better.
Wait, why does it matter how strong the season began? The 1985-86 Celtics won 67 games, which means they went 50-12 after their strong start. The Heat can still reach 67 wins (though they can only afford one more loss, and that's unlikely to happen given that the last handful of games won't mean much), and have gone 50-11 since the middle of December. Plus, if the Heat go on to win 33 or 34 straight, then go on to win the title, no one's going to say the Celtics' season was better because they started stronger. That team doesn't have a win streak like this on its résumé. And you helped make my point by listing all the reasons the Heat began the season the way they did. Once they became dominant, they've played as dominant as any team in NBA history, as evidenced by this streak. But let's go ahead and switch the conversation to best season by a defending champ. In our lifetimes, I'm cutting your list by one-third. Yeah, the Lakers went 15-1 through the postseason, but the regular season was nothing special. In fact, the team didn't even have the top record in the Western Conference that season. So, to use your phrase, that team "announced themselves" by saying, "We're here! But we don't care that much." And yes, the dominant playoff run was impressive, particularly going 11-0 through its conference, taking out the Blazers, Kings and Spurs without letting those teams breathe. But in the Finals, where you're theoretically supposed to play your toughest opponent, the Lakers faced a Sixers team that probably wouldn't have beaten the Kings or Spurs that year, either. Hard to argue with the 1991-92 Bulls, though. People talk about how LeBron has played now that the pressure of a title is off his shoulders. Well, that narrative wasn't really there for Jordan, in my recollection (I was in junior high school), but that postseason following his first title might've been his best among the championship years. He didn't just average 34.5, 6.2 rebounds, 5.8 assists and shoot 50 percent, but he did it while playing a ridiculous 42 minutes a game. Plus, it came with an unforgettable shrug during his 3-point barrage against the Blazers. This Heat season, though, remains an unfinished product. Their postseason could be just as impressive. LeBron's postseason could be just as dominant. And when the picture is complete, it could easily surpass that Bulls season. By the way, the 1964-65 Celtics probably have a pretty good case, too. I mean, they set the then-league record for wins (62) in an 80-game season, and won their seventh straight title. So, there's that.
Teams that passionately care about winning every night get the utmost respect from me. It's not that I sneer at teams who take an occasional night off. It's a looooong season. Four games in four cities in six nights isn't conducive to a great week of basketball. So I don't begrudge the Heat's slow start. It's possible that more exertion earlier would have left them too drained to put together the streak they're on now, which has turned into the best thing about this NBA season. All it does is elevate my respect for those teams that brought it for all 82, who set their sights on history and embraced the challenge. That applied to the 1991-92 Bulls more than any post-championship team I've seen. They might have picked their spots during the course of games, but they never looked at a calendar flipped to a page and said, "We'll start here." I'll buy your disqualification of the 2000-01 Lakers, who basically waited until April to get serious and then they got really serious. The strange thing about that is it takes the Shaq-Kobe Lakers out of this discussion (and reminds me that the Magic-Kareem "Showtime" Lakers hardly ever get entrants in the greatest single team discussion, despite their decade of dominance). The Heat could cleanse their own franchise closet of their previous championship defense in 2006 which began with a 42-point loss on ring night and ended with them getting swept out of the first round of the playoffs. That might have been the worst championship defense in history. This group is chasing a different kind of history. Even if the streak gets to 33 or 34, we won't be able to render a verdict until the playoffs are over. Check back with me then.
That's part of the pleasure of watching and listening to this Heat team these days. They're not afraid to embrace greatness and their place in history, knowing that this is the time to create their legacy. No disrespect to Erik Spoelstra, but a lot of that has to come from Pat Riley's influence. It's what would've driven Riley insane had he coached Shaq for longer than he did, O'Neal's unwillingness to push himself and his team to the limit as often as possible. With LeBron, you can see Riley's influence. Since he arrived in Miami three seasons ago, LeBron's game has improved each year. He never settled for already being considered the best. He wanted to make it no contest. And when you watch his effort every night during this streak, you see a player who knows that what he's doing will be remembered and discussed decades from now. LeBron already has that kind of outlook, but it doesn't hurt to have the perspective and motivation of Riley in your ear. That's also what will make this season so spectacular, if it ends with another Heat title. LeBron, the clear leader, barely exhaled following a 2012 year that was the high point of his already great career. Instead, he wanted more and has done more. He's performing as if that whole "not three, not four, not five" remark wasn't just an off-the-cuff quip but an actual promise. When we look back on this season years from now, we'll marvel even more at how impressive his year was. And he's just the centerpiece of a team that has four potential Hall of Famers, has made its mark with this streak no matter when it ends, has made its own version of the Super Bowl shuffle with that Harlem Shake video and has turned video bombing into an art. If it ends in a repeat, then it has to go down as one of the best and most memorable teams the league has seen. Even Walt Frazier would have to reconsider his position at that point.