Somewhere in my garage is sitting this GOAT "No Bull" poster. I'm surprised this was the only image I could find on the interwebs.
The bulk of this post was written about a month ago, and I never got around to capping it off with my own anecdote until now. Our plan of pre-preseason previews was perhaps a little too ambitious, but I think an analysis of the Miami Heat is still well-warranted. It is, after all the question that everyone's asking: How does this team match up against other championship-caliber teams for 2010-11?
Normally, I would lead a discussion of position-by-position comparisons against the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic, and maybe even the Oklahoma City Thunder and Chicago Bulls, as I did in the Orlando Magic preview.
With the Miami Heat, if we compare their Huge Three to other historic Huge Threes and find that they stack up, in my mind that would usurp the upcoming season's championship-caliber discussion. I know, I know, I've run plenty of rec leagues to know that you still need to play the games, but we're talking a run of four seven-game series that would need to stop this epic Huge Three, not just one game in which anything can happen. IMHO, that's one of the great things about the NBA.
Let us begin with the notion of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh being a Huge Three as opposed to (merely) a Big Three. An easy litmus test is Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett from 2007-08. The year before Boston's Big Three teamed up, we had this...
Ray Allen: 26.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 4.1 apg
Paul Pierce: 25.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 4.1 apg
Kevin Garnett: 22.4 ppg, 12.8 rpg, 4.1 apg
Here's the Huge Three, the year before this...
Dwyane Wade: 26.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 6.6 apg
LeBron James: 29.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 8.6 apg
Chris Bosh: 24.0 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 2.4 apg
A little hard to tell from the traditional pts-reb-ast glance, so do the hefty stats of Wade/LBJ as compared with Ray/Paul outweigh that which comes up short for Bosh as compared with KG? For that, I offer Martin Manley's analysis of EFF at Upon Further Review:
Here is the Celtic trio from 2007. These are their EFFs and rankings before the season began – the same situation as the Miami trio is today. No comparison.
Aside from the statistical analysis, When you take a step back, I don't think there's a single person out there who would rather take Ray Allen over D-Wade if they were building their own roster. Same thing for taking Paul Pierce over LeBron James. Never. Let's remember that the Celtics went 66-16 in 2007-08.
Interestingly, Manley's list of best-ever trios at the bottom of his article has some non-championship trios that were better than other championship trios, so take it all with a grain of salt, but it is still pretty scary to think that Wade/LBJ/Bosh is entering only their 8th years and all three had top-ten EFF ratings last year.
With that, let's look at what Stan Van Gundy, resonating the initial proclamations of his ESPN analyst brother Jeff (e.g., "they will never lose two games in a row"), recently said, as written up by Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel...
"If I look at what the Bulls did winning 72 games and I look at the Heat roster, I am going to tell you that the Heat roster is better than any roster that Michael Jordan played with with the Bulls," Stan Van Gundy said. "I don't think that people predicting them breaking the win total and being in the 70s and the whole thing, I don't think those are expectations that are out of line based on their roster. Whether they come true or not, we're going to find out in a few months, but I don't think those are crazy predictions for the roster they have.
"...Mike Miller is every bit as good a shooter as (John) Paxson or (Steve) Kerr or anybody they put there. Plus, he's 6'8". If you start going down the list, I don't think there is any question that the roster the Heat have is as talented a roster if not more so as any roster there has ever been in the NBA."
I said I wasn't going into deep roster analysis, so I'll keep this brief, but let me just list out the bench warmers for the 95-96 Bulls: Kukoc, Kerr, Jud Buechler, Randy Brown, Jason Caffey, Bill Wennington, John Salley, James Edwards, Dickey Simpkins, Jack Haley.
Now here's the list for the 10-11 Miami Heat: Mike Miller, Jerry Stackhouse, Eddie House, Udonis Haslem, Zydrunas Igauskas, Juwan Howard, Mario Chalmers, James Jones, Jamaal Magloire, Dexter Pittman, Patrick Beverley, Da'Sean Butler.
The other angle that one could take is that the 09-10 Cavs roster went 61-21. I won't go into that, but superficially and talent-wise, I do think that the 10-11 Heat roster is 11 wins better than the 09-10 Cavs roster.
Honestly, I don't know what's with the criticism of the Heat role players. On the basis of comparison it seems more than adequate to win 72 games.
There's also criticism with chemistry. So wait, the Bulls had chemistry going into 95-96? Harper was still feeling it out with Jordan, especially the transition to pg, and Rodman was a new pickup. How about the Celtics: did KG, Pierce, and Ray-Ray have chemistry going into the run for Championship #17?
It seems people don't think LeBron's entire '08 summer spent with Wade and Bosh counts for anything in the chemistry department. When you are spending days and nights together in a foreign country, there isn't any more basketball chemistry than that, that can be developed.
Never losing two games in a row
Really? Well, let's take a look. The vaunted 95-96 Bulls actually lost two in a row on an early-February excursion to Denver (led by Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf) and Phoenix two nights later (led by Charles Barkley). Longley was out for these games. It was the only time the Bulls lost two-in-a-row.
The only team the Bulls lost to more than once was the Indiana Pacers. The first loss was the day after Christmas, in which Rik Smits torched Longley for 26 points. Incidentally, that one was the first of a home-and-home. The second loss was the second-to-the-last game of the season. Reggie Miller and Ron Harper were both out for that one.
The only games the Bulls lost at home were the late-season one against Indiana and against the Charlotte Hornets which were led by Kenny Anderson, Glen Rice, Larry Johnson, and -- hold your breath -- Robert Parish (!). Longley was out for that one, too. This loss also came only three days after the Bulls had beaten Charlotte.
Looking at the Heat schedule, I don't see two elite opponents in a row, or at least one of them in mile-high atmosphere, until the Denver road trip Jan 13th in the middle of a five-game road-trip. They visit Chicago two days later. Then March 3-4 when they face Orlando then travel to San Antonio then back home vs Chicago immediately thereafter.
Finally, there's a home-and-home versus Milwaukee then at Milwaukee on Jan 4th and 7th, respectively. I only mention this as a potential single loss in the Heat's race for the record. There's no way the Bucks will beat the Heat twice in a row, and unlikely for the Heat vice-versa, because home-and-homes between two good teams are so very hard to sweep.
Thus, while I don't think JVG sat down to analyze it, I also don't think his statement of never losing two games in a row is that far-fetched.
As far as counting more potential losses, the tail end of the regular season is when playoff seeds have been pretty much determined and a little focus might be lost. That being said, the April 10th matchup against Boston will probably be one of the losses, considering Celtic Pride. If there's a record to be broken around that time, there's no way the Celtics let it happen against them, assuming they are healthy.
Aside from the above, the Heat will not face any other pair of elite opponents, with at least one of them an away game, within a three-day span.
Suffice it to say, if they're healthy, I don't see the Heat's regular season schedule with too many bumps in the road. Well, except for Dec 10-11 on the Northern California death march against the Warriors then Kings. ;-) ...j/k
One final perspective is this. No one has actually claimed the Lakers could break the 72-win mark this season, although not surprisingly such ridiculous discussion did occur last year on an LA beatwriter's blog, but for the sake of argument, let's take a look at the Lakers' schedule.
There's a Chicago-Utah set (home-away) in late November. A seven-game roadtrip in early December. A home vs the Heat then road vs San Antonio two-game stretch after that. An OKC-Dallas-Denver-Utah stretch in mid-January. Another seven-game roadtrip in February featuring Boston and Orlando. At San Antonio-Atlanta-Miami-Dallas then back home for Orlando in March. Finally Dallas-Utah-Denver-Utah heading into April.
That's pretty brutal. I'll go so far as to say that if the Heat had the Lakers' schedule, I would not be predicting that the Heat would be winning 72 games.
This analysis has also led me to the following conclusion: The Heat will have a better record than the Lakers and will therefore have home-court advantage should the two meet in the Finals. That will help the Heat win the championship.
One thing I noticed from the Bulls' record run of 72 wins is that they had, by my count, at least 5 of those 10 losses when they were missing at least one starter -- namely, Dennis Rodman and Luc Longley. So, for the Heat to break the record, obviously they would have to survive a good amount of their regular season with their starting five intact.
Their starting five will be Carlos Arroyo, Wade, LeBron, Bosh, and Joel Anthony. Off the bench, there was some pretty good chemistry between Chalmers and Wade last year and, when he comes back, Mike Miller will be to the Heat what Toni Kukoc was to the Bulls. Miller may yet finish plenty of games. In the meantime, Jerry Stackhouse will look to be the sparkplug he was for the Milwaukee Bucks last year.
Everyone seems to have forgotten that the 95-96 Bulls were vanquished from the playoffs a year earlier, even with an albeit out-of-shape and rusty MJ coming back from retirement, by coincidentally the Orlando Magic. In short, with a target on their back and MJ eager for revenge, the Magic had no chance in '96.
We all know that there is a lot of negativity resulting from LeBron's "Decision", but what about the "natural basketball revenge factor"? Aside from LeBron's resolve to show up the hate lashed out at the entire Miami Heat franchise for his PR moves, there's plenty of oncourt competitive blood boiling in both LeBron and Wade's veins:
- In 2009, LeBron's Cleveland Cavaliers were bounced by the Orlando Magic, 4-2 in the conference finals. (In case you were wondering, Wade's Heat lost to the Atlanta Hawks in the first round.)
- In 2010, as we all know, the Boston Celtics ousted LeBron's top-seeded Cavs, 4-2 in the semifinals.
- But also last year, the Celtics eliminated Wade's Heat in the first round, 4-1.
Trust me, basketball players do not forget to whom they were eliminated the previous year(s).
First of all, I think D-Wade is the most under-rated superstar out there. Everyone talks about 25-5-5 with LeBron, Kobe Bryant, Tyreke Evans, et. al., but people forget that Wade only missed that by 0.2 rpg last season. Now you have two players with such time-honored numbers on the same team!
I used to watch slow-motion tapes of Michael Jordan and I must say, Wade's game resembles MJ's more than Kobe's, with the jab steps, leading of the shoulder, and more pronounced fade-aways (with Wade being only 6'4"). Kobe's treys-in-your-face and Allen Iverson-ish shoulder fakes, stutter-step crossover were not part of MJ's style.
The bottom line is, Wade employs many of Michael's fundamentally sound moves, and they are just as effective for him as they were for Michael.
I also feel like people forget Wade was the sparkplug on Team USA for '08 Beijing, in which a fair comparison can be made against other superstars like Kobe and Carmelo Anthony. Whenever the team stagnated, which was quite often for that young team just developing its own chemistry over the course of one summer, Wade would come in and totally change the game. IMHO, Wade was the most consistent player on that team. However, I do agree that Kobe won the gold medal game against Spain with his Black Mamba-ness.
As far as LeBron is concerned, I will simply point you to Ben Osborne's SLAM Online article from the other day. The most profound statement was this:
The guy some other folks think can take LeBron’s crown, Kevin Durant, has never had a single playoff game as good as LeBron’s average playoff game.
Lastly, the defensive prowess of both LeBron and Wade is not talked about a lot. I think it can rub off on their teammates, starting with the dedication. It's not like Bosh is known as a terrible defender, either. If the defensive work ethic brought forth by MJ and Scottie can rub off on Kukoc, so can it be for the Heat.
As for Bosh, I feel that I am somewhat unqualified to comment on, since I didn't really pay attention to him the last few years, but the few preseason Heat games that I've caught so far, I am very impressed by his skillset and can see how he averaged the numbers he averaged. I think the constant comparison to KG is a bit unfair. There is only one KG, folks.
Bull or No Bull?
To sum it up, I am concerned that the Heat have shown evidence of a "snake-bitten" year with the injury bug. It is not trending well right now, but hopefully for them the Wade hamstring injury was a blip on the map. Stackhouse will need to make people forget that Miller is out. However, Miller is expected to return by January. Using the Bulls' 72-win run as a guide, this entire discussion will be a moot point if they cannot maintain a stable, healthy rotation of the first six to eight players.
Also, turning the record around into losses and wins instead of wins and losses, the notion of only a single-digit number of losses affects the human psyche. Breaking the Bulls' record means being better than 72-10. Being better than 72-10 means 73-9. Nine losses? Almost unthinkable!
So, on paper and assuming good health, I am officially predicting that the Heat will tie the Bulls record of 72-10.
Competitive basketball anecdote
The last thing I want to say comes from my vast experiences playing in the underground world of competitive ethnic Asian-American basketball tournaments. So if you're not bought in to what you see at your Men's League translating to the NBA (to me, basketball is basketball), you may use the previous paragraph as my closing statement and tune out.
Or if you've never been involved in a league or a tournament where you see the same competitors year after year and there is this constant oncourt power struggle and maneuvering of rosters to bolster your team while adhering to some set of restrictions, this will probably go over your head.
Around a few years after the Bulls' record-breaking season, I witnessed an alliance of a Huge Three in my basketball circles that would turn out to be more akin to LBJ/Wade/Bosh than MJ/Pippen/Rodman.
It was the local annual Lake Tahoe Japanese League tournament, which still goes on today. Not many teams from the regular Japanese League could make it up all the way there, so often times the tournament director would hope for teams, or conglomerates of players forming makeshift teams, to be the caliber of the 2nd-tier of Japanese League divisions. Otherwise, the lone ultra-competitive team attending from the top tier would surely dominate the other lower-division teams that were mostly going to Tahoe for fun. After all, no one wanted to drive all the way to Tahoe to lose two games by 20+.
Probably because I was tired of being on a 2nd-tier team always losing to that lone 1st-tier team, for whatever reason I did not attend the Tahoe tournament that year, but I had heard that they were were short on teams that had signed.
The top tier in the Japanese League only regularly had six teams and was dominated by one team for eons: the San Francisco Associates. I was somewhat of a "victim" of their monopoly on the best Japanese/Chinese players in the Bay Area. For example, any random impact player that moved into town from LA's vast community of Japanese League teams would naturally be recruited by and want to play for the SF Associates. It was literally impossible to dethrone them.
Among many other names I won't mention here, this team had Michi Langfeldt, a half-Japanese half-African-American crafty midrange shooter who was considered the Jordan of Japanese ball. He could literally score from any spot on the floor, albeit below the rim. He routinely led the league in scoring.
The Associates' stranglehold started to erode that year when the East Bay Court Jesters had the good fortune of picking up two outstanding players that moved to the East Bay from Seattle: Terry Omata and Tim Lin, who both played at the same northwest JC. Omata was like the LeBron James of Japanese League. A well-built, tall, fearless ballhandler and creator. Except this was before LeBron, so we didn't know it at the time.
Lin was one of those rare players who opened up his attacks to the basket by first hitting treys. I don't think I've seen a player like him since. An absolute sniper who happened to be ultra-mobile and certainly not addicted to scoring in 3's rather than 2's, which made him a special player.
To make a long story short, both the Associates and Court Jesters didn't have enough players to go to Tahoe that year, so with perhaps reckless abandon and oblivious to the Tahoe tournament's attempts to make the field as balanced as possible, Omata and Lin joined forces with Langfeldt.
I said to myself, "Thank goodness I can't make it this year." I have always had competitive juices and as a young baller, growing up in the Jordan era, I relished the opportunities to go up against other highly competitive players in our little Japanese Leagues.
This was one of the only times in my young competitive basketball life where I wanted no part of a Huge Three like Omata, Lin, and Langfeldt. In fact, I was envious that they could pull it off. I mean, it was just simply not fair. But hey, kudos to them. Other things in life were certainly not fair, either.
I knew they would crush the competition even if they had brought two midgets to round out the starting five. Omata would've said, "No problem, I'll just play center and have someone else bring up the ball." Langfeldt and Lin would've concentrated their efforts on defensive rebounding and let the offense come to them. Who would take the last shot? I'm not sure there would've been a last shot to take, but I figure Omata would have no problem passing to either Langfeldt or Lin after getting by the inferior one-on-one defense. And you know what? Langfeldt and Lin would have no problem if it were one or the other taking that last shot.
So how did they do? Crushed the competition, of course. I think each of the three games in the eight-team consolation bracket, they won by 30.
I know what you're thinking: they played against 2nd-tier teams at the tournament. But something tells me that even if they had played their own 1st-tier teams (disregarding any loyalty issues for the sake of argument) that had copies of themselves still playing, they would have risen up to the challenge with this truly unique opportunity, and Omata, Lin, and Langfeldt, with defenses scrambling to figure out how to cover three incredibly potent talents, would've carved their names in the lore of greatest assembled Japanese League teams.
There was just something about these three superstars coming together for that special weekend. The confidence, the sacrifice, and the effort to make sure that there would be good chemistry, no matter who else they brought with them.
It's too bad the Asian tournament circuit was not as connected as it is today. They would've done well going cross-country and establishing a name for themselves outside the Bay Area.
Instead, after that Tahoe tournament they just went back to their respective teams and had some more Lakers-Celtics-like trading of championship trophies in league play. Meanwhile, the Tahoe tournament director put his foot down for good. The next year, Omata and Lin were forced to play separately and draft their own teams. Langfeldt played for a diluted Tahoe-version of his Associates. Omata was in charge of creating the split-squads and I quickly accepted his invitation and played on Lin's makeshift squad, but the Huge Three was history.
And that's the primary reason why I am in awe of this trio of LeBron, Wade, and Bosh who have plotted to join forces. I've seen this all before, and now you add Pat Riley's skill at filling out the roster. The negativity surrounding the Heat hasn't altered the core of what I've previously seen from a Huge Three. Their season schedule just isn't terribly challenging and by the end of it, assuming the Heat are healthy, they will have a ton of chemistry developed, ready for what will be one of the greatest NBA playoffs in history.