And now, we take a brief pause from obsessing about a bunch of college players who may or may not make an impact in the NFL and switch to, you know, the actual games being played to decide a champion in a different major sport.
Lorenzo Tanos has already gone through all of the first round matchups right here on this site, so go check that out - he's our resident expert, while I'm just someone trying to get his head out of forty-yard dash times for just a minute or two. That being said, I'm more interested in what happens after the first round - the Heat v. Bucks matchup just isn't doing it for me.
The real question, as I see it, to be answered this postseason is whether or not the Heat can take their place as one of the greatest teams of all time, right alongside Michael Jordan's 72-win Bulls squad in 95-96, the 71-72 Lakers of Chamberlain and West, and the 85-86 Celtics, led by Bird, McHale, Parrish, and Walton.
The Heat have thrust themselves into the conversation. In the sports world, we like declaring whatever is going on now as the best thing ever, but the Heat aren't just a flavor of the month. Even without the attention grabbing 27-game win streak, second longest of all time, the Heat's record has been pretty much impeccable all season long. The duo of LeBron James and Dwayne Wade ranks up there with any duo you can list in the history of the NBA - yes, even Jordan and Pippen - and James, especially, has taken his game to another level this season, and should win his 4th MVP by proclamation - no need for a vote this year. It's incredible - he keeps bringing his game to progressively higher levels. Wade should make the starting all-NBA team as well. They're stocked with talent as well - when Ray Allen is the fourth best player on your team, you know you're loaded.
But it takes more than regular season success to be hailed as the best team of all time - otherwise, we'd think higher of the 96-97 Jazz squad that couldn't make it past Jordan's Bulls, the 88-89 Lakers who fell to the bad boy Pistons, or the 95-96 Seattle team that couldn't get past Jordan's Bulls. You've gotta win in the playoffs. Also, it becomes clear that it's really hard to be the best when you're up against Jordan's Bulls - and, in my mind, that's precisely who the Heat are up against. All due respect to all the great teams out there, but the unbeatable Bulls team in 95-96 still ranks, in my mind, as the greatest team ever. Could any amount of success really have the Heat challenge that? Or, what about just getting on the "Mount Rushmore" of teams - a top-4 all-time team? How could the Heat grab that slot?
Well, John Hollinger, formerly of ESPN and now the VP of basketball operations for the Memphis Grizzlies, came up with one of his patented mathematical formulas to determine the best championship teams of all time. Like any stat that tries to rank across eras and playstyles, it has its flaws, but it's a good way to open the argument. So, what I'm going to do now is compare this year's Heat team to the top four teams Hollinger's formula spat out, and see what it would take for them to take their place atop this particular ranking.
Regular season win total:
--Obviously, no team is catching the Bulls here, but the Heat score well - second best among the top four, and one of the top-15 seasons of all time. Each regular season win is worth two points in Hollinger's formula, so it makes you wonder what would have happened if the Heat hadn't started 6-3 (the Bulls team, by comparison, started 23-3). Perhaps if LeBron hadn't gone to the Olympics, he would have been more rested? I find that argument...less than convincing.
Apr 6, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) dunks the ball during the second half against the Philadelphia 76ers at the American Airlines Arena. Miami won 106-87. Photo Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports.
--It's not enough to just win games, you wanted to blow your opponents out, which makes sense - great teams don't win by one, they win by thirty-one, and here's where the Heat don't measure up quite so much. It's certainly not their offense, which is pretty much undeniably the best in the league, but their defense is "only" top-10, and they have a tendency to turn things on in the last quarter or the like, rather than cruising from coast to coast. You can't even blame quality of opposition or anything like that - while I do think the league has become more balanced since the ‘80s teams we're comparing the Heat to here, the Eastern conference wasn't exactly a juggernaut of never before seen proportions. After ~maths~, the Heat's regular season point total in all this comes out to 175 points, while the other teams, in order, scored 210.7, 180.9, 185.4, and 171.8 points. So, that places the Heat right in the middle of things, though more towards the bottom.
But, like I said, we don't rate teams by regular season performance; they need to be dominant in the postseason. In Hollinger's formulas, a playoff win is 4 points by itself, and a loss is -4. The scoring margin remains in play, but is multiplied by four due to the fewer games. Plus, there's a fifteen point bonus just for winning the title, which, y'know, is sort of a prerequisite to being called the best. How did these teams do?
--It's interesting to note that three of the top four teams actually had bigger scoring margins in the playoffs than they did in the regular season, despite facing better opposition. That's due to a combination of factors, including the fact that stars and starters play more and longer in the playoffs, plus perhaps a bit of turning on the clutch energies and whatnot in the postseason. It's interesting to note the '95-96 Bulls are the one team that bucked that trend, but when you were as dominant as they were in the regular season, perhaps some degree of slide-back is inevitable. It's also important to not be challenged that much in the post-season - all these teams only lost two or three games. If you're going to a lot of game-sevens, are you really the best team in NBA history? Unless you're arguing that your opponents are also top-10 of all time-style squads, that's hard to argue.
So, what do the Heat need to do? First, let's give them the 15 points for winning the finals, as there's no point in even going through this exercise if they can't win it all. That's 190 points. Then, they've logically got to win 16 games to get there, one more than their comparisons here (which basically gives the other teams a three-point ‘bump'), so that gets them up to 254. Those are givens if they're going to call themselves the best team of all time.
Now, they need to avoid losing very many games, and that's where they are helped out by a weak Eastern conference. We remember our teams going ‘fo-‘fo-‘fo, or the equivalent, and the Heat have an easy path towards the finals - I'd take them over the field at the moment. The Bucks actually have a losing record and will likely be swept - they're down 2-0 at the moment. The next series is against the Nets or the Bulls and, honestly, I don't see either giving the Heat much of a challenge either, so I think we can, for the sake of argument, think of a sweep there.
The Eastern Conference finals would see the Heat likely matched up against the Knicks, with the Pacers as another strong possibility. The Knicks post a significantly stronger matchup; I don't know if Carmelo Anthony is enough to will them past the Heat, but that'd be the first series I'd be interesting in watching for the sake of the outcome, rather than "look how amazing the Heat are". I don't think the Heat would sweep this - oh, I'd favor them to win the series, but I could easily see a roaring crowd in Madison Square Garden, Anthony raining in jump shots...I think you have to mark them down for a loss there.
The REAL test is the NBA finals, because every legitimate contender to the Heat's throne - the Thunder, the Spurs, the Clippers, even maybe the Nuggets with how they've turned it on recently - play out West and have to smash through one another in order to get the right to play the Heat. Now, I'd favor the Heat over all of them, despite Hollinger's stats churning out other results, but I really think OKC could take them to seven games - can you imagine them doing that against Jordan's squad? Or Bird's, or Magic's? Maybe this is a flawed argument - I think of those teams as unbeatable because, well, they weren't beaten - but as impressive as the Heat have been, and mind you, I still have them winning it all, I'm just not sure they're in the historic class needed to storm through the West. Their record is inflated - slightly inflated, but still - by playing in the easier conference, and they haven't stormed through them in record-setting amounts. This is a great team, but I think they fall just short of all-time dominance.
That's just my opinion, though, and I'll leave you with this table to answer our earlier question - what to the Heat need to do to be #4 ('91 Bulls) on Hollinger's list, and join the proverbial Mount Rushmore? They'd have to sweep everyone and win by more than 17 points a game to top the 72-10 Bulls, so throw that out right now. But here are the numbers to hit #4, and you can make up your own mind.
|# of losses in postseason||Margin needed|
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