- Monday, November 1, 2010 8:36 AM
- Written By: Jordan Schultz
The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls are the most dominant team in NBA history. Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Toni Kukoc and Dennis Rodman won 72 regular-season games and a world title. They became the benchmark for greatest team ever.
So when Pat Riley magically assembled the greatest backcourt we’ve ever seen and added elite power forward Chris Bosh to the Miami Heat, we couldn’t help but compare the two. At least in terms of sheer talent and star power, you can easily put the two teams in the same sentence.
Hate him or love him, Riley, to his credit, has also put together a splendid supporting cast around his star-studded trio. Mike Miller is a dead-eye, career 40 percent three-point shooter (coming off a 48 percent year) and underrated playmaker, who will fit in perfectly on the perimeter waiting for James and Wade to kick out when confronted with helping defenders.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas, while far past his prime, brings familiarity and comfort to James at center, and his size alone will make drivers hesitate. And don’t forget the re-signing of Udonis Haslem, a brute-forced rock in the paint who will fight to the death. His willingness to take less money and return to Miami could play a pivotal role in how far this team ultimately goes.
Throw in an unproven young point guard in Mario Chalmers (isn’t this eerily familiar to Rajon Rondo with the Celtics in 2008?), along with another hard-nosed kid in Joel Anthony, a couple interesting young players and talent wise, this team is pretty special.
But any basketball fan will tell you that talent alone far from guarantees success, especially at this level.
Looking back at the Bulls, it’s a team that despite the overwhelming presence of Jordan, had all of the other parts working in unison. The great thing about Pippen was despite his brilliance, he was more than happy to be the best No. 2 ever.
(The great thing about Pippen was that he loved being the No. 2 ... and did it better than anybody else.)
There was never a quandary with him of, “I deserve to be the top dog so I will.” Could he have been a No. 1 elsewhere? Absolutely. In fact, when Jordan took his brief hiatus to play baseball, Pippen was sensational and had Chicago one game away from the Eastern Conference Finals. But with Jordan, he instead accepted his role to the tee, played second fiddle, and selflessly became a top 50 all-time player.
While Rodman was crazy, he was also smart. He didn’t care to score, like ever. He didn’t even want to score. The two things he did that entire season were rebound the hell out of the ball (14.9 per game), and defend like his life depended on it. Then comes Kukoc, a dynamite sixth man who could score from all over the floor, and whose mere presence on the court lifted pressure off Jordan and alleviated the burden off Pippen. He was the perfect No. 3 option on a team with a clear-cut 1 and 2.
On paper, the Heat has the talent to match up with the Bulls, and that’s not even debatable. What is debatable, however, is how this talent will execute and who on this team is willing to succumb as the No. 2, e.g. Pippen. We know Bosh is the three, but the real question is who is the alpha male, and who is going to be called upon in the clutch?
And don’t give me the whole, “well they have three superstars” argument, because, frankly, that’s a joke. LeBron is a superstar talent yes, but as a friend eloquently put it, “He has a beta male mentality.” Wade is a true killer who gets to the line and hits big shots, but he also misses a ton of big shots, and Bosh is merely but an All-Star and that’s it; a very good player who cannot be counted on during crunch time, nor should he be.
My concerns with the Heat are quite simple. First, despite being considered the superior talent in the game, will James let Wade run the show? And say he does early on: What happens when this team loses a few games? Does James take back the reigns and create friction in the locker room? How does a young coach in Eric Spoelstra handle it, or does he not handle it? Is Pat Riley coming back? What happens when Wade has the ball in the closing seconds of games and elects to kick it out to Miller or Chalmers and they miss?
Then the entire world wants to know why the hell ancillary players are getting the last shot over James and Bosh, when in truth, James still hasn’t proven he can fill that role and Bosh is well, Bosh. I cannot stress enough the significance of having a true No. 1 option, and just how much it translates to championship basketball. Not a semi-No. 1 but a true, bonafide killer you can always rely on.
Let’s look at the past 15 titles:
2010 – Lakers (Kobe)
2009 – Lakers (Kobe)
2008 – Celtics (Pierce)
2007 – Spurs (Duncan)
2006 – Heat (Wade)
2005 – Spurs (Duncan)
2004 – Pistons (Billups – a little iffy but during those playoffs, he took over and was Finals MVP)
2003 – Spurs (Duncan)
2002 – Lakers (Shaq)
2001 – Lakers (Shaq)
2000 – Lakers (Shaq)
1999 – Spurs (Duncan)
1998 – Bulls (Jordan)
1997 – Bulls (Jordan)
1996 – Bulls (Jordan)
1995 – Rockets (Hakeem)
Think back to the any of the great Celtics, Lakers and Pistons team of the 80s. The Celtics had Bird, the Lakers had Magic (who was both a genius passer and clutch scorer) and the Pistons had Isiah. And there you go. It’s that simple really; you need a clear-cut No. 1 to win NBA titles.
The heartbeat of these champions is always the definitive leader. Wade is the only one on this team that can assume this role; he is the only guy who will hit the dagger and then step on your throat. LeBron essentially admitted (and Jordan seconded it) that at the age of 25 (which is nowhere near the peak of his career), that he simply isn’t that guy.
The beauty of that Bulls team was its superb balance.
Everyone – from one through twelve – played a role, and everyone mattered. B.J. Armstrong, while never a particularly good defender, was adept at handling the ball enough for Jordan to play off the ball and score within the offense when he needed to. His 4.9 assists were rather pedestrian yes, but he was a terrific outside shooter who could spread the floor – so important from the point guard position – and consistently hit the mid-range jumper. That season, Armstrong hit on 47.3 percent of his triples and nearly 47 percent from the floor. He was an 84 percent free throw shooter. Bottom line? The guy wasn’t special, he was just steady. Now who on this Heat team will play that role? It’s not Mario Chalmers, and he’s the only true point on the roster (Carlos Arroyo not a starter in this league). Can Wade and James play the point? Of course, but neither wants to do it for 48 minutes of 82 games, nor should they.
As mentioned, the Bulls were a team with tremendous balance. Bill Wennington is not a name synonymous with greatness, but he played a crucial role on that team. How many big men can come off the bench playing 15 minutes a night and shoot 49.3 percent from the floor and 86 percent from the line?
Ron Harper may have only averaged 7.3 points that season, but you could make the argument that without him, this team doesn’t win a title. Think of Harper as the mid-90s Derek Fisher -- nothing great, nothing even really good, but everything solid. The type of warrior all champions need. Big shots, tough defense, leadership; that was Ron Harper on a nutshell. The guy started 80 games that year in the backcourt, often defended the No. 1 scorer, providing yet another opportunity for MJ to conserve his legs late in games. Remind you of Fish and Kobe these past two years? Fisher doesn’t play the defense he used to, but you just get the sense the Lakers needed every ounce of his grit to win the past two titles.
Now who on Miami will play this role? Wade? Nope. James? Nope. James Jones? I like him, but hell no. As talented as the Heat are at the top and even extending to the bench, this is not a team that has glue guys. This is not a team that has a Fisher, or a James Posey (think ’08 Celtics), or a Michael Cooper for that matter.
Luc Longley and Udonis Haslem probably even each other out in the frontcourt as two bigs that will both fight on the glass and score just enough to not hurt you offensively. But who is the Rodman on the Heat? Who is the guy who when that shot goes up, you know is going to grab the rebound? And don’t say Haslem because as much as I love him, he’s never averaged double-digit rebounds. Joel Anthony is a nice young player with a bright future ahead as an athletic banger, but he is still two or three years away from being a full-time starter or at least a consistent, 25 minutes a night frontcourt player. And Zydrunas Ilgauskas – who will play a pivotal role on this team, mind you -- is about five years past his prime.
How Spoelstra manages this team will be crucial (what’s the running line on Pat Riley returning to coach by the way? I have it at 2-1.) Can Miller be a glorified sixth man when he returns from injury, a la Toni Kukoc? It sounds crazy, but in reality, this team doesn’t need Miller in the starting line-up. Although an outside shooter, he is still enough of a playmaking threat that he too needs the ball in his hands. They already have enough offense with the three stars, meaning his loss – which will undoubtedly hurt them – isn’t the end of the world. Eddie House is as good a three-point shooter as you’ll find for $2.8 million over three years and can fill the outside void until Miller returns.
Think of him as the modern day Steve Kerr. Both are undersized guards who often struggle defensively and cannot create off the bounce other than the occasional head fake and one-to-two dribble pull-up. But, on a team full of playmakers, they play extremely valuable roles. During the Bulls dream season in ’96, Kerr was tremendous. He shot more than 51 percent from three, spreading the floor just enough to force defenders to stay home and allow ample driving space for Jordan and Pippen. And while he didn’t get to the line often, the dude was flat out brilliant when he did, shooting nearly 93 percent and averaging over 8 points per game. Time and time again he hit big shots. He didn’t start a single game, but he was invaluable to that team.
House is similar in stature and performance. During the Celtics’ title run in the 2007-08 season, he too averaged 8.4 points while providing stellar marksmanship from three. His near 40 percent clip from the outside was the perfect compliment to the Big 3 plus Rondo, and like Kerr, he came up big in the clutch.
Like the Bulls, the Heat seems to have many of the right role players in place. While the end of Chicago’s bench consisted of Jud Buechler (good shooter and tough defender) and Randy Brown (quality back up point guard who could run a team for 10-12 minutes a night), the Heat have James Jones (scorer) and Arroyo (who should be the backup by season's end). Chicago also had key veteran big men on the bench like James Edwards and John Salley – two big dudes who could protect the paint and use up fouls. Miami has two carbon copies in Jamaal Magloire and Juwan Howard.
The key differences between the two teams are that the Bulls had perhaps the greatest coach of all time in Jackson and a clear-cut leader in Jordan, the rare blend of player who would rip your heart out and actually enjoy it. Plus, as afore-stated, Pippen was perfectly content playing the role of sidekick.
(Wade is the only killer on this team, but will LeBron succomb to him in the clutch?)
Early talk out of Miami is that this remains Wade’s team, but we know LeBron is the better player. Usually, the best player is reserved the right as leader of the team. Will LeBron let Wade be that guy? I’m not talking about the first two months of the season either, when this team could easily assume the best record in the league, but rather, come crunch time next spring when the game is on the line.
The saddest thing about this entire situation to me is James. He sold himself short, bottom line. Forget the legacy, forget the branding, forget all that nonsense, and just focus on the basketball. Whether he would have achieved Jordan’s status and make the argument for all-time greatest is moot, but the fact that he didn’t even give himself the chance, that’s all we need to know. He couldn’t handle the pressure, he couldn’t bare the burden, and whatever the excuse, James will never fulfill the promises we all bestowed upon him.
Jordan told us all we needed to know when he said: “There’s no way, with hindsight, I would’ve ever called up Larry, called up Magic and said, ‘hey, look, let’s get together and play on one team.’”
Just what you’d expect from the game’s all-time No. 1 assassin.
Ultimately, like any other all-time great, James will be judged by the number of rings he owns. Jordan has six, and unbeknownst to many perhaps, he didn’t win his first until he was 28. LeBron has already deemed this team would win multiple championships with his whole “not one, not two, not three, not four …” shebang, but of course, talk is cheap.
Hate ‘em or love ‘em, the Heat are built for long term success and sustainability. Bosh, James and Wade are all 28 and younger, while Chalmers is just 24. And while role players are very important, they always come and go. Will this team live up to their promise and top the Bulls as all-time greats, we can only speculate, but the mere fact that Miami has three of the top 15 players in the league locked up for what seems like an eternity puts them in rarified air to do something very special.
To quote the infamous Kevin Garnett, “anything is possible!!!”