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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

James and Wade Have a Long Way to Go to Justify Comparisons with Jordan and Pippen

"They quit."--Magic Johnson's blunt assessment of the Miami Heat's performance in Sunday's 103-87 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder

It should be obvious that the LeBron James-Dwayne Wade duo cannot be seriously compared with the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen duo. Jordan and Pippen not only led the Chicago Bulls to a pair of "three-peats" sandwiched around Jordan's baseball sabbatical but Jordan and Pippen approached the game with a fundamental seriousness and focus that James and Wade have yet to display on a consistent basis. When James pranced around on stage predicting that the Heat would win "not one, not two..." championships he revealed that he does not truly understand what it takes to be a champion and just how difficult it is to reach that level. He also sent a message to the rest of the NBA's top stars and elite teams essentially saying that he was about to become the Jordan of this era, preventing the rest of them from getting even one ring--and don't think for one moment that this message did not resonate very deeply with the challengers that the Heat will face over the next few years.

Magic Johnson has repeatedly made a very important point about the Miami Heat: they rely too much on their talent. When James and Wade get into open court situations they are unstoppable and the Heat stack up wins against inferior competition--but when they face good teams that don't turn the ball over or take bad shots James and Wade are still able to put up gaudy individual statistics for the most part but the Heat hardly look like an all-time great team. In contrast, Jordan and Pippen were not only two of the most talented players ever but they were also grinders; they worked on their games in the offseason and they worked during every game in the regular season and playoffs. One of the defining moments of their collective greatness happened in game seven of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals, an 88-83 Chicago victory over Indiana during which the Bulls shot .382 from the field. Jordan shot 9-25 (.360) and Pippen shot 6-18 (.333), so Chicago's two biggest stars both dragged down their team's already lackluster field goal percentage--but Pippen scrapped and fought for a game-high 12 rebounds (six on the offensive glass), Jordan snared nine rebounds (five offensive) and the Bulls grabbed 22 offensive rebounds. The Bulls did not beat the Pacers with highlight plays or by looking pretty; they did not beat the Pacers with a high-wire act in transition: they beat the Pacers in the paint. That is the type of game that I do not think that the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh Heat can win when the stakes are highest and that is why I have consistently picked them to not win a championship (although James and the Heat did briefly fool me after they defeated the Bulls in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals).

The Heat look unbeatable when they get their transition game going but they are comically ineffective in the half court set, particularly against zone defenses; last season I referred to Miami's "clown car" offense because in a half court set the Heat frequently look as disorganized as clowns piling out of a car at the circus. Zone defenses were not legal in the NBA back when Jordan and Pippen's Bulls dominated but it is highly doubtful that Jordan and Pippen would have been incapable of shredding a zone into a million pieces. A zone can be attacked either with accurate outside shooting or with quick ball movement followed by penetration into the exposed gaps. Unfortunately for the Heat, James and Wade are not reliable outside shooters nor are they particularly adept at playing without the ball; neither James nor Wade can consistently hit enough perimeter shots to defeat a zone defense and neither James nor Wade can run a half court offense predicated on ball movement and player movement: James and Wade both want to have the ball in their hands so that they can stare down the defense and run an isolation set (that is also the reason why James and Wade's skill sets are not complementary--when one of them is staring down the defense with the ball the other one is standing in the corner playing the role of a non-sharpshooting spot up shooter).

When James abandoned Cleveland to form a power trio in Miami with Wade and Bosh, the "stat gurus" gushed that the Heat would break the 1996 Bulls' record for regular season wins (72) en route to creating a dynasty featuring multiple championships--but what has actually happened has been entirely different: the 2011 Heat had the third best record in the NBA (58-24) and fell apart in the NBA Finals versus a team that only had one All-Star, while the 2012 Heat have already lost more times in 48 games (13) than the 1996 Bulls lost in the full 82 game season (10). In nine full seasons together, Jordan and Pippen led the Bulls to six championships and five 60-plus win seasons (including three seasons with 67 or more wins, with each of those seasons culminating in a championship); they dominated in the regular season, they treated every game like it mattered and they embraced the challenge of defeating elite teams in playoff competition.

The James-Wade-Bosh trio may win a championship eventually. They may even win this season's championship (though I doubt it)--but I will be shocked if they remotely approach the postseason dominance achieved by the Jordan-Pippen Bulls. Rather than comparing the Heat to the 1990s Bulls, a more relevant and interesting comparison is with the 2006-2009 Cleveland Cavaliers teams that upset a 64 win Detroit team in the playoffs (2006), made it to the Finals once (2007) and twice had the best record in the NBA (66 wins in 2008, 61 wins in 2009); will James' Miami Heat assemble a body of work that surpasses what James' Cavaliers accomplished? When James fled to South Beach I said that he may never play for a better team than the one that he left behind and the results on the court have yet to disprove that assessment. It is true that the Heat have only been together for less than two seasons and only had one playoff run so far but don't assume that they have years and years to figure everything out; Wade is an old 30, a nine year veteran who has spent his career throwing his body around the court and dealing with assorted injuries: his playing style is not one that will likely allow him to age well. The NBA's new collective bargaining agreement makes it more expensive to keep three stars on the payroll, let alone surround them with complementary talent, so if the Heat keep failing to win a championship with this trio it is not at all implausible that the team would decide to trade one or even two of the stars; Philadelphia's so-called "Wonder Five" made it to the NBA Finals just once (1977) but after the Sixers cleaned house and surrounded Julius Erving with an entirely new supporting cast the team made three trips to the Finals in the first four years of the 1980s, finally winning the title in 1983.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:34 AM



At Tuesday, March 27, 2012 7:15:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you and i think it will get worse with the passing of the years. Both of them aree very physical players and i wonder what will happen when they don't have the same speed and quickness. Jordan developed an outside game and became deadly at choosing his spots to receive the ball later in his career, using his deadly fadeaway and arsenal of post moves and being as efficient as when he was Air Jordan. Kobe is 33, loaded with injuries and games on his legs and still is the best scorer on the league and a deadly player, because of his focus, his will to win and being probably one of the most complete players the game has seen. James can still achieve this if he improves his outside shot and post moves but this seems to require a focus and a will that he doesn't seem to have. In this new era of players, guys like Kevin Durant and D.Rose seem to be a lot more focused that these two. Even Bosh seems to be more focused on winning than them. It's a shame really, particularly James becauses he is so gifted yet so childish on his atitude towards basketball.
Nuno Rechena

At Tuesday, March 27, 2012 3:08:00 PM, Anonymous boyer said...

I like how Magic doesn't sugarcoat it. He said 'quit.' I saw most of the 4th qtr. and I would have to pretty much agree with assessment. I thought I would have to wait until the playoffs to see james quit, but I guess he's delivering on that a bit earlier this year. Kudos to him for not making us wait so long this year.

Maybe I knew about jordan/pippen shooting poorly in that game 7 at one pt. but have since forgotten about it, but surely nobody would continue reminding us of that, much like the way we are continually reminded about kobe's shooting woes, particularly game 7 of the 2010 finals.

It will be interesting to see if/how Riley changes things up if they fail to win it all after this season. It is ironic, or maybe not, that james' heat teams are worse than his previous cavs teams. And did james actually recruit bosh to cleveland or not? And if he did, how aggressively did he do it? But, even if he did, he sure is trying to recruit players to come to miami a lot harder than when he was in cleveland.

If Rose isn't healthy, the heat will surely make the finals. These other east teams will cause them some problems, but won't win a series against them. I have a hard time betting on the spurs, but who knows. The thunder have all the pieces, now they just have to go out and get it done.

At Wednesday, March 28, 2012 1:37:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Miami gon win it this year everybody thought they wouldn't get to finals last year including u and they almost won it. I think they play better in post season they just be lazy at times in reg season. they know they playing for post season. Chicago remind me of those cleaveland team lebron played for overachieved in reg season but was a star or consistent player away from winning title lebron avg 38 8 8 in 09 for cleaveland vs Orlando and they still almost got swept in that series if he don't hit shot in game 2. boozer Noah I don't trust on big spot.with or without home court I like heat plus heat won sixteen straight at home heat get a split again like last year another short series they know it. I think they gon win it even though thunder playing well right now. heat is my pick for title


At Wednesday, March 28, 2012 6:05:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You have it backwards; most people picked Miami to win the championship prior to last season and most people picked Miami to win the championship prior to this season. I am one of the few commentators who has consistently been skeptical of the Heat, though when they beat the Bulls in last year's ECF I did think that they would also beat the Mavs; I did not expect that James would quit yet again.

The Bulls are not "overachieving"; they just play hard every night, unlike James and the Heat.

At Sunday, April 01, 2012 1:29:00 AM, Anonymous Jorge said...

Hi David,
I agree 100% with your analysis of the way James and Wade play. They DO NOT complement each other. It is not basketball for James to pass the ball to Wade and go to a corner of the court to wait for Wade to play one-on-one. Who's telling James that he NEEDS to use his strength and skills MUCH MORE in the paint? Why doesn't he realize that if he receives the ball close to the basket and uses his back it would be even easier for him to score?
Those who compare Wade and James to Jordan and Pippen are the same ones that marvel at Dwight Howard. Can you imagine Ewing, Olajuwon, Moses and Karl Malone, Dantley, just to name a few, against Howard? They would dominate him EVERY NIGHT.
I really appreciate when a journalist like you goes beyond the stats. A good journalist analyzes the game, understands the game situations. Anyone can talk about a player who averages 20 per game. Only a few can determine at what moment of the game those points are scored.
It's amusing for me to see head coaches reading aloud stats after games, instead of trying to understand different situations and strategies that occurred.

One observation before the end: I don't agree with the automatic substitution that NBA coaches do when a player reaches 2 fouls in the first half. The limit is 6. When you take out your player, he loses the rhythm and is not the same the rest of the game. I noticed that in the 80's that situation never happened, because 2 fouls is not "foul trouble". In international basketball, we do not substitute with 2 fouls, we don't even consider making the sub.

Another thing that bothers me is the time it takes for a player to shoot the free throws. Back in the day, once you shot the first one the official immediately gave the ball back to you for the second. Now, the player shots the first one, slaps the hands of every teammate (made or missed shot, it doesn't matter) and the official waits for that ritual to end before giving back the ball to the player, who takes more than 10 seconds for the shot...

Take a moment to watch an 80's game and notice the flow of the game, with less time-outs and pure, fundamental basketball, with no interruptions. Now we have plenty of athletes that run faster, shoot threes and dunk, but they are not complete basketball players.

Congratulations for the quality and depth of your articles.



At Monday, April 02, 2012 4:51:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I am glad that you appreciate my writing and I agree with most of your analysis but I think that you are a bit harsh regarding Dwight Howard. The players you mentioned are great in their own right but they would not "dominate" Howard if they somehow played against each other in their primes.


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