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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

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