Heat Winning Streak Demonstrates the Greatness of LeBron James--and Tracy McGradyThere is not a direct correlation between the length of a team's best regular season winning streak and that team's relative historical greatness; the L.A. Clippers won 17 straight games earlier this season but it is not likely that they will ever be favorably compared with the 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers team that went 65-17 in the regular season and set a record by going 12-1 in the postseason (a mark later surpassed by the 15-1 L.A. Lakers in 2001) despite never winning more than 14 games in a row. However, the Miami Heat's current 20 game winning streak is historically significant for several reasons: It is not only tied for the third best winning streak in NBA history but it is also the best winning streak posted by a defending champion and it is the best winning streak posted by a team led by the reigning MVP. Opposing teams generally get fired up when they have the opportunity to play against an elite team and/or an elite player but LeBron James and the Miami Heat have responded very well to that challenge.
The Heat's winning streak is impressive--but they need to post another impressive winning streak (13 games) just to tie the record set by the Wilt Chamberlain-Jerry West-Gail Goodrich L.A. Lakers in 1971-72! Those Lakers went 69-13, setting a record for regular season wins that lasted until the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls went 72-10. The other teams that won at least 20 consecutive games are the Washington Capitols (last five games of the 1948 Basketball Association of America season followed by the first 15 games of the 1949 season), the 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks (20) and the 2007-08 Houston Rockets (22).
The 1971-72 L.A. Lakers will always be on the short list of the most dominant championship teams in pro basketball history, the 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks are on that short list as well and the 1948-49 Washington Capitols lost to the dynastic George Mikan-led Minneapolis Lakers in the BAA Finals during the pre-shot clock era--but the 2007-08 Houston Rockets did not have a championship caliber roster and their second best player (Yao Ming) did not play in the final 10 games of the winning streak. What the Rockets had was Tracy McGrady, perhaps the most underrated great player of the past decade or so. Prior to the 2007-08 season, the Rockets were just 11-39 in games that McGrady missed but 126-70 when he played; the Rockets played like a championship contender with McGrady in the lineup but they performed like a Lottery team without him. McGrady won two scoring titles early in his career but he was also a splendid passer; Rick Adelman--Houston's coach during the winning streak--called McGrady "the best passer I've ever seen." Adelman played against Pistol Pete Maravich, coached against Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas and coached Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter, so that statement should not be taken lightly. During the telecast of Houston's 22nd straight win, ABC's Jeff Van Gundy--who coached McGrady for three seasons--declared that McGrady is "the second best pick and roll player in the league behind Steve Nash and it's not even close...People see the thing in front of them but he can see to the opposite corner, the opposite wing. His size makes him special. He can pass over the defense."
So, the list of teams that won at least 20 straight regular season games in the NBA/BAA* includes two dominant championship teams, a defending champion that may very well be headed toward winning a second title, a team that reached the Finals before losing to that era's dominant squad--and a Houston team led by Tracy McGrady, who was playing alongside Shane Battier, streetball legend Rafer Alston, rookie Luis Scola and undersized center Chuck Hayes. All-Star center Yao Ming contributed to the first half of the winning streak before suffering a season-ending injury; that season the Rockets went 36-19 (.655) with Yao and 19-8 (.704) without him, but they went 46-20 (.697) with McGrady and 9-7 (.563) without him. McGrady averaged 22.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg and 6.2 apg in 21 games during Houston's winning streak (he did not play in the first game of the streak), exceeding his overall 2007-08 averages in all three categories.
LeBron James has averaged 26.6 ppg, 7.7 rpg and 7.5 apg during the Heat's winning streak; all of those numbers are around his career norms but what is different about James this season is that both his shot selection and his shooting ability have improved dramatically: he is shooting 58% from the field during the winning streak, which is slightly better than his career-high 56% field goal percentage overall this season. James is clearly the best player in the NBA and he has been the Heat's best player during the winning streak but he has much more help than McGrady did; Dwyane Wade seems to have completely recovered from the knee injury that limited him last season and he is playing at an All-NBA caliber level, while Chris Bosh is the most underrated perennial All-Star in the league, shooting a career-high 54% from the field this season and averaging more blocked shots per minute than any season since his rookie campaign 10 years ago.
It remains to be seen just how far the Heat can extend their winning streak but placing what they have already accomplished in historical context enables us to see that the 1971-72 Lakers were unbelievably dominant and that anyone who appreciates basketball greatness should respect what Tracy McGrady achieved while playing alongside role players and journeymen.
* The BAA was one of the forerunner leagues to the NBA and BAA statistics are considered to be NBA statistics, a courtesy that inexplicably has yet to be extended to ABA statistics.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:45 AM