Recently, on ESPN Radio, esteemed coach and color commentator Jeff Van Gundy claimed that he would not be surprised if the Miami Heat set the NBA all time win record by winning 73 or more of the regular season’s 82 games. In fact, Van Gundy said, he expects it. Afterall, Dwayne Wade and LeBron James are two of basketball’s greatest and most productive talents of all time. Chris Bosh is one of the top five centers currently playing the game. And on top of all that, the Heat have put together a roster of scrappy role players, who can shoot, rebound, and play defense as required. All things being equal, JVG would be correct. However, all things are not equal, and the NBA landscape is quite different from the 1995-96 season, when the Bulls set the record with 72 wins.
In 1995, the Chicago Bulls were coming off Michael Jordan’s foray into baseball. But prior to that, they had won their 3rd NBA Championship in a row. They defeated an amazing Phoenix Suns team led by Charles Barkley, who won the regular season MVP, and Kevin Johnson – one of the all time great points guards. The roster was filled out by solid perennial players like Dan Majerle and Tom Chambers. The Bulls had finely honed their triangle offense by this point. They had found the perfect balance of Jordan and Pippen (who greatly raised his confidence and cache during MJ’s time off) scoring and passing the ball to open teammates. Steve Kerr and Ron Harper had integrated themselves fully in their second season, and Dennis Rodman, perhaps the greatest rebounder of all time, had joined the team as well.
Conversely, this will be the Miami Heat’s first time around together. It is quite literally, a brand new team. Certainly, the talent and unselfishness of both Dwayne Wade and LeBron James will go a long way to creating a cohesive unit. However, as a team, they simply will be in too many brand new situations to have the comfort and inherent knowledge of each other to dominate thoroughly, without at least 11 hiccups throughout the 82 game grind. Not to mention, there is a team on the other coast coming off their second championship in a row, also a well oiled machine, loaded with great players and a great coach. The Bulls faced no such opposition. They were the established juggernaut.
There is also the issue of talent. The Chicago Bulls also boasted two of the greatest players in the Association at the time. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were a devastating combination. In hindsight, we can say that the Bulls had one of the greats of his generation in Pippen, and the greatest of all time in Jordan. To put it bluntly, Jordan in 95 was more effective than either Dwayne Wade or LeBron have ever proven themselves to be (though Wade came pretty darned close when he single-handedly demolished the Mavericks in the Finals . . . ok, he had some help from the refs). The talent gap does not stop there, however. Once again, in hindsight, we know that the Bulls were being coached by the greatest guru of all time. The gap between Phil Jackson and Eric Spoelstra is something akin to the gap between Madonna’s front teeth. You could drive a Guy Ritchie move through it.
Beyond direct comparisons between the two teams is the state of the Association itself. In 1995-96, there were only seven teams with at least 50 wins. Last season, there was nearly twice that with 12 teams reaching the 50 win mark. On average, teams last season played at a faster pace, shot at a higher percentage, and committed fewer turnovers than in 1995-96. This points to the quality of basketball improving over time, partly because of new rules, and partly because of an overall increase in talent here in the States, and abroad. On top of all that, 1996 was an expansion year, which dissolved a lot of the cohesion as the NBA stretched its rosters thin to accommodate for the new teams.
Van Gundy makes one final argument that is quite appealing. Last season, the Cleveland Cavaliers won 66 games without the likes of Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh on their team. Is it that hard to think that James, Wade, and Bosh could not muster 7 more wins than James, Varajao, and Shaq? That train of logic makes sense, except when you look at the history of the NBA. There has only ever been one team to win 70 or more games. The greatest teams of all time have all failed to do better. That includes 66-67 Seventy Sixers, the 85-86 Celtics, the 91-92 Bulls, the 99-00 Lakers, the 70-71 Bucks, the 07-08 Celtics, the 82-83 Seventy Sixers, the 08-09 Lakers, the 86-87 Lakers, and the list goes on and on.
To put it succinctly, the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls were a perfect storm. And while Miami has been known to experience a hurricane or two, the conditions are not right. The team is not yet a cohesive unit, and they have not been tested. They are not as talented in terms of players or coaches. They are playing in a league where talent has never been richer and playing never as effective. It is unreasonable to expect them to go out and perform the nearly impossible. So, with all due respect to my favorite coach and commentator, the Miami Heat will not win 72 or more games this year. But let’s revisit the subject in a year from now.