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Could Heat end up among NBA's best ever?

We all know, of course, after the season as you have to win the title to matter and enter the discussion, writes Sam Smith. But Miami with its winning streak of 22 games and counting could make NBA history. So how great is this Heat team?
Jordan's 1995-96 Bulls land at the top of the list with a most ever 72 wins, second biggest winning margin of 12.2 to 1972 Lakers at 12.3, three Hall of Famers and Hall of Fame coach, the league’s Sixth Man winner and All-Star shooting contest winner and a 14-0 start to the playoffs.
(Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Sam Smith Mailbag

I didn’t think much of LeBron James’ six-game scoring streak a month or so back that was supposed to be historic. But with Miami winning its 22nd straight Sunday and in Boston Monday, a win would give them the second longest winning streak in NBA history. That is something to consider and it is special. So how great is this Miami Heat team?

We all know, of course, after the season as you have to win the title to matter and enter the discussion. There’s no better example than the 1973 Celtics. Remember them? Of course not. They won a franchise record 68 games, had the league MVP and Coach of the Year. But they lost to the Knicks in the conference finals and aren’t even regarded among the top 20 teams in franchise history.

So Miami has some hurdles to scale. But they have the bona fides with the likely league MVP, a possible second straight title and a third consecutive Finals appearance, an expected 60-plus win season and probably four Hall of Famers. James and Dwyane Wade for sure, Ray Allen, and though as his team’s best player he doesn’t get you in the playoffs much, Chris Bosh on the weight of his All-Star appearances, Olympic gold medal, statistics and being on winning teams also will be a sure Hall of Famer. As much as many may disagree for now.

So the Heat really can’t claim being one of the top 10 teams all-time in the NBA. But they may be able to make the case before too long. Here’s a look at one list:

  1. 1995-96 Bulls. I’m not sure it’s even the best Bulls team I’ve seen. I prefer the 1991 and 1992 champs because Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were at their athletic best and Horace Grant and Bill Cartwright were better than Dennis Rodman and Luc Longley. But the numbers support this team for dominance: Most ever 72 wins, second biggest winning margin of 12.2 to 1972 Lakers at 12.3, three Hall of Famers and Hall of Fame coach, the league’s Sixth Man winner and All-Star shooting contest winner and a 14-0 start to the playoffs.
  2. 1985-86 Boston Celtics. A dominating 40-1 at home with 67 wins. Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish in their primes and Bill Walton with his one renaissance season. Swept Michael Jordan even as he scored 63 and 13-3 playoffs.
  3. 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers. A team record 68 wins and they eased up at the end or easily would have gone over 70. But nobody cared about records then or kept autographs. They had Wilt at his best with three other Hall of Famers and one, Billy Cunningham, off the bench.
  4. 1963-64 Boston Celtics. It was close with the following season team which won more regular season games. But this team had an amazing nine Hall of Famers (yes, that’s why Russell always beat Wilt) and took out Oscar and Lucas before beating Wilt in the Finals. The next season those Celtics took out Wilt in the conference finals with Wilt back east and West and Baylor in the finals. We don’t see that anymore.
  5. 1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers. They dominated their era in their conference like the Bulls in the 90’s and the Celtics in the 60’s with 65 wins that season. They had Magic, Worthy and Abdul-Jabbar and the elite defender Michael Cooper and were 11-1 going into the Finals, where they took out the great defending Bird Celtics in six.
  6. 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers. That was Wilt as a distributor because they said he couldn’t, and he still averaged almost 20 rebounds. They won the second most 69 games, and had the 33-game win streak. They had the three Hall of Famers led by Wilt and Jerry West, and that’s where the Heat are. If you win all those games in a row you are expected to win the title.
  7. 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers. That was Moses Malone’s famous fo, fo, fo team with the 12-1 playoffs and sweeping Magic and Kareem’s Lakers in the Finals. Dr. J still was elite as was Andrew Toney before injuries and Mo Cheeks, who will eventually be in the Hall of Fame, maybe even this year.
  8. 1972-73 New York Knicks. Not one of the great, dominating power teams, and even New Yorkers prefers the 1969-70 champion they constantly refer to. Probably as much for the Willis Reed dramatics in Game 7 of the Finals. But the 1973 team was a model of fundamental basketball for the ages with six Hall of Famers and all around scoring and team play with the great Frazier/Monroe backcourt.
  9. 2002-03 San Antonio Spurs: This was the changing of their eras, which demonstrated their amazing run. They had David Robinson going and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili coming with Tim Duncan. Not exactly dominant, but always with a way to beat you.
  10. 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers. The best of the Shaq and Kobe run with the 15-1 playoffs. Probably too many role players to be truly elite, but a dominating team when they had it going with the two biggest stars of the era.

Now, that does still leave out a lot of teams that you could make cases for. I pretty much went by team eras, so I left out the 1991, 1992 and 1997 Bulls, surely one of which deserves a top 10 ranking. Same with the 1985 Lakers and even the 1982 team when they still had Jamaal Wilkes. You could pick another Boston team like the 1965 team that beat four of maybe the top 10 or 12 players ever in the playoffs or the Celtics in 1981 with Tiny Archibald. So the Heat has an impressive hill to climb to get into that company. But they could be on the way.

Injuries adding up in the East

-- It’s not malaria, but there must be some infection going around in the East and Midwest. I’ve written about this before, recently quoting Spurs coach Gregg Popovich about this era despite all the training seemingly being rife with more injuries than ever before in the NBA. I asked Mark Jackson the other day and he said the injuries were just a part of the game, a common refrain. And the Knicks in the 1980’s were hit with some severe injuries, like Bernard King’s knee problems and Patrick Ewing even as a rookie. But it’s hard to remember anything like this in the Eastern Conference this season of numerous top rotation players missing significant time. Is it even too much training the way players now work out all year, that their bodies can’t handle it? Is the game more physical now? Sure, there’s less overt physical play with the flagrant foul calls. But the sophisticated defense and scouting make navigating the court so much harder. Are the bodies so much bigger now you are taking a greater pounding? Do players come into the NBA too young and with their bodies not developed and just break down sooner and more quickly and more often? Consider perimeter players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant used to be centers. No matter, it’s an epidemic.

Sure, there’s the Bulls with Derrick Rose and lately Kirk Hinrich, Taj Gibson and Richard Hamilton all out double figure games. The Knicks now could have Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony out significant time along with injuries to Iman Shumpert and now also Tyson Chandler. And Ray Felton was out previously. The Nets have had Deron Williams and Joe Johnson in and out all season. The 76ers, of course, have been without Andrew Bynum and Jason Richardson out for the season. The Magic has had most of the veteran part of their roster out with Hedo Turkoglu, Al Harrington, Glen Davis and Jameer Nelson. Worrisome for the Cavs is Kyrie Irving out yet again and showing signs of being in the NBA too quickly given college injuries as well and Anderson Varejao. Andrea Bargnani is out for the season in Toronto where rookie Jonas Valanciunas was out a long stretch and the Pacers have basically been without Danny Granger all season and Rajon Rondo, Jared Sullinger, another young player going down, and Avery Bradley have missed time as Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox returned from heart surgery. Atlanta lost Lou Williams for the season and now Zaza Pachulia could be out for the season while Gerald Henderson and Byron Mullins were out in Charlotte along with John Wall and Nene out significant time in Washington. Plus rookie Andre Drummond went down in Detroit. But Miami has remained healthy. Must be the coconut water.

NBA news and notes

-- Interesting story from Washington writer Dave McKenna on Hall of Famer Adrian Dantley, who is working as a school crossing guard back home in Silver Spring, Md. No, he’s not broke, just frugal. And needing something to do. The story goes to lengths to talk about Dantley’s conservatively financial ways, and I witnessed that one time with Dantley as he absent mindedly checked a public phone for change (check an encyclopedia for picture). The story said Dantley just was taking a job for health insurance as it’s not provided for old timers. Dantley was perhaps the premier individual scorer of his era, the Carmelo Anthony of the late 1970’s and 1980’s. Anthony is a better range shooter, but they were similar scoring machines who couldn’t take teams far enough. But Dantley was a prickly, if proud, guy who went his own way. And often if you don’t play the game off the court, when they don’t need you anymore they don’t call you. Dantley was a Nuggets assistant and acting head coach when George Karl was being treated for cancer. But Dantley’s story also is one to remember for NBA players: Life goes on after 35 or 40, and it’s not easy to replace what you had in the NBA. I’m sure Dantley has his money. But you also need something to do ... Spencer Hawes had 18 points and a career high 16 rebounds as the 76ers Saturday defeated the Pacers, who despite being second in the Eastern Conference continue to look vulnerable. ... Another of the surprises for the surprising Denver Nuggets, whom the Bulls host Monday, is another of Joakim Noah’s former teammates, Corey Brewer. The slashing forward was actually selected ahead of Noah in the 2007 draft (the Bulls continue to thank Minnesota) and after being waived by the Knicks in 2011 has reemerged as a valuable reserve for the Nuggets. He is averaging 11.6 per game and with a big fourth quarter Saturday when the Nuggets won their 11th straight beating Memphis. With Miami’s streak, the Nuggets have the most overlooked double digit winning streak maybe ever. But they are one game out of third in the Western Conference and on the verge of completing one of the biggest rarities in NBA history: Being better off trading the future Hall of Famer. Holding out for panic patiently in that trade with New York and drafting impressively with Kenneth Faried 22nd and Ty Lawson 18th, the Nuggets with future Hall of Fame coach George Karl have an athletic, versatile team that some believe with depth is good enough to come out of the loaded Western Conference. With no All-Star or even what would seem a future Hall of Famer other than the coach, the Nuggets hope they are on the path of teams like the 2004 Pistons and 1979 Supersonics who can win with depth and versatility as opposed to star power. It’s not done often. But it can be done.

-- I know the Wizards are better since John Wall returned, a few games over .500. And Wall has put up some big numbers of late (21.8 points and 10 assists the last five games). But the problem the NBA has is players like John Wall. He’s not a criminal by any means and has been a strong addition to the previously dysfunctional team. But he told Grantland, which is part of ESPN, that he believes he is a max salary player. It’s really the problem with the collective bargaining agreement, the creation of the ceiling to limit runaway contracts. Which probably was necessary for league stability. Though it sounded conceited, LeBron James probably was right earlier this season when he said he was underpaid. Just as Michael Jordan always was. Those are the players you pay to see. There are maybe a dozen in the league, but most every team ends up with one or two “max” contracts. The Wizards don’t have anyone who deserves it. Wall is a good talent, but hardly seems like a player who can lead you anywhere. But if you won’t pay him, someone under the cap with a poor record probably will. So you pay him a maximum contract; he’s not good enough to make a difference and then you’re stuck in the middle. Look, everyone tries to make as much money as they can. It’s not like Jordan or Magic or Bird didn’t. But with so many more teams and more players coming to the NBA before they are ready or mature, the above average talents become paid like transcendent stars. Wall if he stayed in school would be in his senior year, one year before Larry Bird turned pro.

-- The Bulls play their 66th game of the season Monday against Denver, matching the total from last season. If the Bulls win, they would end up with 13 fewer wins than last season at the end of the lockout total. ... The Grizzlies have been suggesting they are better without Rudy Gay and all the shots he took and little passing he did, especially in comments from Tony Allen last week in which he called Gay “that guy.” So, yes, there were internal issues we’d always heard about like Gay and Zach Randolph not wanting to pass to one another, though they had seemed put aside. Apparently not. But with Gay to Toronto, there not only are more shots but more minutes, and you could see the Grizzlies wear down with back to back losses at the end of their trip Sunday with Marc Gasol playing at least 40 minutes the last two games and averaging the same 38.1 minutes as Luol Deng since the All-Star break and about two minutes more per game than Joakim Noah. ... There could be as many as 10 NBA coaching jobs open after the season, and someone should look at former Bulls coach Bill Cartwright. His Osaka Evessa team in Japan is 10-6 since he took over a team that was 5-19. Americans Mike Bell from Florida Atlantic and Rick Rickert from Minnesota are his top players ... Hard to figure how the Bulls couldn’t get Mike James in games last season. He was with the team for 30 games and played more than 10 minutes once and had 19 DNP’s. His two late threes almost bailed Dallas out against the Thunder Sunday. He starts and has scored in double figures in five of the last eight games.

-- How does Keith Bogans keep being left off the All-Star team? The Nets lineup with at least 100 minutes played with the best plus/minus this season is Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Bogans, Gerald Wallace and Brook Lopez. It’s become an issue with the Nets as coach P.J. Carlesimo doesn’t like the small lineups with Wallace at power forward as Wallace’s offense has declined this season. And, yes, with Bogans that group has trouble scoring, but has matched up well with some of the proliferation of small lineups like the Knicks with Stoudemire out. ... The playing curiosities go on all over the NBA as with the Knicks trailing by 27 with about nine minutes left in Golden State and with Carmelo Anthony with a bad knee that eventually sent him home from the trip, coach Mike Woodson put Anthony back into the game. Asked about it, Woodson told New York reporters: "I was hoping maybe we can make a run." Anthony, by the way, said his knee hasn’t been right since December. The Knicks were 15-12 when Anthony and Stoudemire played together this season. ... According to Akron media, Kyrie Irving, who could miss the rest of the season with a shoulder problem since drafted in 2011 has had a concussion, a fractured wrist, injured both shoulders, a hyperextended knee and fractured finger. He also broke a bone in his jaw this season, missed most of his one season at Duke with a toe injury and had shoulder problems in high school.

-- The Bulls host the Pacers in the final meeting between the now rival teams Saturday. The Pacers appear on pace to take the Central crown from the Bulls and there’s a reasonable chance the Pacers this time could be hosting the Bulls in the opening round playoff series, a switch from the Bulls tough 4-1 series win in 2011. But who’ll really have the home crowd? Bulls fans overwhelmed Indianapolis then, and Pacers players again complained about the lack of support in the home loss to the Lakers’ Friday. Said George Hill, who grew up and attended college in Indianapolis: “Somebody has to say something. It sucks. It was 70-30 out there (in favor of Lakers fans). These are the same people that want autographs. We’re out there in the community doing what we’re supposed to do on and off the court. It shouldn’t feel like an away game, especially with an important game like this.” It’s the curse of Ron Artest as the conservative community still seems not to have recovered from the Artest-inspired brawl and the night club and off court troubles with players like Jamaal Tinsley even as this is a professional group of players. ... Heat president Pat Riley played on the 1972 Lakers team that won a record 33 straight games. ... With Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter, the Spurs have subtly rebuilt their aging team and with Tony Parker in his prime are in good position to maintain their run and get a few more years from Tim Duncan, who perhaps better than any superstar ever accepts a declining role with grace and enthusiasm. Though his play continues at a remarkably high level. Instead of writing them off every year, they now look like contenders for the next five years. A very impressive organization. Of course, you rarely have a star like Duncan.

-- The Rockets are expected to put together the most impressive offer to Dwight Howard in the offseason, but if they aren’t successful they’ve got some young players coming like rookie big man Donatas Motiejunas with a career high 19 points in 28 minutes last week in a Joakim Noah-like hustle effort. ... The Mavs’ players could be in those ugly beards all summer, though it was a popular look in the U.S. in the 1880’s, the way they can’t gain ground on .500. It was curious to see them in their last second loss to the Spurs Thursday watch Dirk Nowitzki bring the team back with some amazing shots and then go to Vince Carter for the last shot. They really are wasting Nowitzki’s best last seasons. Duncan in that game came within a rebound of his 22nd 20/20 game of his career. ... Leonard, Duncan and Parker were out last week when the Spurs lost to the Timberwolves as Ricky Rubio had an impressive triple double as he’s now 12 months from his ACL surgery. Though the Timberwolves are a bit worried about Rubio. They keep playing him, but he’s got some knee and ankle woes playing hard back from surgery without the injured Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic, Andrei Kirilenko, Chase Budinger, and Brandon Roy. Meanwhile, raved Spurs coach Gregg Popovich of Rubio: “It’s a confidence thing. He’s making more moves. He’s pivoting. He’s stopping quickly, starting quickly. You can tell he’s getting back to his form. Which is great, because he’s a great guy to watch.” Less impressed was Stephen Jackson, who said, “He’s all right. I’m into winning championships. I’m not into guys averaging 20 and 30 on sorry teams.”

-- Nobody does it more quietly. But Minnesota’s Rick Adelman should reach 1,000 wins next month. ... Lots of booing in the returns last week of Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony and Ray Felton, the latter seemingly the angriest (that seems part of living and playing in New York, though) as Felton blew off reporters a few times and did say, “Certain people there (Portland) that I don’t want to see and better not come near me.” Felton had 11 points in the Knicks’ loss, falling 39 short of his pledge about the first time he’d play the Trail Blazers. Felton was also -20 on the plus/minus for the game as Damian Lillard dominated him. ... No team trying to make the playoffs is getting blown out as often as the Jazz, losing two thirds of their games since the All-Star break, with their starters still a mess and routinely being bailed out by their young bench as coach Tyrone Corbin to often goes with his veteran free agents, Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. The starters were outscored 59-26 against the Thunder. ... After the Nuggets walloped the Knicks last week in Carmelo Anthony’s return, Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke went into the Knicks’ locker room. The joke was he was thanking the Knicks for the lopsided deal that built his team. ... Shame on Jacque Vaughn for that ridiculous display of fouling Dwight Howard into him shooting 39 free throws in Howard’s return to Orlando last week (Howard amazingly made 25). I don’t care for the tactic, but some good coaches like Gregg Popovich use it. Still, not like that. This was a time you actually felt for Howard. Vaughn is a quiet rookie coach who seems to have done well with a limited Orlando roster. I know the herd mentality in Orlando to embarrass Howard. It was sad to see the coach buy into that. Howard was 16 of 20 on the intentional fouls. Good for him. ... Meanwhile, with Howard improving, maybe Pau Gasol coming back and Kobe Bryant you assume not out long the Lakers are quickly becoming the marquee first round playoff matchup.

-- It’s not basketball, but it’s pro sports and owners. And things are changing. I saw a story the other day of the reduced spending with the New York Yankees and it’s not so coincidental the kids of George Steinbrenner now run the team. Many expect the Lakers spending to similarly decline with the children of Jerry Buss now running the team. And there was this quote in the Wall Street Journal from the owner of the baseball Houston Astros who said his plan is to rebuild and expressed what many in sports in this salary cap era don’t feel comfortable to. And even in baseball that now has luxury taxes that have changed even the Yankees. Said Jim Crane: “It doesn’t bother me that people want us to spend more money. But it’s not their money. This is a private company even though it’s got a public flair to it. If they want to write a check for 10 million bucks, they can give me a call.” ... So much for all those stats. Or we’ll see. The Thunder has a better winning percentage through 66 games (all of last season) than last year, their winning margin is greater and their offensive and defensive efficiency numbers are higher. You’ve seen them. You saw them run out by the Spurs last week. Do you think they are a better team without James Harden? ... Former Bull Ronnie Brewer not playing in New York is now not playing for the Thunder, but is always the class guy. He told the Oklahoman: “Obviously he (coach Scott Brooks) has been doing something right. This team is a phenomenal team. Different guys step up every night to play well other than KD (Kevin Durant) and Russ (Westbrook). When the time comes I just got to be ready. I don't let it get me down. If I don't play, you can do other things. You can cheer your teammates on. You can tell them things that maybe you see that they don't see on the court. You got to just do your part and that's part of being part of a great organization. Everybody has their role and does their part. And whenever my name is called I have to be ready and play to the best of my abilities.” Though there remains curiosity and questioning in Oklahoma City why the ineffective Derek Fisher continues to play ahead of Brewer. ... I love this stat from Elias. The Thunder could become the second team ever after the 1954-55 Philadelphia Warriors to have a scoring champion not take the most shots on his team. Russell Westbrook is attempting about a shot per game more than Kevin Durant. Neil Johnson won the scoring title for the 1954-55 season, but teammate Paul Arizin attempted two more shots per game. Earth to Russell: Hello!

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