Appraising Greatness

Heat moving into discussion of history’s all-time great NBA teams

The Pistons take on the streaking Heat Friday night.
The Pistons take on the streaking Heat Friday night.
Scott Cunningham (NBAE/Getty)
Going up against the Miami Heat, as the Pistons will when they next take the court on Friday night in Florida, while they’re on the type of roll they’re on now – a 24-game winning streak, second longest in NBA history – you almost have to start comparing the Heat to some of the great teams of the past.

Any team that wins that many in a row and has the best player in the game and is the defending champion and the odds-on favorite to win again has to be included in the discussion of the best teams in recent memory. Whether they go on to win this championship and whether they win multiple titles will really make their case to be included among the best teams of all-time. That jury is still out. I like their chances because I think they have great, world-championship pieces now and you have to believe that Pat Riley will add some more pieces before it’s all said and done next year and maybe the year after that.

Any team that has LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh has to be in that conversation. You have at least two and maybe three guys who can dominate at their position. LeBron James could dominate at any position, probably, as good as he is. These guys give you so many options offensively, and defensively they do whatever they need to do. They make their team clearly the most dangerous team heading into the postseason.

Another guy who I think had a lot to do with them winning the championship last year and will have a lot to do with it if they win it again this year is Detroiter Shane Battier. You talk about glue guys. He’s one of those players who does whatever is necessary to win. He always has been. I think he’s underrated, but I don’t think he’s underrated by basketball people. He’s an excellent defender and a thinking man’s player who makes open shots and winning plays. You add somebody with the character and the game that Shane Battier has to a group of superstars that includes the best player in the game, you’ve got a team that’s going to be very, very dangerous for years to come.

Then you add Ray Allen. We haven’t seen many shooters in my time the caliber of Ray Allen. When you’re one of the greatest shooters of all-time and you can come off their bench and you’re there to make big shots to win games when they’re on the line and you’ve done it before and clearly know how to do it again, you make Miami that much tougher.

I know there are a lot of people who aren’t crazy about how the so-called Big Three came together. They pretty much decided they were going to play someplace together and win a championship. Dwyane Wade didn’t have to leave where he was, while LeBron and Chris Bosh did. In the past, general managers have put teams together to win titles. In this case, the man who runs the Heat just had to sell LeBron and Chris Bosh on coming to Miami and Pat Riley did a great job of that. He sold them on their winning culture and if you’re Pat Riley and you put your resume on the table, it’s hard to argue with it.

Once I knew that Miami was seriously in the market for LeBron James, I knew they had a great shot. And it’s worked out. It will probably continue to work out. I think you have a Pat Riley-type coach in Erik Spoelstra, who has been groomed for that job forever. He was an advance scout for the Heat and put together encyclopedia-length scouting reports on teams. He paid his dues and understands exactly how the Heat want to handle things and how Pat Riley believes they should be handled.

There are those who would say – and I don’t disagree with them, including some quotes I read from Gary Payton – that the way basketball is officiated and played today is not the same way it was officiated and played back in the day, including during the most celebrated decade in NBA history, when the Pistons were champions, the ’80s. The game was much more physical then and when hand-checks were allowed it was much more difficult to get where you wanted to go on the floor and much more difficult to cut through the lane and get open.

There are always going to be those who will argue that the way Miami is going through the league right now wouldn’t be anywhere near as easy if they had been trying to go through the league back then. That’s probably true. But I will say this: Ray Allen could shoot with anybody who ever played and LeBron James would find a way, no matter what the decade.

But there are teams that would stand the test of time that came from past days, as well, that could win today. And I say the Pistons championship teams could win today, the Bad Boys for sure. They had a roster full of Hall of Famers and coached by a Hall of Famer in Chuck Daly. When you look at that team and you want to know why it stands up with all the great teams, I think you start with Isiah Thomas, one of the greatest ever, pound for pound, and a Hall of Fame backcourt mate in Joe D and one of the truly great off-the-bench scorers ever in Vinnie Johnson. You had the best three-guard rotation that ever played, according to most of the experts.

Dennis Rodman finally got his due and was elected to the Hall of Fame. You can’t say enough about the way he defended and rebounded and I don’t suppose Bill Laimbeer will ever get his due and I don’t understand why. To me, he’s a Hall of Fame talent who clearly was a winner that nobody wanted to play against. And then there’s Chuck Daly, one of the greatest to ever coach.

The ’04 team came within one game and really a few minutes of one game from winning consecutive titles and would be somewhere in this discussion had they been able to do so. If you saw them play in ’04 and ’05 and during the regular season in ’06, you’d say they were the cream of the crop for those two or three great years together.

The other teams that have to be on the short list for all-time great teams would be Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics and, even though they only won one title, the Lakers with Wilt. That team also included Jerry West and, for a season or so, Elgin Baylor. The great Philadelphia teams of Dr. J, Moses Malone, Mo Cheeks and the rest was another, and, of course, the dominant teams of the ’80s, Magic and Kareem and the Lakers, and Larry Bird and Kevin McHale’s Boston Celtics.

Even though the rules had been modified and the greats from the ’80s were gone from the game, how can you not include the six-time champion Chicago Bulls with Michael Jordan? We don’t like ’em in Detroit – we still don’t like ’em – but they’re among the greatest teams that ever played.

Remembering the ’04 championship has to remind you of the overall greatness for such an extended period of time of Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs. They have been and still are terrific – and a model of consistency. And, of course, even though the Pistons dominated them at the end of their reign, Phil Jackson’s other dynasty, the Lakers with Kobe and Shaq, did win three in a row. When they were rolling, they were almost unbeatable.

So the Miami Heat have probably more than a short ways to go to catch up to the teams we just mentioned, but when you look at their talent and the way the game is played today – and then you look at how LeBron James seems to just keep getting better and better – it’s hard to think they won’t win multiple titles and put their name on that list.