The ’91 Bulls were a team that needed to win a championship. They were coming off consecutive Eastern Conference finals losses to the champion Pistons the previous 2 seasons. In Michael Jordan they had the league’s best scorer. While Jordan wasn’t the reigning MVP, going into the season he was considered at least the equal of the reigning MVP, Magic Johnson. What Johnson and Larry Bird had that Jordan didn’t was championships. At the time there were whispers that the Bulls couldn’t win a title with Jordan. Jordan had a stranglehold on the scoring title and the last time the scoring leader won a championship was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the ’71 Bucks. The ’91 season played out well for the Bulls with Jordan winning the scoring title, the MVP and the NBA Championship. That season started the team on their first threepeat.
The ’12 Heat were also a team badly in need of a championship. LeBron James, basketball’s best player, had failed to win a championship during his 7 years in Cleveland. He joined the Heat with fellow all-stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh specifically to win a championship. When the trio fell short their first season together it was a major disappointment and confirmed the doubts many had expressed about LeBron James and his ability to lead a team to the championship. While he had great basketball skills, James seemed to wilt under the pressure of the playoffs. LeBron went on to win his first title that year. Like the’91 Bulls they won the finals in 5 games after losing game 1.
The repeat championship teams, the ’92 Bulls and ’13 Heat, also had some similarities. Both teams blew away the rest of the league in the regular season and looked like a lock to repeat going into the playoffs. The Bulls won 67 games and the Heat won 66. Both superstars, having been vindicated by their first title, won another MVP award. Both teams seemed to run out of gas in the playoffs, each looking tired and struggling in a couple of series before prevailing as repeat champions.
The ‘93 Bulls were fighting history in trying to 3peat. It had been 27 years, since the ’66 Celtics completed their still-record run of 8 consecutive championships, that an NBA team won 3 consecutive championships. Before those Celtics only Gorge Mikan’s Minneapolis Lakers had accomplished the feat, in the ’52-’54 seasons. Another way the Bulls were fighting history is they entered the ’93 playoffs as the #2 seed in their conference. In the previous 14 seasons the championship was won by a top seed. In ’93 that was Patrick Ewing’s Knicks and Charles Barkley’s Suns. Those Bulls defeated the Knicks and then the Suns in the Finals completing the 3peat. Jordan’s Bulls added another 3peat in the ’96-’98 seasons and the Lakers accomplished the feat in ’00-’02.
The ’14 Heat will now attempt to join the Celtics, Bulls and Lakers in the NBA pantheon of 3-time champions. Like the ’93 Bulls their win total was down. Also like the ’93 Bulls they finished the regular season as the #2 seed in the East. A threepeat following a down regular season it will be a big deal for the legacy of the Heat and LeBron James. If they win the championship, they’re at the table with the greatest teams of all time, having won 3 straight during a very competitive era. If they fall short it was still a nice run, but one was well short of expectations.
There are other similarities between those Bulls and these Heat. Both are atypical champions in that the two best players on each team were wing players. Most champions have had their best players at PG, center or both. The other similarity is both teams were coached by a first time coach. Despite the fact that the ’14 Heat seem to be following the blueprint of the ’93 Bulls, I have my doubts that the Heat can triplicate the Bulls feat. The first reason is the differences in the teams themselves. The next is the differences in the 1993 NBA and the 2014 NBA.
LeBron James is not Michael Jordan. This is no knock on LeBron either. But one thing to know about Michael Jordan is his teams never underachieved in the playoffs based on their seeding. No matter if they were coached by Kevin Loughery, Stan Albeck, Doug Collins or Phil Jackson, Jordan’s Bulls never failed to go as far or farther than their playoff seeding suggested they should. There is no other superstar who has done this. Not even Bill Russell. Many great players talk about stepping it up when it matters and being clutch. Michael Jordan is the one superstar who can say he actually did it. LeBron James historically has had his struggles when the going got tough, as it surely will in the 2014 playoffs.
The other difference between the two teams is the state of the league in ’93 and ’14. Back in ’93 the league was weaker overall. Four new expansion teams had been added recently which always weakens the league. Magic and Bird had retired. There was no rival for Jordan, whether because none stepped up or Jordan was always in a zone of his own. Winning 3 in-a-row is never an easy thing, but the early 90s were a good time to do it because the league was weaker.
The 2014 NBA is a strong league. The drafts of the aughts have all been pretty good and the league is loaded with stars. What will help the Heat in their quest is that most of the strength is in the West. Whichever team emerges from the West will have faced a much more difficult road to the Finals and will be more tired and beat up. The one thing that Jordan never had to face that LeBron does is a rival like Kevin Durant. Durant is the likely MVP and a historically great player with a solid supporting cast looking for his first championship. Going into the season I picked a Heat-Thunder finale and I’m not going to veer from that now. It says here the Heat should make it out of a weak East, but will fall short to the Thunder in 6 games in the Finals.