Friday October 8th, 2010

It's obvious that the Miami Heat are talented enough to match or exceed the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls' NBA record of 72 wins in a season. The Heat's trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh could be as potent a three-man core as any in league history. But getting to 72 or beyond requires more than just superior talent. It takes a ton of other qualities as well, like health, unselfishness, toughness (both physical and mental), single-mindedness and no small degree of luck. A team that possesses all those qualities has a chance to make history. But only a chance.

So the smart money would be against the Heat's wiping the Bulls from the record books, if only because Miami has so little margin for error. But it's not just that. There were also a set of circumstances that were conducive to the Bulls' becoming dominant 15 years ago. Many of those circumstances aren't in Miami's favor in 2010. Here are a few of them:

EXPECTATIONS: Almost from the moment James infamously announced he was "taking his talents to South Beach," there has been speculation about whether the Heat could be not just the best, but the best ever. Could they be an instant dynasty? What's the over-under on championships? What records will they set? When commissioner David Stern said recently that this season will feature "some of the greatest basketball ever played," he wasn't referring to the Timberwolves. The Heat will have to deal with an expectation of near-perfection from Day 1, and that can wear on a team.

The Bulls didn't have to concern themselves with such a high bar when they reported to training camp in the fall of 1995. As strange as it may sound in retrospect, hardly anyone expected Michael Jordan and Co. to be so dominant. In fact, it was hard to know exactly what to expect. The 6-foot-8 tattooed bundle of weirdness that was Dennis Rodman had joined the team, fresh off a season of strange behavior in San Antonio that included his taking off his sneakers during a timeout in a playoff game. There were real doubts as to whether the Worm would be the missing piece the Bulls were looking for, or an experiment that would blow up in their faces.

Then there was Jordan himself, who had returned to the NBA after a stint in baseball halfway through the previous season, to mixed results. He dropped 55 points on the Knicks in Madison Square Garden in his first week back, but the year ended with a humbling playoff loss to Orlando in which His Airness had looked very mortal. Believe it or not, there was a school of thought that suspected Jordan might have lost his mojo.

But those doubts might have been a blessing in disguise because they allowed the Bulls to build up steam somewhat gradually. They started 5-0, then lost, then won five more before they lost again. Imagine if the Heat are 10-2 after 12 games. They'll probably find themselves answering questions about what's gone wrong.

CHEMISTRY: It might seem like that's the least of the Heat's concerns. After all, they were born out of affection -- James, Wade and Bosh were desperate to play together. Those Bulls were born more of necessity -- Jordan and Scottie Pippen knew they had to tolerate new power forward Rodman. Having spent a good deal of time around the Bulls that year, I remember that they hardly seemed like a good fit during the preseason. Jordan and Pippen accepted Rodman more with resignation than enthusiasm. After battling the Bulls for years as a member of the Bad Boy era Detroit Pistons, Rodman didn't have much warmth in his heart for Jordan and Pippen either.

The relationship was so impersonal that, off the court, Jordan and Pippen barely exchanged a word with Rodman for most of training camp. "We have a good relationship," Rodman said during camp, with his unique brand of logic. "We don't talk to each other, but we have a good relationship." It was particularly hard for Pippen to roll out a welcome mat for Rodman, since the Bulls' second banana still carried a scar under his chin from being pushed into first row of seats by Rodman during the 1991 playoffs, for which the Worm had been fined $5,000. "No, I have not had a conversation with Dennis," Pippen said during that preseason. "I've never had a conversation with Dennis in my life, so I don't think that's anything new."

But team chemistry isn't necessarily about liking each other; it's about having individual styles that mesh, and the Bulls' big three had that. Jordan and Pippen had been a perfect partnership for years, and Rodman's game complemented them perfectly. Despite his personal peccadilloes, he was a serious student of rebounding. I remember his studying film in the locker room before games while his teammates mostly listened to their headphones. If he was in the mood, Rodman would give impromptu rebounding seminars during those sessions.

He would show you that almost every time Jordan missed from the top of the key, the rebound would come off to the right side, and how Steve Kerr's jumper hardly ever yielded long rebounds because it had such a soft, high arc. He revealed how he would subtly pin an opponent's arm against his body to keep him from jumping for a rebound. You would watch game film and see Rodman sliding into a spot as soon as the shooter released, as if he knew ahead of time where the rebound would come. Very often he did.

So even if Jordan and Pippen weren't exactly Rodman's buddies, their games were a perfect match. Conversely, James, Wade and Bosh may be BFFs, but there is no guarantee that their styles will be an immediate match. If they're going to get to 72 wins or more, there isn't much time for their games to get to know each other.

LEADERSHIP: For the Bulls, everything was clear-cut in this area. Jordan provided the intense kind of leadership. Tales of his verbally mocking underachieving teammates are legendary. His supporting cast was motivated largely by fear of disappointing him. Coach Phil Jackson provided the cool counterpoint to Jordan's heat. Even if some of his players rolled their eyes when he would like a stick of sagebrush to fight off bad karma and tossed the books (everything from books on Zen meditation to Beavis & Butt-Head: This Book Sucks) he gave them, his ability to keep the team relaxed was a crucial part of his leadership.

For the Heat, the leadership question doesn't have such obvious answers. It is Wade's town, but is it now James' team? Will the two stars defer to each other too much? Not enough? Can Bosh find enough shots in a third-banana role that he's never filled before?

The issue gets even murkier when it comes to coaching leadership. Erik Spoelstra looks younger than many of his players. Does he have the gravitas to steer a ship of stars? Will Pat Riley's presence as team president be a help or a hindrance to Spoelstra's authority? The Bulls never had to hash out the answers to such questions.

LUCK: Or, to put it another way, health. Already we've seen how precarious the balance can be. The Heat were barely three minutes into their first exhibition game when Wade went down with a pulled hamstring. A relatively minor tweak like that during the regular season could be all it takes to keep the Heat from history.

Though the Bulls didn't survive the season untouched by injury, they were fortunate that Jordan started all 82 games and Pippen missed only five. Before the first game of the playoffs in '96, which the Bulls swept through with only three losses, Jackson was asked what he thought the biggest key to the record-breaking regular season was. He pointed over to Jordan, who was out on the court early, shooting jumpers. "The biggest thing," Jackson said, "was that he came back, and his body held up so well. That was our great good fortune."

There is no telling if fortune will smile as warmly on the Heat this season. So many pieces have to fall into place, and quickly, if they are to make a serious run at the record. Possible? Yes. But 72 wins or more is still a longer shot than even James, Wade or Bosh has ever made.

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