Will the 2011 Heat Emulate the 2007 Patriots?
“Trying to compare the Heat to anything that has ever come before is an exercise in futility. You have the best player in the league, who happens to LOVE to pass teamed up with the second-or-third best player, who also is pretty fond of passing to the open man. They may both have had similar styles, but they ended up in those styles due to their teams’ set-ups. How LeBron will act now that he can people to pass to who are good in their own right cannot be predicted with the information we have.
There’s never been anything like it before. Every Heat game is going to be worth watching, especially against the crappy teams, because you don’t know what sort of thing they’ll bring out when they’re way ahead. It wouldn’t surprise me if they have regular season games where Miller shoots 20 3s and scores 30+ points, just because they think it’d be fun to do. This Heat team goes way beyond special into the realm of surreal.”
That reminded me of a Chase Stuart post at PFR in October 2007:
“What else is there to say? I was wrong — give [Tom Brady] some weapons, and the guy is unstoppable. I often find myself cringing when reading Bill Simmons, but he hit the nail on the head with his analysis of the 2007 Patriots — the ceiling has been removed. At this point, nothing — nothing — would surprise me. If you told me that Brady threw for 6 TDs against the Cowboys on Sunday, I’d probably say “yeah, he’s awesome.” Any other QB (except for Manning) and I’d be floored. If you said Joe QB had a perfect QB rating in a game, I’d say “wow”. If I hear that Brady did it, I’d say something like “well yeah, it was bound to happen eventually.”
It goes past Brady, of course. People don’t realize how good this Patriots team is. Unlike a lot of sports writers, I have heard of the laws of probability, and always dismiss silly talk about going 16-0. With this Patriots team, you simply can’t do that. When I see the Patriots winning 20-0 at halftime, I don’t even get upset anymore. I just know that this is what the Patriots do, and there’s no sense in getting worked up.”
There have been plenty of dominant teams in sports history, and maybe this is just recency bias speaking, but the 2011 Heat strike me as extremely similar to the 2007 New England Patriots:
- Both teams come off an early, disappointing playoff exit the year before: New England blew a large lead against the Colts in the AFC title game, while the Heat were frustrated by the Celtics in a bitter 1st-round series — plus, LeBron James’ former team was embarrassed by Boston a round later, blowing a 2-1 series lead thanks to several subpar James outings.
- Both teams are led by superstars who won early in their career but have been mired in a drought since: Both Dwyane Wade and Tom Brady won their first titles at age 24, with each earning MVP honors in the process. Brady would obviously win 2 more, but by the summer of ’07 the Pats were coming off a pair of uncharacteristic playoff losses and it looked like their window was closing. Likewise, the Heat seemed stuck in neutral last spring after being booted from the 1st round in each of their past 3 playoff appearances. In short, both Brady and Wade come into the season with a lot to prove.
- Both teams added arguably the most gifted player ever at his position, though each newcomer arrived with question marks: With his combination of size, speed, and body control, Randy Moss might be the most talented wide receiver in football history, but he also came to Foxborough on the heels of three underachieving seasons, and he had openly stated in the past that he would try hard only when he wanted to. LeBron James is also arguably the most talented forward ever (if not the most talented basketball player, period), and he also came under fire this summer for his Moss-esque immaturity and disinterested play late in the Celtics series.
- Both teams are led by legendary architects who may have bent the rules: Bill Belichick is a Hall of Fame coach with or without illicit videotape, but the SpyGate scandal showed he wasn’t above getting extra help by crossing the line of fair play and good sportsmanship. Likewise, tampering charges have swirled around Pat Riley and the Heat in the wake of rumors that the James/Wade/Bosh trio had been planned months ahead of time.
- And perhaps most importantly from a motivational standpoint, both teams are among the most hated in sports history: People love to hate dominating teams, especially if that dominance comes with arrogance and the suggestion that rules were broken to achieve it (see above). The Patriots went from lovable, plucky underdogs in 2001 to a dynastic juggernaut in 2004, but they only truly reached epic levels of hate in 2007, thanks to SpyGate and a ridiculous 11-week binge of running up the score to start the season. Tack on the first 16-0 regular season ever, and it was the perfect recipe for resentment. For their part, the Heat already have the game’s 2nd-most disliked player, a conglomeration of megastars that feels unfair to the casual fan, and they staged a self-indulgent free agency party where James jokingly predicted more than 7 titles in Miami’s future. If that isn’t the blueprint for engendering ill will, I don’t know what is.
All that’s left is the rampant winning, and the 2011 Heat certainly seem poised to deliver that as well. I and other statistical analysts have gone on record touting the potential greatness of this team, and we’re not alone — Jeff Van Gundy famously predicted that Miami would break the 1996 Bulls’ all-time wins record, and his brother Stan agreed. Combine Miami’s talent with what Bill Simmons likes to call an “Eff-You” edge, and you might see this team pushing themselves for all 82 games in an effort to silence every hater on the face of the planet.
If so, it would undoubtedly make for a fantastic spectacle. But would that approach actually be in the team’s best interest? Returning to our football example, the 2007 Patriots were a phenomenal squad, but they only really earned their GOAT reputation in the season’s first half, outscoring foes by a monstrous 25.4 PPG through ten games. The rest of the year (from the Eagles game onward), New England won by just 8.7 PPG, only the 5th-best per-game differential over that span in the 2007 NFL alone, much less all-time. The simple truth is that by the end of the year, the stress of going all-out for an undefeated season, plus the fact that they showed everything they had strategy-wise to their opponents by week 12, finally caught up to the Pats. As Chase wrote in his terrific “There Is No Greatest Team Ever” post:
“I’ve seen it written that this Giants team beat maybe the greatest team of all time. Hogwash! They didn’t beat the Patriots of weeks 1-11; they beat a Patriots team that struggled to win at home against a 11-5 team playing without the best running back in the league, the best tight end in the league, and with a QB on one leg. The Chargers allowed 18 PPG this year; in New England — the greatest offense ever — San Diego allowed 21 points. Does that sound like the greatest team in league history to you? Because it doesn’t to me. When that Chargers team was fully healthy, San Diego got destroyed by the Patriots in week two. Why? Because the week two New England team may very well have been the greatest team of all time. The playoffs version wasn’t very close to the greatest team of all time. The week before the Pats made David Garrard look like Steve Young, and the wildcard Jags stood toe-to-toe with the Pats in that game. A win is a win, of course, but when we’re discussing the greatest team of all time, wouldn’t you expect something a bit more dominant?
It sounds impressive to write that the Giants knocked off an 18-0 team, a previously unbeaten team, arguably the greatest team of all time. It sounds less impressive, but no less accurate, to write that the Giants beat a team that limped into the Super Bowl, one that was a shell of its former self. They beat a team that made the Super Bowl following a pair of home wins by a combined 20 points, against one-dimensional teams.”
Lest you think this is a football-only phenomenon, we see this in basketball as well. As great as the 1996 Bulls were, and as much of the Cee-Lo memorial “Eff You” mentality they had after the Magic defeated them in the ’95 playoffs, even they occasionally tapped the brakes from February to April after a blistering 41-3 start initially had them on pace for 76-77 wins. More noticeably, the ’08 Celtics were in full Eff You mode after a 29-3 start, but injuries and the long season slowed them down to the point that, by the playoffs, they found themselves in dogfight after dogfight. In recent years we’ve even seen a greater trend towards “Reverse Patriots” scenarios, in which a team dogs it all season only to “flip the switch” come playoff time (see: 2001 Lakers, 2010 Celtics). But no team has been able to sustain that level of dominance (i.e., the PPG differential required to win 72 games) throughout an entire season. Here are the only teams to be +8 in each “quarter” of their season (including playoffs):
|1972||Los Angeles Lakers||13.04||12.50||8.13||9.88|
|1987||Los Angeles Lakers||8.96||10.08||9.04||10.64|
In general, among 60-win teams there doesn’t appear to be any real relationship between 1st- and 4th-“quarter” PPG differential, even after adjusting for tougher playoff opponents. The lesson: pacing yourself is a better strategy than going for all-out dominance early in the season, because wire-to-wire oppression of the league may not be a feasible option.
In other words, while their 2011 season is setting up to be incredibly similar to the 2007 New England Patriots, the Heat would be well served to resist the allure of going for the NBA equivalent of a 19-0 campaign. I realize the temptation is for an angry Heat team to jump into Annihilation Mode from Day 1 and try to destroy the league for 100+ games, but that approach has never worked in the NBA and even failed the mighty Pats in the end. The only way the Heat will get the last laugh is to win the 2010-11 NBA title, and if history is any indicator, a quest for wall-to-wall domination could empty the tank before they arrive at their destination.