Does a 34 game win streak trump a championship for the Miami Heat?
The thought itself seems preposterous. In fact, suggesting that any achievement can be better than winning a championship is shallow by itself. The championship is the holy grail at the centre of the maze lined by obstacles. You don’t get style points for graffiti you draw on the maze walls. There is no prize for being intuitive enough to somehow jump above the maze walls. Absolutely nothing else will be recognized as much as a championship. Or so the shepherds would have us believe.
In 1971-72 season, the LA Lakers won the championship, led by Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain. In between November 5 and January 9th, they did not lose a single match. Their win streak stood at 33 games. They also set another record that season with a win-loss record of 69-13. That record stood until 1995-96 when the Chicago Bulls shattered it by going 72-10 for the season.
That season is still seen as something as close to perfection as you can achieve as an NBA team. The thing is, they won the championship and they set the record with a 33 game win streak, so it’s not easy to draw a distinction between the two accomplishments and point out which of the two is more impressive.
Jeff Van Gundy is my favourite commentator/analyst in the NBA. He speaks the truth without standing on a pedestal and yelling “Blasphemy!” like Charles Barkley. He makes a statement and attempts to qualify it with reason and logic. He is also as irreverent as they come. Jeff has come under fire recently for suggesting that the Miami Heat winning 34 games in a row and breaking the record of the Lakers will be something that is more significant than winning a championship. There are few better troll baits you can throw out.
What does winning a championship prove? It proves that you have been consistent enough over the period of a 82 game season to be among the 16 teams which make it to the postseason. A championship proves that you have played four best-of-seven series and come out on top in each one of them. The postseason requires you to win 16 games before you are crowned champion.
16 multiplied by 2 is 32. A 34 game win streak requires you to win that number of games in a row. There are few burdens heavier than the burden of expectation. Defending a streak can push you to a point where you are not necessarily playing to win as much as you are playing to not lose. Regardless of the fact that you are not playing playoff teams every night, you are still going up against teams from the NBA and over a sample of 34, it is not easy to defeat every single one of those teams.
“Some of our travel was maybe more difficult than the games we played,” Jerry West said of the win streak the Lakers sustained.
These days with the modern amenities available to the NBA teams, travel at least is not as much of a factor. But the accomplishment is by no means demeaned because of the ease of travel. To put the streak in perspective, only the Rockets came close recently to breaking it back in 2007-08 season. They won 22 games and until the Heat came along, the Rockets held the distinction of being 2nd on the list of longest win streaks. Does anyone remember that team? They didn’t win the championship. But neither did they break the 33 game record of the Lakers. Van Gundy sure remembers them. He was the coach of the Rockets when they went on that streak. Van Gundy has said that even Jordan’s teams never won more than 20 games in a row. And people have said Jeff Van Gundy should be tested for drugs for throwing such statements. But he has a point. It is much more difficult to break a 40 year old record. Winning 34 games in a row is more difficult than winning a championship. But the measuring stick for a team and a player’s accomplishments is the number of championships won.
“It may not end. That’s why I think it’s so remarkable,” Jerry West has said of the win streak. “I look at the schedule and I see one team on there that’s a terrific team, and obviously that’s the San Antonio Spurs.” Actually the Bulls and Hornets both have a shot at ending the streak too. Both teams are talented enough to pull off an upset. Here are the next nine teams the Heat will face – Charlotte, Orlando, Chicago, New Orleans, San Antonio, Knicks, Bobcats, Sixers and Bucks.
When the Lakers went on their 33 game win streak, they played just one overtime game. Their average margin of victory was 15.7 points during the streak. In contrast, the Miami Heat have had an average margin of 10.9 points in the past 24 games, and they won the 25th by 14 points. They have had some close calls, being down by 17 to the Celtics before mounting a comeback to win it 105-103. Two nights later being down by 27 to the Cavaliers, before coming back to win 98-95.
Speaking of outrageous statements from Van Gundy, back when the Big Three colluded in Miami, Van Gundy prophesied – “They will break the single-season win record [of 72], and I think they have a legit shot at the Lakers’ 33-game [winning] streak [in 1971-72], as well. And only the Lakers have even a remote shot at beating them in a playoff series. They will never lose two games in a row this year. There is now no good way to defend them. They are unguardable. They are indefensible. They are just too good and have added so much shooting and are so versatile that they will score at will. And with Erik Spoelstra coaching, they will be in the top three defensive teams in the league, as well. The other 29 teams better hope the lockout gets moved up a year.”
We all scoffed when those predictions did not come true with the Mavericks beating the Heat in the finals. But now the Heat are on the verge of breaking another record which Van Gundy foresaw, winning 34 games in a row. The obstacles in the way of the streak are none too formidable right now. If they can break the 33 game record and don’t win the championship, the season will be seen as a failure. But look at it this way, how many of the teams can you name who have won a championship over the last 60 years? And how many of you revere the Lakers for winning 33 games in a row? Without any question, it is more difficult to win 33 games in a row than it is to win a championship. But it is not respected as much as a championship. Perhaps it will be if the Heat can break the record and with the passage of time, when the record stands for ages, people will appreciate the difficulty of winning 33 games in a row. Until then though, winning a championship trumps winning 33 games in a row in the eyes of the majority.