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Will the 2011 Heat Emulate the 2007 Patriots?

Posted by Neil Paine on September 24, 2010

Sorry to go on a 2011 Miami Heat bender here, but BBR Blog reader Nick had an intriguing comment in response to yesterday's post about a possible weakness of the LeBron James/Dwyane Wade tandem:

"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):

Year Team 1stQ 2ndQ 3rdQ 4thQ
1971 Milwaukee Bucks 11.67 14.83 15.08 8.75
1972 Los Angeles Lakers 13.04 12.50 8.13 9.88
1987 Los Angeles Lakers 8.96 10.08 9.04 10.64
1996 Chicago Bulls 10.24 12.24 13.08 12.20

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.

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22 Responses to “Will the 2011 Heat Emulate the 2007 Patriots?”

  1. P Middy Says:

    I don't see 72 happening. The league is too deep. The target on their backs is too big. But as far as becoming a ridiculous bball wrecking machine, I think they have a good shot at dynasty. It's just a matter of how long it takes them to click.

    Which reminds me how much dealing with a lockout is going to suck.

  2. Jason J Says:

    One major reason the Heat may not have a choice but to start slower than those Pats, is the level of roster turnover. They have, what, 4 or 5 guys returning from last season with at least 3 new starters coming in? Maybe they will have great continuity right away like the 2008 Celts did, but it wouldn't be a shock if they took a while to rev up to maximum crushination.

  3. Cloud King Says:

    I don't understand why winning the title this year is going to be vindication - that's what I expect to happen.

    No one seriously thinks that the Heat suck or aren't likely to win the title, but when you add two top 3 players, you damn well better win the title! This year and next year and the year after that.

  4. Andrew Says:

    Great comparisons and write up yet again Neil. I think 75 wins is well within the realm of possibly because as Nick stated "There's never been anything like it before". We have never seen LeBron "open" or Dwyane Wade "uncontested". The waythis season will play out will change the way basketball teams are built and operate for years to come if they win the title. Unfortunately for the Pat they didn't win the title so their blueprint wasn't validated. That is exactly why we see so much bad quarterbacking today. In the late 90's and early 2000's almost every team had a top flight wide receiver, now there's maybe 5 or 6 and only 2 or three have elite quarterbacks throwing to them. What if McNabb and T.O. played together for a few more seasons?

  5. Anon x 2 Says:

    i look forward to them going 73-9 and losing in 5 to the LAL in the Finals.

  6. Greyberger Says:

    In football there are historically great teams that were only dominant on offense or defense and mediocre on the other side of the ball. Possession is a more complex thing where scoring points or denying progress helps your other unit. There's some of this in basketball with turnovers and fast breaks and whatnot but for the most part teams take turns with equal opportunity to score.

    Unlike the Patriots or Saints, the Heat won't be able to convert possessions at an obscene enough rate to bury opponents. They'll have to play good defense too as even top-rated offenses have bad nights. The blueprint for champion-level dominance in the NBA includes some element of balance even for the historically great.

  7. Boomer Says:

    I see next year's (fingers crossed on the lockout) Heat team being better than this year. While I expect them to mop the floor with most teams, I think year two could be even better as the roles have been figured out. Or the whole thing might implode.

  8. Nick Says:

    One thing you should keep in mind when thinking about the possibility of the season wearing them down: They could play 2 of James, Wade and Bosh at all times, and have all three of them on the floor for the first and last 3 minutes of each half, and they would all average less minutes per game than any season they've played since their rookie years (in LeBron's case, including his rookie year). And that even seems feasible, as in blowouts they could rest even more (and make up for it in close games by extending their minutes some). So they might not be as beat up as you'd expect at the end of the regular season.

  9. Pageup Says:

    no, the Heat won't get to the finals

    I say they're 59-23

  10. Ray Says:

    "# Jason J Says:
    September 24th, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    One major reason the Heat may not have a choice but to start slower than those Pats, is the level of roster turnover. They have, what, 4 or 5 guys returning from last season with at least 3 new starters coming in? Maybe they will have great continuity right away like the 2008 Celts did, but it wouldn't be a shock if they took a while to rev up to maximum crushination."

    They're returning 7 guys (Wade, Haslem, Chalmers, Anthony, Arroyo, Jones, Magloire). Their likely starters include Chalmers, who started all of his rookie season and much of last season, and Anthony (now that Dampier is apparently not going to sign), who started 16 games last season.

    Your point is still valid, I just think this team will have better chemistry out of the gate than most people expect.

  11. RobertAugustdeMeijer Says:

    Great article.
    I'm thinking how the Heat would "seem" to be a better team if they go 50-32 and win the finals than going 70-12 and having the same playoff run. Everybody feels that "talent + learning to play together near the end of the seaons" is better than "talent + knowing how to play together from the start". I guess people just like a good story.

  12. chompsky Says:

    Miami Heat Go Go Go!!!!!!!!!!!!

  13. BSK Says:

    I think there is somewhat of a difference between the '10-'11 Heat and the '07 Patriots, largely because of the tactical/strategic differences between basketball and football. During the Eagles game, Philly presented a defensive blueprint for slowing down the Patriots offense. They had the benefit of 11 weeks of game tape, plus the defensive brainpower and personnel to devise and implement such a defensive game plan.

    In the NBA, we just don't see that level of game planning and strategy, because the game is so different. Teams have 7 years of film on Bosh, Wade, and LeBron, and have only become so effective at slowing any of the three guys down. Whatever game plan the Heat approach the season with, I doubt teams will reach a point where they are effectively able to slow it or stop it. I'm sure they'll all get a bit better once they actually see how the Heat play (as opposed to the conjecture we are left with now), but I doubt we'll see the major difference we saw with the Patriots.

    There are obviously other reasons to think the Heat won't achieve a historic season, but I don't know that that element is one. Fatigue, interest, health, and cohesion are all reasons that they might not reach 72 or 75 or 82. I don't think that game plan and in-season adjustments are reasons like they were for the Patriots.

  14. BSK Says:

    Nick@8-

    I've made a similar point before, largely that you can run out 2 of each at a team, lower each players' MPG, and likely still have a better 5 on the team than your opponent. The notion that the big 3 will play together for 45 minutes a game is just foolish. None of the three ever had a teammate as good as one of the other. Suddenly they have two. And their supporting cast is better than was initially predicted. Leaving all the Vitriol aside, if we objectively looked at just TWO of these guys on the same team with the rest of the supporting cast in place, we'd still likely pick them to win at least the East, if not the finals. Throw in the third and it just puts them over the top. LeBron took sub-par teammates to the 60-win seasons and 2nd and 3rd round playoff series... why would he do worse with Bosh and Wade? Wade dragged a crappy team to the playoffs... he's going to do less with more? Bosh... well, Bosh's team sucked lately, but he had some successful seasons in Toronto and is only being asked to be third banana.

    This team will be dominant without stressing any player out. They may not be 72-win dominant with this approach, but they'll still be the best team in the league and, as far as I see, have virtually no ceiling, especially if they go into a one-season 'eff-you' mode.

  15. AYC Says:

    This is stating the obvious, but basketball and football are very different sports. Football has alot more players, entirely different units for offense and defense (plus special teams) and more injuries. This makes it harder for any single player, even a superstar, to impact a game.

    In B-ball, you have just five players on the court, playing both D and offense. A single superstar like Lebron or Wade has a huge impact. Also, the nature of the sport, especially due to the shot-clock, makes it impossible to shut a team out. Between that and best of 7 playoff series, the best team wins much more often in basketball. I see no need for MIA to "pace" themselves; dominant regular season teams typically win it all in the NBA. Of the 15 teams that have won at least 65 games in the reg season, 12 won it all.

  16. Marquis Says:

    There is no precedent, that's exactly why they will endure more hate. That alone is enough for these guys to dominate close games! 3/5 of any team they play they will have the mismatch or upper hand. Being a cohesive unit will make them stronger at each position, due to double teams.

    If they can work out who the QB will be: lebron is a better playmaker, & Wad3 is a better finisher... Then they will dominate faster. The HEAT will change the game!

    Now we get to watch it come together, because for certain they will eclipse 72 wins next year when they will have the money to acquire solid 5 & 1s..... This regular season its dedicated solely to finding cohesion, a rotation, & bench.

    T hen they can hit the ground running for the 2nd season.
    After KG won the ring in 2008, he said; "anything is possible" & "What you gonna say now?"

    Let's go Heat!

  17. storyofgreats Says:

    I say 75W 7L.Dwade And Bron will be FT machines averaging 15FTs a game.16-0 in the playoffs.No one can slow them let alone stop.

  18. RobertAugustdeMeijer Says:

    Correct me if I am wrong, but isn't their talent level about as high as the early 90's Bulls teams? Jordan better than Wade, but James better than Pippen. Bosh's offensive abilities might make him better than Grant, but I like to believe that Horace was a better fit. The rest of both teams are made up of 3-pt/post-gruntwork roleplayers. Is that any indication of 2010 Heatt greatness?

  19. mike1361 Says:

    The Heat team reminds me a lot of the great Bulls teams of the 90's .... particularly the 2nd 3-peat team. LEBRON = PIPPIN, WADE = JORDAN, BOSH = RODMAN

    both teams had 3 big stiffs clogging the middle at center (none of whom were super stars)

    Bulls had Kerr or Paxton on the perimeter shooting wide open 3's when Pippin and MJ were double teamed .... and Heat will have Miller (J.Jones or E.House)

    Of course, the Bulls had Phil Jackson .... and Heat have Spoelstra. However, Heat has Riley in reserve, in case Spo doesnt do the job ....

    The Bulls had another advantage ..... no great opponents (Lakers and Pistons were past their prime) ..... Heat has to get past Boston, Orlando, and Lakers (all 3 of those teams are loaded)

  20. Jason J Says:

    Horace was never really the sort of producer that Bosh is, though I think we was a superior defender, and may actually be a better role player. He did not have nearly Bosh's diversity of talents or explosive scoring potential (whether that works for or against Miami is yet to be seen). We haven't seen Bosh has a low-usage cog in the machine yet. He may be a better dedicated defender / rebounder than we know. He actually outperformed Dwight in that role for Team USA, but that was largely because his quickness kept him out of foul trouble and his ability to shoot from distance kept him out of the way of his penetrating teammates.

    I like the MJ/Pip to Wade/Bron comparisons, but I think Wade/Bosh has way more actual talent. Jordan and LeBron are basically a wash in ability with Jordan having the edge in hyper-competitiveness and advanced skills development. Wade though is significantly more productive than Pippen has ever been. Even at this absolute best when he was in prime carrying Chicago w/out MJ he maxed out in PER at 23 and his highest WS was 13 (with MJ). Wade has had 4 seasons with PER over 27 (he even broke 30 once which I think only Jordan and TMac had previously done as guards), and he's got a couple of 14+ WS seasons as well. Ideally I think they want to emulate that Pippen / Jordan synergy and dial it back some, but in terms of overall ability, they seem to be starting from a higher point on the imaginary curve.

  21. ARLISA WILLIAMS Says:

    I agree with a comment made that football is different from basketball,the miami heat will win 73 or74 games the reason i write this is becuase of the hatred as well as the talk that other nba player have express.All 3 players have defense as well as offense all 3 is perimeter shooters all 3 can block shots all 3 can dunk all 3 can pass to open shooters what more do you need in a basketball team and also they will beat the lakers in the finals,this is a team worth betting on go miami heeeeat.

  22. Bob M. Says:

    The one stat I take stock in is Win Shares because it takes stats in consideration with the effect on team win totals. Looking at win shares from last season, Heat should win about 60-63 games this year. They should win it all, but I don't think this year's team will be one of the 5 best ever. They'll be more in line with the 90-91 Bulls than the 95-96 version.