Thursday, March 21, 2013

On Streaks and Such

As sports enthusiasts, it’s in our nature to get hyped about what we witness -- and believe contemporary events of triumph trump those parallel in history. “I saw the Blake over Kendrick dunk in person.” “I was there to see Terry get Knigthed by LeBron.” “I witnessed the greatest team ever.” Our drive to compete is embedded in how we watch sport unfold. How quickly we forget the past, and (sometimes) how quick we are to dismiss the now.

During the current Heat streak, LeBron has been performing in the clutch with unfathomable numbers. He has had the opportunity to showcase his scoring and playmaking skills to the tune of a cumulative triple-double over 48 minutes in crunchtime. Miami’s drive for the NBA all-time record (the 1971-72 Lakers won 33 in a row) is, of course, much dependent on the rest of the team and James’ partner in streak-setting, Dwyane Wade. While (leading up to Wednesday night's game) LeBron is shooting 57 percent from the field and averaging 26.9 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 7.9 assists over these 23 games, Wade (35.8 mpg, .546 FG, 23.5 ppg, 4 rpg, 5.9 apg) isn’t far behind. It’s safe to say they are a hot duo.

A fair comparison, of course, is the 1996-97 Chicago Bulls team who holds the best regular season record with 72 wins and just 10 losses, a mark that barely overtook those aforementioned Lakers. In all this talk of greatest players ever and what (may) become the best team of all time, we recount what those Bulls did (two separate streaks of 13 and 18 in a row) and how they did it.

Perhaps it’s not how many in a row that really matters, but the significance of the wins during the streak. People say that in order to be mentally focused and physically ready for the grueling playoff run it’s important to have critical rest. The NBA schedule doesn’t help matters -- it’s an uncontrollable part of the process. But coaches and players can help themselves by earning valuable recovery periods, albeit slim, during games. The memory I have of that Bulls team is Jordan and Pippen and other starters being able to take some time off during the fourth quarters because they were blowing teams out. Chicago won four games in a row by 24-plus points that saw Jordan and Pippen average just 68.5 minutes together (96 is max in regulation). The best Heat streak so far is a 4-game stretch of win margins by 10, 13, 19, and 24. Despite Miami’s widest point margin being Chicago’s lowest in those big wins, the tandem of LeBron and Wade still only played 69.8 minutes.

Though the Bulls bullied through another 3-game mini streak with wins of 20, 20, and 22, it didn’t alter the overall brunt of minutes Jordan and Pippen endured during the 18 game excitement. Coincidentally, Jordan’s average minutes during this time were the exact same as LeBron’s (through 23 games): 37.5 mpg. MJ shot 51 percent and averaged 31.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 3.8 assists during the stretch. Pippen? You guessed it -- practically on par with Wade at 35.9 minutes per game to go along with 21.3 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 5.7 assists.

The dilemma of when to rest and how to do it is much of a coaching staff’s dialogue. Being able to keep players fresh while helping them stay engaged is crucial, while forecasting for the long term (postseason run) digs deep in their minds. Much discourse can also be consumed in HOW teams play. Do players take plays off to rest? If so, does the offensive system limit pounding on the lower extremities? The Bulls triangle offense was a passing game, quite different than what Miami does. The latter consists of lots of dribble drives, pick and roll action, and isolations. It takes more energy to explode to the paint with the ball than it does to cut without it -- mental pace varies. Those Bulls were a tremendous passing team and Jordan, despite a stigma of shooting too much, was a fabulous set up guy (just go back and watch some of those late 90’s games). More energy consumption may lie in how a team collaborates, whether on the floor or not.

One would think it beneficial -- the more blowouts, the better -- so that the prime players can rest, but (for example) is an 8-minute differential (the difference between a 32-minute night and 40) really all that helpful? Perhaps more mentally than physically. LeBron has been willing his team to win in several close games, comebacks and overtime to boot. Jordan, however, didn’t regularly have to play in the closing minutes (the Bulls had only three single-digit wins of their 18; the Heat have had nine thus far). MJ could sit and smile and oversee his mastery, one that passed him by in many fourth quarters and left evidence of his (and Pippen’s) dominance. He, in effect, let himself out of work early. LeBron, however, has to muster the (mental) stamina to close these games out. Though playing time is similar it’s WHERE the minutes occur that really matter. Stats are harder to come by when the game is close, when teams are structuring every possession to get stops. It’s a grind, and in that scenario, LeBron is performing at one of the highest levels we’ve ever seen -- it’s also enabling him to produce those stats. (Haters will insert selfish stat production theory here, a broader scheme of missing bunnies intentionally to gather more boards.)

The intention here is not to compare players or even teams for the sake of winning an argument -- it’s just too difficult even with NBA2K simulations and all the advanced statistics available. (Though, do note, that Bulls squad was No. 1 in the League in both offensive and defensive efficiency in ‘95-’96.) It’s not even worth going into how those ‘71-’72 Lakers dominated in a completely different era. (They had only 11 single digit wins of their 33, and tallied three 30-plus victories, two 40 or more.) What’s significant is watching Miami dominate with dynamic teamwork and skills.

Let’s just sit back and enjoy the evolution.

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