Miami Heat

All NBA Greatest of All Time arguments have holes...yes, even Michael Jordan's

lebronjordan.png
AP

All NBA Greatest of All Time arguments have holes...yes, even Michael Jordan's

LeBron James’ continued playoff greatness has inspired age-old conversations concerning ghosts and lists, but also presented the public with an opportunity to examine age-old, so-called “truths” about the game’s history.

Either way, the camps are out.

The side that claims James has surpassed you-know-who as the definitive G.O.A.T.

The side that will forever tout that 6-0 trumps anything James can achieve, since it appears likely James will retire with a losing record in the NBA Finals as he currently sits with a 3-5 mark.

The exhausting exercise appears to have no end in sight, even though anyone who can lay claim to the throne as basketball’s best, the Greatest of All Time, has holes in his resume.

No candidate—Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Bill Russell or James—has an unassailable resume.

All sit at the special table in the special room reserved for only the best of the best and depending on the lens, each can make his case to stand above all the rest. Or at the very least, point out facts that detract from the others’ case.

Yes, even Jordan has things that work against him, facts that have been ignored or forgotten through the years as he has been, until recently, canonized as the greatest.

Jordan’s 6-0 Finals record came in one of the NBA’s weakest eras, diluted by expansion after the popularity boon of the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird led 80s. Between 1988 and 1995, the Charlotte Hornets, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, Minnesota Timberwolves, Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies were added, taking a 24-team league to thirty.

That’s 72 players who would otherwise be on a different roster, if not out the league altogether. It dramatically changed the landscape of the NBA, as well the depth of the rosters.

More incoming stars were dispersed to franchises that couldn’t compete. Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Kevin Garnett, Anfernee Hardaway and more would have been on different, perhaps more established, teams, making for a more competitive league.

It wasn’t Jordan’s fault he had no individual peer, as the greats of the 90s were clearly a step behind him. But considering the historical weakness of the teams the Bulls faced in the Finals, foregoing expansion would have produced better, more quality rosters.

When measuring Jordan against James, Jordan never played the quality of teams in the Finals James has. The Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, who have delivered four of James’ five Finals losses, are among the NBA’s best, with their clusters of stars and rings to back it up.

The only champion Jordan beat in the Finals was the 1991 Los Angeles Lakers, a team well past its storied prime. Abdul-Jabbar already retired, Magic Johnson was months away from an H.I.V. diagnosis that precipitated his retirement while James Worthy and Byron Scott were nowhere near the supporting players they had been in the 80s.

Worthy’s field-goal percentage dropped from 55 percent in 1990 to 49 percent in 1991 as he approached age 30, while Scott went from averaging a career-high 21.7 points in 1988, the Lakers’ last title season, to 14.5 in 1991. Worthy and Scott battled injuries in the series (each missing a game because of it), helping lead to the lopsided 4-1 triumph by the Bulls.

Speaking of Lakers, Abdul-Jabbar seems to be forgotten in this argument. Like James, he dominated basketball with longevity for decades. After forcing a trade to the Lakers in 1975, they only qualified for one conference finals until someone magical arrived in 1979.

Johnson reinvigorated Abdul-Jabbar’s career, even though Abdul-Jabbar spent the past several seasons being the league’s best player without accomplishing the ultimate team success.

That would qualify as a demerit on Abdul-Jabbar’s case, if one were to make a case against him. Considering his name is all over the record books as the game’s all-time leading scorer and possessing the single most effective weapon in the history of the sport with his sky-hook, the margins are thin.

The two combined to lead the Lakers to five NBA titles to dominate the 80s, even as Abdul-Jabbar’s game declined while Johnson began to take more of the reins and was a highly effective player until his second-to-last season in 1988—the last time the “Showtime” Lakers won a title.

Johnson, while leading the Lakers to nine Finals appearances, had a disastrous Finals series in 1984 against the Celtics—giving away games with late turnovers and mistakes unbecoming of someone in his position.

Johnson and the Lakers had the benefit of dominating a weak Western Conference during that time. A healthy Johnson—similar to James at this stage—almost guaranteed a trip to the Finals, in part due to challengers unable to emerge.

Still, though, Johnson’s Lakers were 5-4 in the Finals—closer to James’ mark than Jordan’s one of perfection.

Johnson won three regular-season MVPs to Abdul-Jabbar’s record mark of six, and the seamless transition of power in Los Angeles shouldn’t be used against one or the other, but it should be noted.

And for James, his warts are well-known. The meltdown in 2011 against the Dallas Mavericks, coming up short in four straight fourth quarters as the Miami Heat choked away a series is the biggest detraction.

He had a mysterious Game 5 in 2010 against the Boston Celtics in his first run in Cleveland that sticks out, but he’s been a pristine playoff performer otherwise—and has probably performed better in team defeat than wins.

He’s had no true head-to-head competitor in the Eastern Conference during this run of seven straight Finals appearances in Miami and Cleveland, and although it isn’t directly his fault, James’ presence makes it hard for teammates to be great around him.

His ability and intelligence demands his teams allow him to orchestrate so much of the schemes around him, perhaps to the detriment of his teammates and their ability to make plays on their own.

James’ monstrous statistics in Year 15 are also aided by defenses that aren’t allowed to be as physical on the perimeter, giving him free reign to dissect passive defenses to his will.

The rules have been bent to allow for more free-flowing basketball and more scoring, a benefit Jordan didn’t have in the 90s when “high scoring” meant a playoff score of 95-93.

But with all that said, his accomplishments must be acknowledged, similar to ones of his peers.

His performances don't have to be admired, merely respected. And as his longevity and consistency cements him deeper into the record books of all-time lists, it doesn’t require instant reflection on whom he passed or whom he’s yet to catch.

Sometimes it’s better to let it all play out before the next game-winner becomes a weapon in an argument there’s no true answer for.

Who’s the greatest? From here, it’s Jordan—by a hair. Wait, he’s bald.

Former Bulls in the playoffs: Dwyane Wade turns back the clock in Philly

wadeheat.png
USA TODAY

Former Bulls in the playoffs: Dwyane Wade turns back the clock in Philly

The NBA Playoffs are just three days old and yet there's a contingent of former Bulls who are alreayd leaving their mark on the postseason.

As the first in a series, we won't roll these out every day, but any time one of the dozen or so former Bulls in the postseason has a big night, we'll let you know right here.

Dwyane Wade, Heat: Flash turned back the clock in Miami's Game 2 victory in Philadelphia, scoring 28 points on 11 of 16 shooting in a 113-103 victory. Wade scored 21 points in the first half and made nine of his first 10 attempts, and he closed out the Sixers with an 18-footer to give the Heat an eight-point lead inside a minute to play. It was Wade's first 20+ point game since March 6, and the 28 points were the most he had scored since he scored 31 against the Kings last season with the Bulls. Miami won't necessarily need Wade to go off like that again to win the series, but it sure helped Monday night.

James Johnson, Heat: Not to be outdone by Wade, former first-round pick James Johnson was equally as good. In addition to being tasked with guarding Ben Simmons, Johnson finished with 18 points on a perfect 7-for-7 shooting night, sive rebounds, five assists and three steals. He's made all four 3-point attempts in the series, and the Sixers haven't had much of an answer for him as they focus their attention on players like Goran Dragic, Josh Richardson and now Wade. He could become the series' X-factor.

Nikola Mirotic, Pelicans: We're a few days late on this one, but Mirotic continued his red-hot April with a solid showing in Game 1 against the Blazers. He double-doubled with 16 points and 11 rebounds, and also added four blocked shots in the road win. Mirotic hadn't blocked four shots in a game since late February, and the double-double was his fourth in his last five games. He's peaked at the exact right time for New Orleans.

Rajon Rondo, Pelicans: Playoff Rondo! Bulls fans remember this version of last year's starting point guard, as he went off for 17 assists and just two turnovers in New Orleans' Game 1 win. He added six points and eight rebounds, but the dimes were the key. He also helped limit Damian Lillard to 18 points on 23 shots. We'd say this is surprising, but after what he did to the Celtics in Boston last year we're really not shocked. The four-headed monster of Davis/Holiday/Mirotic/Rondo could really make noise in the playoffs.

Derrick Rose, Timberwolves: The TimberBulls needed a spark in Game 1 against the Rockets and got it in Rose, who scored 16 points off the bench and added four assists in 24 minutes. His defense on James Harden - and the Rockets as a whole - left plenty to be desired, but it was an inspired performance for Rose, who is back in the postseason.

Jimmy Butler, Timberwolves: He's clearly not 100 percent, as Butler's 13-point performance showed in Game 1. The Timberwolves really don't have much shot at knocking off the top-seeded Rockets, and that's if they were entirely healthy. Butler isn't, but he'll still have an impact on this series at some point.

Marco Belinelli, Sixers: Famous in Bulls postseason history for his, erm, Big Marbles dance in Game 7 against the Nets, Belinelli is showing the postseason gene again with the Sixers. He scored 25 points on 9 of 17 shooting in a Game 1 win over Miami and was solid in the Game 2 loss, scoring 16 points. He's proven to be a critical piece on the second unit for a Sixers offense that can't stop scoring.

E'Twaun Moore, Pelicans: He's been great all year for the Pelicans, but Moore was quiet in Game 1, scoring four points in 27 minutes.

Pau Gasol, Spurs: Gasol really has no value in this series against the Warriors. In two losses he's totalled 18 points and six rebounds in 36 minutes.

Tony Snell, Bucks: The Snelly Cat was nowhere to be found in Game 1 against the Celtics, as he scored two points and grabbed three rebounds in 33 minutes. Clearly they need him to be better moving forward.

Taj Gibson, Timberwolves: Tom Thibodeau is going to rely on Gibson for big minutes. He scored nine points and hauled in six rebounds in 32 minutes in a Game 1 loss.

Kyle Kover, Cavaliers: Expect bigger things from the former Bench Mob member, who played just four minutes and missed all three shots in a Game 1 loss.

Jamal Crawford, Timberwolves: Death, taxes, Jamal Crawford getting buckets. Crawford scored 15 points off the bench in 26 minutes for the Timberwolves in Game 1. Yes, you millenials reading this: Jamal Crawford played for the Bulls from 2000 to 2004. Fred Hoiberg was his teammate.

We won't consider any "Bulls" who were drafted by the team but never played any minutes. So, no Jordan Bell, Jose Calderon, J.R. Smith, LaMarcus Aldridge. Also, we're leaving out Aaron Brooks because he doesn't play. Sorry, Aaron.

Should Zach LaVine's minute-restriction make way for the Bulls' winning restriction?

Should Zach LaVine's minute-restriction make way for the Bulls' winning restriction?

The time goes by fast for Zach LaVine, from tip-off to the time he’s subbed out for Denzel Valentine as part of his minute-restriction plan.

“It goes by really quick. I look up, I’m like man, it’s already seven minutes,” LaVine said. “But that’s why I’m trying to make the most of the 20 minutes, think I’m doing a good job so far. I set out to help in every way I can.”

For the damage he does in his limited time, it’s making the Bulls and their winning-restriction plan go to mush, as he put up 18 points with five rebounds, five assists and more importantly, more minutes will be on the horizon sooner rather than later. After the Bulls’ 119-111 win over the Miami Heat Monday at the United Center, one has to wonder if the Bulls are approaching a crossroads for the season—or if unfortunately for the front office, the checkpoint on the long-term plan has already been unwillingly passed to the point of no return.

At 17-27, the Bulls are, in a sense, where they didn’t want to be—straddling the line between going for a playoff spot or getting as bad as possible to get in the best possible position for the lottery.

They’re here because Kris Dunn is playing like a top-half point guard and Lauri Markkanen is performing like a top-three rookie, shooting the three with a volume that would be the best for a first-year player in NBA history—a perfect fit for Hoiberg’s system.

Markkanen is growing perhaps into the superstar they hope to draft in June while LaVine will do everything he can to prove he’s more than a max player but a legit superstar who can play winning basketball along with filling up a box score.

And they’re managing to win close games at a rate experienced teams usually do, playing with a poise and freedom that stemmed from low expectations and a 3-20 start.

“We knew they were on a winning streak and just tried to play hard,” Markkanen said after a 17-point, nine-rebound night. “And play unselfish like we always do. And we had much success, so that tells a lot.”

The Heat was in a similar position last season, starting out 10-31 before making a charge so strong the Bulls had to win every game down the stretch to secure the final playoff spot.

After a so-so start, the Heat are nearly on a 50-win pace with a similar roster and no one with the ceiling of LaVine or Markkanen—along with having to replace Dion Waiters’ scoring and swagger, as he’s out for the season with ankle surgery.

John Paxson took the reins this offseason and firmly made the decision to begin a painful and possibly long, rebuild. But when affordable acquisitions like Justin Holiday starts shooting 50 percent from 3-point range and torches the Heat for seven triples and 25 points, it makes then plan harder to execute.

When Nikola Mirotic sprinkles some pixie dust on his game before the start of the fourth quarter to go from being scoreless to scoring 18 in the last 12 minutes to close out their third straight win, it puts the pressure firmly on the front office to make a big decision, yet again.

“The thing we’re chasing is that we’re trying to continue to grow and get better,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Take steps in the right direction. That’s all we talk about. We’re not talking about what’s at stake.”

Hoiberg is keeping his eyes and ears away from the front office's plans, as it does him no good but to bunker down with his locker room and peck away at this record.

He may not be discussing it with his team, but LaVine said the team is watching the Eastern Conference standings, game-by-game. At six games behind eighth-seeded Detroit, there’s four teams between the Bulls and a playoff spot—while being four-and-a-half games behind the Orlando Magic at the cellar.

And with the Magic rumored to be going all-in on selling before the trade deadline, willing to unload Evan Fournier, Elfrid Payton and Mario Hezonja, according to the New York Times, it’s clear they’re trying to cement themselves at the top of the lottery.

The Golden State Warriors are coming to the United Center in two days, and it’s likely the requisite beating will take place to quell some of the immediate optimism. But after that, the Bulls have some winnable contests that will likely have them right about where they are now, with each passing game lessening the likelihood of plummeting to the bottom.

It leaves Paxson and the front office in a precarious position, as the team is playing with more spirit and togetherness thus leading to praise the front office for its roster construction.

Trading a fourth-quarter performer like Mirotic would go over well in most circles, and although Mirotic is saying all the right things about having the most fun in his NBA career and wanting to play more with Markkanen, he still wants out and he prefers to go West.

One could see the Bulls taking a deal from the Utah Jazz in the form of expiring contract Joe Johnson and a protected first-round pick, then possibly buying out Johnson and letting him go to a contender with the pick being the crown jewel of the deal.

The longer he stays, the more games the Bulls win, the harder this becomes—and one has to ask about the futures of Robin Lopez and Holiday—who would be valuable as a reserve for a playoff team.

But would the Bulls trade anybody for the sole purpose of getting worse in the meantime? Hard to say but hard to envision Paxson doing anything less than what he deems equal value.

This season started with drama, proceeded as planned but took a turn towards something unexpected—and rather quickly.

And like LaVine’s minutes, the Bulls will have to make another decision because deadlines are approaching faster than even they could foresee.