NBA legacies are built on postseason success.
Fox Sports tallied their list of the 10 greatest players in NBA history in a May 2012 piece. They named Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan to their top 10.
Whether or not you or I agree with their list is irrelevant. Greatness means different things to different people, so it's impossible to create a definitive list.
But there's one thing that all of these players have in common. One thing consistently rears its head into greatest-ever discussions in any professional sport: championships.
Those 10 players amassed a staggering 47 titles between them, nearly a handful of rings for each one on average.
Clearly, that impressive jewelry collection isn't the only thing building those players' claims for the 10 spots. Each one of them found tremendous success during the regular season.
Yet, only one of those players, then a 35-year-old Chamberlain, ever reached the level of sustained success that the 2012-13 Miami Heat have in their 24-and-counting game-winning streak.
And that's not an outlier resulting from the thousands of NBA players past and present being funneled into a group of just 10.
Only one other team in league history, Chamberlain's 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, has ever won more than 22 straight games. Just three others—the 2007-08 Houston Rockets, 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks and 1947-49 Washington Capitals (whose streak stretched across two seasons)—have even rattled off 20 consecutive victories.
With that in mind, former NBA coach and current analyst Jeff Van Gundy quipped during the March 17 ABC broadcast of the Los Angeles Clippers-New York Knicks that Miami's winning streak was a bigger accomplishment than winning a title (via ESPN's Tom Haberstroh, ESPN Insider subscription required).
The backlash to Van Gundy's remarks was as swift as it was virulent (via ESPN's NBA official Twitter account). If championships are the ultimate goal of any sports teams, how could they ever be trumped by a regular-season achievement?
Time-tested sports logic suggests Van Gundy couldn't have been more wrong, but the numbers suggest that his comments have a strong statistical basis.
An NBA championship is a miraculous accomplishment, the culmination of outlasting four teams through consecutive grueling seven-game series (as it has been constructed since 2003). But it's also one of the few constants in an NBA season—one team will always be crowned at its conclusion.
Winning streaks like Miami's current surge, on the other hand, almost never happen. With so many games on the regular-season schedule, 82 since the 1967-68 season, there's no great reason for a team to get up for every game.
Even the fiery Heat haven't been spared from these letdowns. They spotted the Boston Celtics 17 points before recovering in time to eke out a 105-103 win on March 18. Two nights later, they let the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers (playing without Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Anderson Varejao) grab a 27-point lead before fighting back to a 98-95 win.
Whether they've jumped on their opponents or forced themselves to come from behind, though, the Heat have emerged victorious in all of their last 24 games.
To a man, they would all tell you they'd take an NBA championship over this impressive feat. And rightfully so, titles hold far more prestige, far more importance in sports circles.
But they'd have to admit that this has been one heck of a ride, too. One that I, along with Van Gundy, would argue is a much more impressive feat than hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy.