Hypothetical scenarios are the lifeblood of sports.
So, as we look back at the Miami Heat's 27-game win streak that fell just short of the NBA record of 33 consecutive wins set by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, Bleacher Report consulted a panel of experts to break down which team is superior in a range of categories.
The roundtable includes...
Jack McCallum, former senior writer at Sports Illustrated and author of New York Times best-seller Dream Team.
Rick Barry, NBA Hall of Famer and basketball TV/radio analyst.
Dick Stockton, sportscaster since the 1960s and currently an NBA analyst for Turner Sports.
Charley Rosen, former NBA assistant coach and author of 16 books, including The Pivotal Season: How the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers Changed the NBA and his latest, Scout's Honor.
Chris Sheridan, longtime NBA writer and Editor-in-Chief of SheridanHoops.com.
1. Better Starting Lineup?
Jack McCallum (Lakers): I would say the stronger starting lineup belonged to the Lakers. Chamberlain and West are towering figures in the history of the NBA. I would argue Chamberlain is the most dominant force who has ever walked onto a basketball court and Jerry West is arguably on the second-team all-time of the NBA. I personally love Goodrich, and followed him from when he was at UCLA. I would say by some margin that the Lakers have a better starting lineup.
Rick Barry (Lakers): Who is going to guard Wilt Chamberlain on that team? Are you kidding me? And you have the second-greatest 2-guard in the history of the game in West. Now, the Heat happen to have the greatest 3-guard in the history of the game in LeBron and then they have Wade, who is one hell of a player, no question.
In the starting lineup, it's pretty close. Because of the fact that [the Heat] have three really outstanding players, two who are really, really great. But Gail Goodrich is a Hall of Fame basketball player. I give a slight edge to the Lakers because of Wilt Chamberlain.
Dick Stockton (Even): The difference between the Heat and the Lakers is that they [the Lakers] had the big guy. Chamberlain dominated, averaging 19 rebounds during the year.
The Heat are not built around that. It's a different game today than it was then, and it shows in a lot of ways when you compare the teams. LeBron James is one of the greatest of all time and he'll be the greatest until someone comes along after that.
Charley Rosen (Lakers): The Lakers had the more balanced starting lineup. They had three primary scorers. They also had [Jim] McMillian, who could create his own shot, and Happy Hairston could run. Of course, Wilt was in the twilight of his career, but you could still go to him. I think that's a big difference between these two teams, that power in the middle Miami doesn't have.
Chris Sheridan (Heat): The better starting lineup, I am surprised to say, might be the Miami Heat. With the level they are playing at, I've never seen three guys play so efficiently and put up the numbers that they are putting up at those percentages. I've never seen any team like that.
2. Better Bench?
McCallum (Heat): I would definitely put the Heat bench as better, the two keys obviously being Ray Allen and Shane Battier. The Lakers bench did not have a player as good as Ray Allen, who is arguably a Hall of Fame player, and they didn't have anyone nearly as versatile as Battier, who can come in and win a game on three-pointers and lock someone down. I'd say by a good margin I like the Heat bench.
Barry (Lakers): No question the Lakers. Flynn Robinson and Jim Cleamons were outstanding players, and so was Keith Erickson. They were very good players. And Leroy Ellis would start on the Heat.
Stockton (Heat): With what happens in today's game, the bench players of the Heat play more minutes than the Lakers' bench guys did. In those days, the bench wasn't as important as the starters, especially as far as the Lakers were concerned.
Rosen (Lakers): The Lakers had Flynn Robinson, who was a great scorer. They also had Pat Riley, who was a tough, scratch-your-eyes-out defender, and Leroy Ellis came off the bench to provide shooting. They also had Keith Erickson, who was another defensive guy. It was a different kind of bench than the Heat's bench, which gets its scoring generated by LeBron and Wade penetrating with kickouts.
Their benches have really different functions, but the big difference is that with Chamberlain in the middle you wouldn't have to double-team LeBron or Wade. Just play up, let them go to the hoop and let Wilt do his thing.
Sheridan (Even): The Heat don't have a fantastic bench, but it's a very efficient bench. They haven't gotten anything out of Rashard Lewis, but they've gotten more out of Norris Cole than they expected. I cannot emphasize enough how impressed I've been with Chris Andersen.
Whether that tips the Heat bench over the Lakers' bench, it's hard to say because the Lakers had a lot of really solid players on their bench and it probably went a bit deeper. But the Heat don't rely on their whole bench—they rely on Cole, Allen and Andersen. Who do I give the edge to? I call it even.
3. Coaching Edge: Spoelstra or Sharman?
McCallum (Spoelstra): That's kind of a tough one. I am not one of these who'd say, "Anyone could have coached these teams," because we know that's not true. These are teams with very strong personalities. LeBron is going to run things the way he wants. Chamberlain, West and Goodrich, who was kind of an outspoken guy, were going to run things the way they wanted.
I'd say the harder job is Spoeltra's by a small margin. He had a learning curve; he went from LeBron possibly bumping him in a timeout three seasons ago to knowing exactly what to get out of the guy. He also has Pat Riley to lean on, and the coaching culture in the NBA now is incredibly strong.
Barry (Sharman): You have to go with Sharman in that regard because of the experience factor. But Erik is obviously showing that he is very capable, and he has done a real nice job with the expectations placed on his shoulders. He also has a really good mentor, Riley, who happened to play for that team. It's pretty ironic when you think about it; here is the guy mentoring this guy to do it who might end up breaking the record he was a part of.
Stockton (Spoelstra): The Lakers were built on overpowering teams on offense and scoring. You can’t do that in today’s game. Defense was Pat Riley’s mantra, and now Spoelstra’s mantra, and becomes a big role. In those days, the Lakers scored 154 in one of those games, 162 that year. You don’t see that now.
It’s hard to compare the coaches. A lot of people think Bill Sharman just sent the guys out there. We know that Spoelstra really focuses on defense more than that era did, especially the Lakers.
Rosen (Sharman): They both want to run, but the Lakers ran better because they were a better rebounding team. Sharman was experienced and had been to the Finals before when he coached San Francisco. He was a master motivator. I mean, he motivated Wilt Chamberlain, which wasn't so easy. It's hard to give either a big advantage, really. I would say Sharman, only because he played in the league, and he was an All-Star and Hall of Famer.
Sheridan (Spoelstra): I will say this about Spoelstra: Somebody got that team when they were playing .500 as a road team back in January. Somebody made them figure out they needed to start playing with the pride of a champion. He's gotten this team to this point, and some of it has been late-game coaching situations; there have been quite a few games during this streak when they've had to come back and win it.
It'd be easy to say, "Put LeBron in charge and let the will of the players take over," but also you have to call plays out of timeouts and keep the opponent guessing.
4. Better in Halfcourt?
McCallum (Lakers): Chamberlain, at that point, had gone into assist mode. In the halfcourt, Chamberlain was simply unbelievable. He could still go get you points whenever he wanted to, but at that point he was passing as well as almost any center in the history of the game. Also, West was primarily a halfcourt player.
By a slight margin [I like the Lakers], simply because I don't think the Heat have that kind of post presence. We all know LeBron will go in there if he wants to, but Bosh is not a back-to-the-basket [player].
Barry (Lakers): You have to give the advantage to the Lakers. You have Wade there, but L.A. had West and Goodrich, so you have to give the advantage there. West was a great all-around player: he could drive, he could shoot and he could play defense. He had ice in his brains..."Mr. Clutch" they called him. I mean, c'mon, he's the logo. He was the greatest 2-guard until Michael came along. You don't hear Goodrich's name as much because he's playing with Jerry West. He still put up great numbers, though.
Stockton (Heat): First of all, LeBron James can beat people off the dribble and do all those things, but the Lakers were a halfcourt team. They had to wait for Wilt to get down low. It was a totally different game, as centers were the focal point in the NBA at that point. The center is not the focal point now if you look at the centers who worked with Michael Jordan or the centers who played with LeBron. Los Angeles was a team meant for the halfcourt. I think that's where the Lakers would wear down teams and score a lot.
Rosen (Lakers): The game is different, and the three-point shot didn't even exist back then. So Goodrich and West, could they be good three-point shooters? Who knows? You'd think that if they played today and grew up with the current rules then they would be good three-point shooters.
When you get the ball inside to someone like Wilt, the defense really has to make adjustments because the ball is three or four feet away from the basket. Having Wilt there would really force the Heat to make more defensive adjustments than the Lakers would have to make for the Heat.
Sheridan (Lakers): It's hard to say because they played the game so much closer to the basket back then. There was a lot more banging, and a 24-foot shot was not part of someone's repertoire. The game is so much more athletic now and the floor is so much more spread out that comparing halfcourt sets is difficult. It's sort of an apples and oranges situation, but to win 33 games in a row with everyone jammed together and banging from within close is tough.
I'm not in love with the Heat in the halfcourt, but what the Lakers did when the floor was packed tighter was a completely different animal. There was much more physicality then and it would be hard to have a winning streak against teams that flagrantly foul as a strategy. That makes it more impressive.
5. Better on the Break?
McCallum (Heat): Believe it or not, I don't think people realize what a fast-break style game it used to be. People think that games used to be better defended than they are now. Having said that, I have to give that advantage to the Heat because anytime LeBron gets out and hammers down a ridiculous dunk, you're talking about a demoralizing effect for the other team. The Lakers simply didn't have anyone like that who is going to have that kind of intimidating ability on the break.
Barry (Heat): You've got to give the edge to the Heat. With Wade and LeBron, are you kidding me? It's stupid what those guys do in terms of explosiveness on the break.
Stockton (Heat): We're comparing apples and oranges here of different eras. I would say LeBron James is faster, Dwyane Wade is faster, half the players on the Heat obviously if you put them in a different era are faster than any of the Lakers. Happy Hairston and Jim McMillian did not have speed and Gail Goodrich was a lefty jump shooter. West was not especially fast and they had the balance of the inside play. So I'd give to the edge to the Heat, easily.
Rosen (Lakers): Once they get in transition both of them are unstoppable. I don't think there's much to choose. The only difference is that Happy Hairston could run like a guard so the Lakers could really run a four-man fast break, which Miami can't. The Lakers dominated the defensive boards more than Miami does. You rarely see the Lakers give up an offensive rebound and Wilt was pretty good at outlet passes so they could always get into their break.
Sheridan (Heat): The Heat because of the athleticism and the speed difference. The guys can finish in a variety of ways—that also includes Battier and Allen on three-point shots. Wade and LeBron are such great passers and Bosh is a great finisher. The Heat are unstoppable in the open court.
6. Bigger Game-Changer: James or Chamberlain?
McCallum (James): Since we're talking about that team specifically, and Wilt being in the 11th year of his career, I have to give that to LeBron. I don't think at that point Wilt was as able. I don't think anyone can change the game as much as LeBron could. I don't want to abandon my respect for Jerry West, but at that stage of his career and where LeBron is now, LeBron changes the game defensively, by posting up, directing the offense, making three-pointers and coming off picks. It's got to be LeBron.
Barry (Chamberlain): It's pretty hard to go against the greatest center in the history of the game. There isn't anybody who had all the skills on both ends of the court Wilt had. Of course, at that stage of his career, Wilt wasn't even in his prime then. Imagine if he was surrounded by that talent when he was younger.
It's hard because LeBron is such a great passer, so he has more of an impact because the ball is in his hands more often. He can do more things that can change the game, but as far as having an impact on both ends of the court, it's Wilt. The Heat have no one who could stop Wilt. He would just dominate them.
Stockton (James): Wilt was a dominating inside player and when the Lakers went against teams that didn't have the likes of a great center—obviously that was a time in which centers dominated—so Wilt would go in there and be devastating.
But if you want to talk about game-changers, LeBron James is the greatest.
Rosen (James): Since LeBron has more possession time, he would be more of a game-changer. Wilt, maybe 10 years earlier, would have been more of a game-changer. But, at that point of his career and the fact that LeBron has the ball all over the place, I'd say LeBron.
Sheridan (Chamberlain): "The Dipper." Easy. He was a game-changer because he was unstoppable and he was a freak at the time. A freak who is that tall can be way more dominant than a freak LeBron's size. Now, I must say that LeBron is a freak too and I mean that in the most absolutely positive way.
7. Better "Sidekick": Wade or West?
McCallum (Wade): Goodrich and West averaged 52 points together. They were like the same guy, and it's almost like Chamberlain was the second star. I am going to have to say Wade is clearly more in the sidekick role. He's a guy who can say, "Hey, I won a championship myself seven years ago." But he has clearly figured out how to take a back seat, how to be the Sundance Kid to LeBron. He's done very well with it, much better than I thought he would, much better than Russell Westbrook does it.
Barry (West): Since West was the star at this point, you have to look at it differently. I would take LeBron and Jerry and say those two guys are on an equal plane. I would give a slight edge to Dwyane Wade over Gail Goodrich because of his athleticism and the things he could do. But if you put Chris Bosh against Wilt, that's no contest. If you look at it with the three people on the team, the edge has to go to the Lakers.
Stockton (Wade): It's tough because you're talking about two different positions versus a mobile, versatile kind of offense that the Heat have of James and Wade playing off each other. I don't know if West and Chamberlain played off each other; they had different roles.
If you want to go off the time, Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West were two of the top five or six players in the NBA. And, LeBron James is the best in the NBA but I don't know if Wade would be one of the top five or six. So, it's a difficult question indeed, but I think Wade and James play off each other while West and Chamberlain had different roles.
Rosen (Even): West was more of a jump shooter. He was also a tremendous defensive player. They used to talk about if you were on a 2-on-1 fast break and West was the guy back, you'd pull the ball out. You never wanted to challenge him; he had such long arms.
Wade is stronger. It's a different kind of game, more of a penetrating and finding something, getting to the basket, baseline driver. West was really looking for mid-range jump shots going to his right on that last hard dribble and bouncing up with his quick release. That's a hard one, and it's difficult because they played in such different eras and they played such different roles, I don't think you can really make a comparison.
Sheridan (Even): There are few guys as competitive as Kevin Garnett, but if you go back in the NBA history, one of the guys that compares to him is Jerry West. I think that's an intangible West has over Wade. But Wade has really changed his game to benefit the team and benefit LeBron being able to do what he can do.
I give the edge to West in competitiveness and intensity, and they were both fantastically efficient players, but I give a lot of props to Dwyane for his adaptability.
8. More Clutch: James or West?
McCallum (West): Jerry West, until the end of his career. Nobody wanted that guy to have the ball. I'll never forget the story Mike D'Antoni told me. When D'Antoni got in the league one of his first games was against West. West was in the final stages of his career and he only goes to his right. "We want you to know that there is nothing you can do about that, by the way. He's going to score on you anyway and he's going to score on you in the fourth quarter," D'Antoni remembered.
There've been very few people in the history of anything that were as clutch as Jerry West. Maybe a couple years from LeBron will have done that, but it goes to West.
Barry (West): [West] had such a confidence in himself. You have to believe in yourself and you have to want the basketball in your hands at the end. But here's the thing that is scary: James is so good it's to the point of stupidity. He can get better; that's what's scary. If he gets the confidence that West has, he might be so good they'll have to say, "You know what? You can't play anymore because you're screwing the game up."
Stockton (Even): Jerry West was an incredibly clutch player. So is LeBron James. That's a hard question to answer. One is a 6'3'' guard, and one can play any position on the floor. At the time, Jerry West was one of the great players in the NBA at hitting clutch jump shots; he was a clutch player. And LeBron is too. If you want to put the microscope on that time it would be West, and now it would be LeBron.
Rosen (James): Even though Jerry West is "Mr. Clutch", there are those who played against him who say that his reputation was overrated. They point to the way he played against the Knicks in the championship series when he really didn't play well. He scored a lot of points in losing causes—let's put it that way.
He did make all his foul shots in the fourth quarter, which LeBron doesn't always do. But I'd say LeBron has become a better clutch player in the last two years.
Sheridan (West): LeBron has been a clutch player for less than one year, so I would say Jerry West. LeBron was not a clutch player until the second round of the NBA playoffs last year. He was carrying a Scarlet Letter as a guy who fails in fourth quarters and hasn't delivered and can't win a championship.
Then he showed us in the Conference Finals and then the Finals and then the Olympics. This year, he has the monkey off his back. He is playing with a whole different level of confidence. Again, this is April and he didn't do anything until last year.
9. Better Defensive Team?
McCallum (Lakers): West to the end of his days was a great defensive player, Chamberlain was a great defensive player and Jim McMillian and Happy Hairston were great defensive players.
I would give [the Lakers] the edge there because West was a lock-down guy and McMillian and Hairston in the frontcourt were both really good defensive players. Coming off the bench Riley was pretty good and would lock you down. Keith Erickson, one of their bottom guys, was a good player too.
Barry (Lakers): Not having seen the Lakers for years, I still know that whoever the other team was, if they were coming down on a set offense, they had to deal with Wilt at the hoop. No one has to do that with the Heat.
Stockton (Heat): The league is based on defense now. You can't say they played good defense at that time. I'm not saying they played bad defense, but they didn't have as intricate of ways to stop teams in those days.
I don't think the pick-and-roll was employed as much in those days; screens were, but mismatches you didn't have as much. It was more of a staple type of basketball, as football was at that time. Now, it's so much more intricate on offense and defense compared to back then. I think obviously there is more of an emphasis on defense [now] than there was then.
Rosen (Lakers): The Lakers, definitely, because of Wilt and West. Wilt turned layups into jump shots. He makes a difference; he makes them a better defensive team. Defense also includes getting defensive rebounds so the Lakers were a far better defensive team.
Sheridan (Lakers): I don't consider the Heat a great defensive team. I think they make the most of what they do on defense; their game is fueled on running off defensive rebounds and forced turnovers, which they get in bunches. But when teams slow them down, teams can beat them because they have a defensive weakness around the rim. I don't think they are an elite defensive team by any means.
10. Who Would Win a 7-Game Series?
McCallum (Lakers): You have to allow for the imagination. If you stood Gail Goodrich up next to Wade and LeBron James, he would look like me. So, we have to allow for the time difference. With that, I'd say the Lakers because the Heat's youth and the fact they are a more athletic team would probably help them.
But I think the experience they had—by then West would have been in eight or nine championship finals—would help. They could nail you down defensively and get a score in the 90s when they had to, depend on West in the clutch and Chamberlain never got in foul trouble.
I'd say the Lakers in seven games with West as MVP. Admitting the fact that West was among my favorite players of all-time.
Barry (Lakers): The Lakers would win in six or seven games for all the reasons we talked about, but mostly because they don't have anyone who could stop Wilt. He would dominate and he was a heck of a passer.
But let's give credit where credit is due. Anytime you can win 20 or more consecutive games, I don't care who you are playing against; that's a great accomplishment. Let's get that on the table. What the Heat have done is fantastic. It doesn't matter what the circumstances are, who you are comparing them to, what they are doing is a great accomplishment and they deserve to be credited for that.
Stockton (Heat): I don't know, who's going to have home court? (Laughs) I know it would be fun to answer that question, but you can't put the Heat back there because they had too much speed and the players are better. OK, that's what it is: The players today are better.
The Heat are having so much fun and if they were play a seven-game series, they are a team of destiny. While West and Chamberlain were superstars, I will say that LeBron James wouldn't let this game get away. Right now, LeBron James is MVP of the world.
Rosen (Lakers): The Lakers in six. They are stronger in the middle with Wilt in there. In a playoff series, there is not as much traveling and you have more time to make adjustments. You can really analyze and prepare. Being in the city for many days in a row would help Wilt's advancing age. Wilt is the difference; even a diminished Wilt is the difference.
Sheridan (Toss-up): Whoever David Stern preordains.
For the final say, check out our NBA2K13 simulation of the '72-73 Lakers vs. the '12-13 Heat.