Former NBA Stars Would Grant All-Time Status to Three-Peating Miami Heat

Ethan Skolnick@@EthanJSkolnickNBA Senior WriterFebruary 20, 2014

OKLAHOMA CITY  Rick Fox, at age 44, still looks like he could grab a key rebound and knock down a critical shot. These days, though, he's known as much for his acting work as his athletic career, and his basketball duties are largely confined to interviews and analysis for NBA TV.

In fact, there are only two playersKobe Bryant and Derek Fisherstill active from the last team to accomplish what the Miami Heat are attempting now, a quest that continues against the contending Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday night.

The three-peat. 

Fox and his Los Angeles Lakers friends turned that trick in 2002, with a four-game sweep of the overmatched Nets, who then represented New Jersey and had Jason Kidd dishing out assists rather than drawing up plays.

So Fox has a unique perspective on what it would mean for the Heat to join the 1952-1954 Lakers, 1959-1966 Celtics, 1991-1993 Bulls, 1996-1998 Bulls and 2000-2002 Lakers to win at least three straight titles. 

Unique, and perhaps unexpected. 

"That would be more impressive to me, personally," Fox said.

More impressive than what his Lakers did?

Yes, he insists. 

He starts by declaring this Heat tenure a success already, after the two titles.

"I think a third would move them into that rare air of respectability," Fox said. "I think it's what they expected of themselves, it's what we all expected. I think the 'six, seven' that they threw out, they hadn't won a championship together yet, they didn't know how hard it was to win one.

"So it's understandable that, for them, it would appear that the deck was stacked in their favor. Which it was, but they had to learn how to win." 

Miami's painful lessons included a 9-8 start in 2010-11, and then an infamous flop in the NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks. But it's that first season that, in Fox's view, would set the Heat apart from his Lakers. Much of that Lakers core played together during the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, but San Antonio swept it out of the second round.

Fox calls a three-peat "extremely difficult in terms of the demand on the body, the demand on chemistry, because it's hard to keep a team together for that long, especially in this modern era." But he deems it even harder to do what the Heat have done.

"For me, having been a part of a group that did that feat, they'd gain more respect from me because they lost the first one," Fox said. "They could have splintered. They could have really had an air of doubt live in their minds for the next four, five years together. Instead, they found a way to win, they came back strong.

"LeBron (James), for me, found himself again. The first time, so much of his energy was 'I'm going to prove everyone wrong.' And he's just not that person. He's such a light, and to play with such darkness just really overshadowed the beauty of who he is. And to see him return to that was special." 

Fox recalled how the Lakers, including himself, broke down physically in 2002-03, as they tried to make their fourth straight run into June.  

"So for them to accomplish that, I'd tip my hat to them," Fox said. "Even though we won three as well. But that, to me, is more impressive. Because they could have won four in a row."

Over All-Star Weekend, Bleacher Report interviewed several other prominent former players about the significance of a Heat three-peat. While none went quite as far as Fox, no one cast any aspersions at the Heat or put any asterisks next to their potential accomplishment. 

That hasn't been the universal sentiment.

When the Heat assembled the Big Three in 2010, many in the public, press and even the league questioned the legitimacy of any of their endeavors, accusing the Heat of gaming the system. Some, most notably NBA journeyman Reggie Evans, angered the Heat by devaluing their 2011 championship due to that season's strange lockout schedule.

Those narratives are no more.

At least, not if you ask three all-time greats, who just happen to have three of the all-time great nicknames. 

Start with the Human Highlight Film, Dominique Wilkins, a nine-time All-Star who never reached an NBA Finals.

"It would definitely put them up in history," Wilkins said. "That puts you in your own special place in history."

What about the way they came together? 

Will that be a black mark to some?

"Maybe," Wilkins said. "But to their credit, you still got to play. You still got to buy into a system. It really doesn't matter. When you win, it is what it is. They will go down as one of the great teams if they win it again." 

The Iceman doesn't need to come around either. 

"Oh yeah, I mean, you win three in a row!?" said George Gervin, a nine-time All-Star who never made an NBA or ABA championship series. "Man, that's pretty special in this era." 

Gervin, of course, had to interject he thought his San Antonio Spursfor whom he remains an ambassador"had them last year. And we did. It just wasn't meant for us." He also believes that "Indiana could beat them" this time around. "They got the coach, they got the talent that can compete with (Miami)."

Still, he adds, "They're a special team, though."

And he has no issue with how they were constructed, even if others did.

"That was fair, though," Gervin said. "LeBron was on his last year, he could sign with them. (Chris) Bosh was the same thing. You know, how LeBron came, people probably a little disappointed in that. But he had that choice. You can't take that choice from him. For those guys to bond together, oh, man.

"Timing is everything. It was perfect timing. They had a guy who was pulling it together, who was one of the greatest coaches of all time, Pat Riley, great owner, great place to live. Come on, man! People can't get mad at that, man. We all want to get lucky. That's why people play the lottery!"

What if 2012, 2013 and 2014 all come up as winning numbers for Miami?

The Heat won't catch any, well, heat from The Glove.

"You know, you got to put them up there," said Gary Payton, a nine-time All-Star who won the 2006 championship with Miami." They put a team together, and if they do it, this is gonna be the fourth year in a row in the Finals, and they win it three times, and lose one time in the championship? Where else can you put them? You can't put them anywhere else but with the elite basketball teams to ever play."

Payton, after all, was part of a superstar experiment in Los Angeles. In 2003-04, he and Karl Malone, near the end of their careers, joined Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal to take a title shot. They went 56-26 and advanced to the NBA Finals before the more balanced, harmonious Detroit Pistons took them out. The next offseason, Payton and Fox were traded to the Celtics. Malone retired. 

"It didn't work, yeah," Payton acknowledged. "In L.A., a lot of us were hurt, Kobe was going through what he was going through, Shaq was going through what he was going through, Karl got hurt and that hurt us a lot. This (Heat) team hasn't got hurt like that, just with Dwyane (Wade).

"But you got to understand, they've got a lot of pieces around them that are being productive. You got Ray Allen, you got the Birdman now, you got (Shane) Battier, you got (Mario) Chalmers. It's not just one guy. And you've got Pat Riley, who has put a great thing together. And Spo, who has been around them a long time."

Payton said he wishes that his Lakers team could have had another chance, like the Heat did after losing the 2011 Finals. 

"But we just didn't do it," Payton said. "They stayed together, they've won two championships; if they win another one or go to the Finals, that's four years in a row. I can't say nothing but that's success."

Steve Smith, a former All-Star and 2003 NBA champion, would use another word for a third straight title, should that occur.

"You start talking dynasty," the NBA TV analyst said. "And then you start rolling with it. Then we go back to when they put it all together, 'Not one. Not two. Not three.' And then now, you start saying, you know what..."

Smith smiled.

"Cause you just need tweaks now," Smith said. "You're going to have a letdown one of these years...and yes, you look at some guys health-wise, you look at D-Wade. But you're just talking about tweaking with other guys. And (Michael) Beasley has the capability of being a No. 2 guy, we forget, he was drafted high, now. If they had to, they could slap other guys at No. 3, No. 4. It's not bad."

Like the others interviewed, Smith disputed any notion that the championships are somehow worth less because three stars teamed up in free agency.

"You can't just throw together chemistry," Smith said. "And also, what I would say, this just wasn't a point guard who went out and got a wing, and then went out and got a big. Sometimes it's easier when you can match up a shooter with a guy who dominates the basketball, or a big. But you're talking about two guys who play similar."

Both Wade and James, as Smith noted, were accustomed to playing with the ball.

"Plus, Dwyane had already won a championship, it's Dwyane Wade's city, and you've got to try to fit in," Smith said. "It's hard." 

So is making comparisons between teams in different NBA eras.

Ron Harper won three straight championships with the Bulls (1996, 1997, 1998) and then two as a teammate of Fox, Bryant and O'Neal (2000, 2001), retiring before taking a run at a third ring with the Lakers.

He concedes that if the Heat "win three championships, well, that would be a great thing," and "they would rank up there with the great teams." And he wouldn't be stunned if the Heat do, because they know, like his title teams, that "they don't pass out championships early in the year. So I'm sure in May and June, they will turn it up." 

Still, he stops short of putting the Heat ahead of those Lakers.

For one very big reason.

"Who can guard Shaq?" Harper said, smiling. "Tell me. Who can guard Shaq? Tell me who's gonna guard Shaq out there? And one thing we're gonna do, we're gonna throw it to the big fella. The big fella gonna get his. We're gonna keep throwing it to the big fella until they stop him. If they don't stop him, he's gonna get it every time. Shaq is a dominant force on any team that he's on."

That may be so, and this Heat group has nothing like him.

But they do have attributes that Harper's former teammate, Fox, admires, even envies. He has found himself rooting for the Heat during this recent run, because "I root for excellence...and they carry themselves as champions."

He finds the Heat to be confident but not arrogant. 

"And then when I watch them as a group of guys together, they have the one thing I wish we would have had in our run to success," Fox said. "They really seem to be enjoying each other, and enjoying the journey.

"We were so hellbent on winning. What drove us was the fear of not being on top. And what drove us was the internal competitive energy we had within our own community, and our own team. That's what drove us to be great. Keeping each other on edge."

In the Heat, he sees more joy.

"It's not made up, they root for each other, it's genuine, and it's really a beautiful thing for young fans to see," Fox said. "It shows other teams, young teams, what it can look like, what it should look like."

Does this look like an all-time great team?

We'll see. 

First it needs to count to three. 


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