While we as fans tend to use today's talent as a way of giving shorter shrift to the stars of yesteryear, the great bygone teams remain somehow sacrosanct.
The 1920s New York Yankees, the Boston Celtics and Green Bay Packers of the 1960s, the 1970s Montreal Canadiens: These, we believe, are dynasties immune to comparison.
Though this statement might incite hate, these Miami Heat belong in that conversation—win or lose.
Four consecutive appearances in the NBA Finals? You have to go back almost 30 years, to the mid-1980s Celtics, to pull a modern parallel.
How many crooked looks would you get for proclaiming those teams bona fide dynasties?
Not surprisingly, people have much stronger opinions about what a dynasty isn't than what it is, or even might be.
Way back in 2002, Bill Simmons wrote this in a rather scathing ESPN column calling into question whether the Lakers truly deserved the dynasty moniker:
But calling them a "dynasty"? Isn't it a little early? Dynasties unfold at their own pace; it usually takes longer than three years, and you can't fully appreciate them until they're just wrapping up. Russell and the Celts, Keith and Mick, Joe D and the Yanks, Carson and McMahon, Dryden and the Habs, Fuji and Saito, Brandon and Dylan ... now those were dynasties. Every dynasty needs one moment when the wheels look like they're about to come off, yet the team in question rallies to reclaim their throne -- like Bill Russell's aging Celtics getting squashed by Wilt Chamberlain and the Sixers in 1967, then regrouping and capturing titles in '68 and '69. Until you've been truly tested, you can't be considered a dynasty. And usually, that test comes from within.
Is Simmons' definition too stingy? This writer certainly thinks so. Which makes it all the more important, with regards to the Heat, that we define our terms.
So what, exactly, constitutes a dynasty?
A typical baseline involves winning three titles in a relatively short span of time. A three-peat, meanwhile, tends—in the eyes of most observers, anyway—to qualify, regardless of sport or time period.
But can't one also make the argument for the 1990s Dallas Cowboys and Miami's Finals counterpart, the San Antonio Spurs, who won three in four years and four in seven, respectively?
The docket of potential pro sports dynasties is longer than you might think. The Heat, however, would be joining some comparatively small company within the NBA ranks.
|Minneapolis Lakers||1949-54||5 (1949, 1952-54)|
|Boston Celtics||1957-69||11 (1957, 1957-66, 1968-69)|
|Los Angeles Lakers||1980-88||5 (1980, 1982, 1985, 1987-88)|
|Chicago Bulls||1991-1998||6 (1991-93, 1996-98)|
|Los Angeles Lakers||2000-2002||3 (2000-02)|
|San Antonio Spurs||1999-2007||4 (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007)|
Miami, then, has given us a new criteria by which to measure future NBA dynasties (and an unprecedented one at that): Four straight trips to the Finals, resulting in at least a pair of championship banners.
That the Heat have done so in a league whose talent pool has neither been deeper nor more top-heavy, it's a fantastic feat indeed.
Not that there aren't plenty of polite detractors. Writing at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Dave Hyde codifies perhaps the most logical argument for why these Heat have a ways to go before they can share the term of their prolific predecessors:
But let's take the worst-case scenario here: The Heat lose the Finals. They never get back to this moment again. So they win two titles and win four conference championships. Is that a dynasty? They get remembered as a dominant team. But a dynasty? Riley had the most stringent definition of a dynasty the night he signed LeBron four years ago - that only Russell's Celtics, who won 11 titles, were one. In this salary-cap era, that improbable number is near impossible. Michael Jordan's Chicago era with six titles qualifies, too. I think the Heat need a title here, or more coming in their run, to be termed a dynasty. They're at the border. They're just not across it yet.
It would certainly be interesting to gauge Pat Riley’s perspective now, his team on the verge of a fourth banner in less than a decade. Reading this, it’s impossible not to imagine Miami’s longtime president using those halcyon Celtics as a way to reduce—rather than ratchet up—the pressure on his then-newly minted Big Three.
Indeed, even a full four years on from The Decision, LeBron James—four-time league MVP, undisputed master of his hardwood realm—is still paying the public relations price.
Not as it concerns James himself, of course. We’ve long since swallowed our collective pride on that front. Poll NBA fans on whom they believe to be the planet’s preeminent player, and LeBron would walk away with a despot’s majority.
As for our most sacred superlatives—the Greatest Player of All Time, the Best Team of Its Era—we’ll take these labels to our graves if we have to.
Sooner or later, though, the facts of the matter must matter most. Beginning with this: With the NBA more flush with top-to-bottom talent than it's ever been, making it this far with this kind of consistency deserves dynasty designation.
It might take time for that notion to scale the court of public opinion. In that sense, the Heat of James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade are no different than many an undisputed dynasty past—including the 1980s Celtics, who might yet receive resistance on this front.
But rest assured, that acknowledgment will come. Blame it on our collective instinct, made all the more mendacious in the age of six-second attention spans, to not appreciate greatness until it’s long left the building.
And these Heat—hated though they’ll always be by some—are nothing if not great.
Watch the way the ball bandies about the floor, and you’ll see flashes of those bygone Boston teams.
Notice the notches they reach on defense down the stretch, so similar to Phil Jackson’s Bulls.
Keep your eye on James as he makes the circus shot, the perfect pass, the impossible play in the face of all contrary physics.
“Sure,” you might say. “But being great does not a dynasty make.”
Fair enough. But if the baseline has moved beyond four straight appearances on the sport’s biggest stage, what does that say about our definition of dynasty? Of greatness in general, even?
In the immediate wake of Miami’s second title one year ago, the New York Daily News’ Mitch Lawrence prompted Riley, in a somewhat roundabout way, to revisit how he sees the Heat ultimately stacking up.
“We believe that we built a team that’s gonna be around for a while, and so our goal is to come back,’’ Riley said. “Our goal was to build a contender and build a winner. And then one day, we might become something special.’’
What that something is, Riley didn’t say. Still, one can’t help but notice the slightly softened language—an indication, perhaps, that Riley believes his team has moved beyond needing him to temper their expectations. That he’s prepared to switch out “something special” for something a little more sacred.
Part of the appeal of sports lies in its conduciveness to discourse and debate. So fertile, in fact, that instances of genuine consensus—the best this, the greatest that—are exceedingly rare.
So deny the Heat dynasty status if you will. You certainly wouldn’t be alone.
But for as consistently stellar as they’ve been, through the trials of an evermore-loaded league and the tribulations of a television fallout, I’d levy this lone question: What, then, do you call them?
Because if your answer is simply “not a dynasty,” perhaps it’s high time we revisit our definitions.