In 1984, the Chicago Bulls drafted a talented young guard named Michael Jordan from the University of North Carolina. It quickly became clear that Jordan was a superb talent, as he immediately dominated the league and, in his third season, averaged an amazing 37.1 points per game.
However, Jordan was never able to achieve much in the playoffs during these seasons. It wasn’t until 1987, when the Bulls acquired Scottie Pippen, that Jordan and the Bulls even made it past the first round.
In 1991, the Bulls finally started winning championships. The keys to their victory were the core of Jordan, the mega-athletic scoring guard, and Pippen, the amazingly versatile sidekick, as well as solid role players and shut-down team defense, starting with Pippen, one of the best wing defenders in history, and Jordan, who was himself an elite perimeter defender.
The 2011 Miami Heat seem to follow this design perfectly.
Here is a breakdown of the similarities and differences between Jordan’s Bulls and the current Miami Heat.
It’s becoming clearer and clearer that the leader of the Miami Heat is Dwyane Wade, a shooting guard with a style that is astonishingly similar to Jordan’s. Back in 2006, Wade led a Heat team built around him and Shaquille O’Neal to the NBA Finals. Wade willed the Heat to victory in six games despite starting with a two-game deficit, averaging a very Jordan-esque 35 points per game in the series.
Wade, like Jordan, is a very athletic “slasher,” meaning that many of his points come from driving to the rim and finishing, or from getting to the line. Other aspects of his game also mimic Jordan’s: he is a strong rebounder for a guard, as well as an excellent passer, yet he is only mediocre from three-point range. Furthermore, Wade is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, although not as versatile defensively as LeBron.
It’s clear that Wade is nowhere near Michael Jordan, and he will probably never achieve the same level of success or notoriety as His Airness. Still, Wade is probably a better fit stylistically to Jordan even than Kobe Bryant (that isn’t an insult to Kobe or a complement to Wade, it’s just a fact).
While it is true that Wade lacks at least a little of the competitive edge that Jordan had so fiercely, he is still a very talented player, a successful team leader, and a competitor.
Besides, whatever talent gap exists between Jordan and Wade is more than made up for by the next comparison.
In this scenario, Wade’s “sidekick,” his “Scottie Pippen,” is one of the most talented basketball players of all time, LeBron James. Initially, this is surprising; LeBron James, THE LeBron James, the Chosen One, the King – HE’S the Scottie Pippen of this team?
The comparison is a better fit than you might think. LeBron’s detractors have been calling him “Scottie Pippen” disparagingly all year, because he decided to come to Miami and join Wade’s Heat. On the other hand, I’m calling James “Scottie Pippen” because, although James is substantially more talented, their skillsets are nevertheless quite similar. (Honestly, this is not meant as an insult at all.)
Pippen’s first role on the Bulls was as a wing defender; he could lock down anyone from the 1 to the 4 – so can James. Pippen’s other roles as a part of the Bulls included ball-handling (like James), distribution (like James), and a little scoring; he often played point-forward in the Bulls’ scheme.
Currently, James is trying to be a lead scorer on the Heat: he led them in scoring in the regular season and the Heat ran a lot of isolation plays through him early on. This led to some offensive challenges, since neither Wade nor James had established himself as the undisputed leader.
Even late in the Playoffs, it wasn’t fully clear who the leader was. Indeed, throughout the first three rounds of competition, James played exceptionally well, generally outperforming Wade offensively and defensively. In the Finals, however, Wade took over, averaging 26.5 PPG to James’s 17.8.
So what is LeBron’s role on the Heat? Should he take a backseat to Wade, limit his shot selection and just operate as a facilitator for the offense? Well, maybe a little, but frankly, he’s just too talented to limit himself to such a degree.
Still, if I were Erik Spoelstra, I would tell James to look for other players’ shots first. Yes, if he gets an opportunity, he should drive to the basket and put it in, and I would still fully expect well above 20 PPG from him, but if he accepted his role as the second option wholeheartedly and focused on defense, passing, and creating shots for other players, I think he could truly help this team.
Now, let’s examine other aspects of the Miami Heat that are similar to or different from Jordan’s Bulls. The Bulls were built around approximately three facets, depending on which year you examine: The Jordan-Pippen-(Rodman) core, the shut-down defense, and the three-point shooters (especially in the later years).
We’ve already touched on the core and the defense, so let’s take a look at the shooters. Jordan and his Bulls were lucky enough to play for a few years with a shortened three-point line, which meant that in the 1996 and ’97 championship seasons, the Bulls got to play with a uniform 22-foot line.
This meant that in the 1996 season, the Bulls included five qualified shooters above 37% from three-point range, four of whom were above 40% and one of whom, the amazing Steve Kerr, shot an astounding 52%. In the 1997 season, Kerr shot 46%, and five other Bulls shot above 33% from long range.
The 2011 Miami Heat had similarly excellent shooters. Mike Bibby, Carlos Arroyo, and James Jones all shot well above 40% from long, and five other players also hit more than 30% of their shots from distance.
It’s clear that the fundamental structures of the teams are eerily similar: Scoring guard + Facilitator wing + Defense + Role Players. Now, let’s examine the most obvious anomaly.
We can see now that the fundamental structures of the Bulls and the Heat are very similar. However, the Heat’s core also includes the power forward Chris Bosh. How does he fit into the comparison between the Bulls and the Heat?
First, let’s take a look at what Bosh does for the Heat. In the regular season, he averaged 18.7 PPG, along with 8.3 RPG (rebounds per game) and 1.9 APG (assists per game). His playoff numbers were almost identical (18.6/8.5/1.1).
The closest comparison statistically is Scottie Pippen in the early ‘90s, but clearly Bosh fulfills a role very different from the one Pippen had for the Bulls.
The Chicago Bulls had two primary power forwards during the 1990s. In the late ‘90s, they had the incomparable Dennis Rodman, who was one of the most accomplished rebounders in NBA history, as well as a lock-down defender, but who contributed very little offensively. He is the polar opposite of Bosh as a player, so we can’t really compare them.
Perhaps a better comparison is to Horace Grant. Grant was a decent scorer, putting up few points but shooting very efficiently. He was also a reasonable rebounder, approximately as effective as Bosh is. Defensively, he was more of a presence than Bosh is now, but Bosh makes up for that deficiency with his superior offensive production.
The Chicago Bulls of the 1990s were one of the most dominant teams of all time. They achieved this through a combination of talent, willpower, defense, teamwork, and luck.
Now, the Miami Heat may be moving along that same path.
They seem to have all the pieces that made Jordan’s Bulls so successful. Athletic scoring guard? Check. Versatile wingman? Check. Outstanding defense? Check. Great shooters? Check.
So what’s holding them back? For one thing, they’ve only been playing together for one year. Jordan and Pippen played together for four full years until they even reached the Finals, yet Wade and LeBron brought the Heat there their first year.
And it’s not as though the competition is lacking; sure, Jordan competed with Bird’s Celtics and the Bad Boy Pistons, but Wade and LeBron are going up against Derrick Rose’s Bulls and the Big Three’s Celtics.
So let’s give the Heat a few years to figure out how to win together as a team – although I doubt very much that it will take them that long.