Is NBA's 3-Peat History Repeating with Miami Heat?

Kelly Scaletta@@KellyScalettaFeatured ColumnistJanuary 24, 2014

Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) reacts in the fourth period in an NBA basketball game against the Atlanta Hawks in Atlanta, Monday, Jan. 20, 2014.  Hawks won the game 121-114 (AP Photo/Todd Kirkland)
Todd Kirkland/Associated Press

The Miami Heat are perceived to be coasting through the regular season. For the two-time defending champions, the winter months are just something to pass through until they get to the postseason when the real games start.

It raises the question: Is this historically productive?

There is a sound logic behind coasting. As teams pile up trips to the finals, they’re accruing a massive number of minutes. In the Heat’s three previous trips to the postseason, they’ve played a total of 67 games. That’s almost the equivalent of a full extra season.

Amy Sweeney/Associated Press

Since the NBA/ABA merger, two teams, the 1982-85 Los Angeles Lakers and the 1984-87 Boston Celtics, have made it to the finals four consecutive seasons. Only the Lakers won in the last of those trips, and they won a total of just two titles during those four visits. 

The Boston Celtics dynasty from the Bill Russell era made it to the finals 10 consecutive years, from 1957 to 1966, but that was in a different time. There were fewer rounds to the postseason. There was no free agency. And there were only eight teams in the league for most of the span, with nine at its conclusion.

In other words, doing what the Heat are trying to do is not only tough but also unprecedented in the modern era. The long, grueling postseasons add up, so coasting becomes a tool to survive. Does it work?

Defining the Field

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Only three times in the modern era has a team three-peated: the Chicago Bulls in 1993 and again in 1998, and the Los Angeles Lakers in 2002. Analysis based on just those three instances is going to be meaningless because of the sample size.

However, lets broaden the scope to look at teams that entered the season having made the finals the two previous years. It opens up the field considerably—perhaps surprisingly so.

In all, 21 teams (counting this year’s Heat) have successfully defended a conference championship and returned with the same core the following year.

The logic remains the same regardless of whether a team won or lost in their two previous endeavors: It equates to a lot of extra wear and tear on the body. Let’s evaluate those teams and shine a light on what the Heat can learn, both positively and negatively.

Here are the teams that have taken a stab at getting to the finals three years in a row:

SeasonTeamWins Losses Percent
2013Miami Heat*661680.5%
2011Los Angeles Lakers572569.5%
2010Los Angeles Lakers572569.5%
2006Detroit Pistons641878.0%
2004New Jersey Nets473557.3%
2003Los Angeles Lakers503261.0%
2002Los Angeles Lakers582470.7%
1999Utah Jazz*612174.4%
1998Chicago Bulls622075.6%
1996Houston Rockets483458.5%
1993Chicago Bulls572569.5%
1991Detroit Pistons503261.0%
1990Detroit Pistons582470.7%
1989Los Angeles Lakers572569.5%
1987Boston Celtics592372.0%
1986Boston Celtics671581.7%
1985Los Angeles Lakers622075.6%
1984Los Angeles Lakers542865.9%
1980Seattle SuperSonics562668.3%
1980Washington Wizards394347.6%

For the sake of proportional consistency, strike-shortened seasons were adjusted to reflect 82-game schedules based on winning percentages. This is to avoid skewing averages. This applies throughout the article. 

As you can see, teams trying for their third (or fourth) straight finals have hardly been gangbusters historically, averaging only 56.5 wins per season.

If we narrow this field to look at the 11 teams that made it back to the finals in their third season, theres a slight improvement, with those teams averaging 59.7 wins. The teams that won it during their third trip averaged 60.9 wins.

Four of the eight teams that claimed their rings won 60 or more. The other four won 57 or 58.

Based on this, getting in that 60-win ballpark seems to be good enough. At 31-12, the Miami Heat are on pace to win 59. At least based on that criteria, they are sitting comfortably. 

Year-Over-Year Winning Percentages

As you can see, it’s not rare for teams to waddle through the season if they’ve made the finals the previous two years. Still, this as a standalone number is only slightly helpful. It tells us nothing about whether the team was better or worse than the previous season.

If teams are consistently winning fewer games, it would indicate that meandering through the season is historically productive, particularly if it results in postseason success.               

The 20 qualified teams averaged 2.2 fewer wins after their second (or third) finals trip. That’s an indication that the wear and tear is real.

Only eight of the 20 teams equaled or raised their win totals over the previous season, while the other 12 lost more games.

Improving big isnt necessarily good either. The team that had the biggest win increase, the 2006 Detroit Pistons, failed to make it to the finals. However, the team that had the biggest drop-off, the 1980 Washington Bullets, failed to even win a series.

That said, the team with the second-largest increase, the 2013 Heat, and the team with the second-biggest drop-off, the 1993 Bulls, won the championship. So you cant read too much into improvement or decline by itself. 

The following chart breaks down the 20 teams by how they performed relative to the previous year, and how far they went in the postseason:

Original chart

The numbers here don’t show anything decisive, though it is intriguing that 11 of the 15 teams that have made it to the finals three years in a row fell off at least a bit in their third season. Again, this is a positive sign if you’re a fan of the Miami Heat.

At the very least, a little drop-off is expected, and its a long way from prohibitive to three-peat hopes. 

It’s Not How You Start, It’s How You Finish

Its intriguing how small a difference the first half of the season makes. For example, 14 of the 20 teams won between 27 and 31 games over the first half of the year. Six of the eight teams that won the title and eight of the 11 that made it to the finals are included in this group.

The team with the fewest wins at the halfway point that made it to the finals was the 1984 Lakers, with 25. Two teams, the 1985 Lakers and 1990 Pistons, titled with just 27 wins. Last year, the Heat won with 28 at midseason. This year, they had 29.

And things get interesting when you look at the second half of the year.

If you want the nutshell version of the following chart, blue and orange are good, and gray is bad. The second half is far more meaningful than the first: 

Original chart

Of the 11 teams to return to the finals, only the 2010 Lakers did not equal or improve on their first-half performance. 

By contrast, eight of the nine teams that were worse in the second half of the season failed to reach the finals. Only the 2003 Lakers improved on their first-half performance while failing to make the finals.

This makes intuitive sense. Teams pace themselves through the first half of the season, collecting enough wins to stay in contention. Then, during the second half of the year, they gear up and clamp down in preparation for the postseason.

Additionally, the importance of seeding for teams attempting their third trip to the promised land still has value. Of the 20 teams that have had their playoff runs, 10 were the No. 1 seed. Nine of those made it to the finals.

Furthermore, all four of the top-seeded teams which also had home-court advantage in the NBA Finals won it all.

For the Miami Heat, the future begins now. How they finish off the season will have far more relevance than what has transpired to date.

Carrying the Load

When teams are making repeated runs deep into the playoffs, they undergo a degree of attrition. But the MVP of each team bears the brunt of that.

For a player like LeBron James, who does so much for the Heat on both sides of the ball, the weight can be felt after four years, even on his cyborgian shoulders.

There has been some concern that James, feeling that load, could buckle under it during the postseason. What does history tell us about this?

Here are the MVPs of their respective teams (as determined by where they finished in MVP voting), their Player Efficiency Rating (PER), their PER for the previous season, the corresponding improvement or decline and how far they went in the playoffs:

MVP Player Efficiency Difference, Year to Year
SeasonTeamMVPSeries WonMVP PERMVP PER PrevPER Dif
2014MIALeBron JamesNA28.931.6-2.7
2013MIA*LeBron James431.630.70.9
2011LALKobe Bryant123.921.92
2010LALKobe Bryant421.924.4-2.5
2006DETChauncey Billups223.419.04.4
2004NJNJason Kidd119.722.2-2.5
2003LALShaquille O'Neal129.529.7-0.2
2002LALShaquille O'Neal429.730.2-0.5
1999UTA*Karl Malone125.624.21.4
1998CHIMichael Jordan425.2 27.8 -2.6
1996HOUHakeem Olajuwon125.526.0-0.5
1993CHIMichael Jordan429.727.72
1991DETIsiah Thomas217.417.30.1
1990DETIsiah Thomas417.317.10.2
1989LALMagic Johnson326.923.13.8
1987BOSLarry Bird326.425.60.8
1986BOSLarry Bird425.626.5-0.9
1985LALMagic Johnson423.222.60.6
1984LALMagic Johnson322.623.0-0.4
1980SEAGus Williams220.616.34.3
1980WASElvin Hayes*017.219.1-1.9

No Washington Bullet received an MVP vote in 1980, but Hayes received the most in the previous year, so he was used here.

Overall, six of 11 MVPs made it back to the finals and improved their PER from one year to the next. And the other five took a slight step back. Only one team MVP, Jordan in 1993, improved his PER by more than one point and won the title.

The biggest drop was also Jordan in 1998 for the champion Bulls.

DUANE BURLESON/Associated Press

The biggest improvement by anyone chasing a third consecutive finals appearance was Chauncey Billups in 2006. His Pistons lost in the Eastern Conference Finals.

In fact, the three biggest improvements from an MVP candidate saw the contending team come up short in the postseason. So its certainly a good thing that James isn't doing even more. If he were, that would actually be a red flag. 

With that qualifier, it’s worth noting two more things: First, LeBron’s 2.7 free fall is the biggest from any of the 21 total teams. Second, his current PER of 28.9 is still the fifth best of the 21 players listed. His “fall-off” is more from Mount Everest to K2 than off a cliff.

He might not be playing quite as well as last year, but it's still enough to win the title, particularly if he’s just holding something in reserve for the postseason. Of the eight teams that won the title, five had their MVP improve his PER in the playoffs.

On the other end of the spectrum, seven of the nine teams that failed to reach the finals saw their MVP fall off in the postseason.

Most significantly in James’ case, four MVPs saw their regular-season PER fall but then picked it back up in the playoffs. Johnson did it in 1984, Bird in 1986, Jordan in 1998, O’Neal in 2003 and Bryant in 2010. Four of those teams made the finals, and three of those players won the finals MVP.

If James is keeping a little in reserve for the postseason, it’s not only nothing to worry about—it’s wise.

"I can’t just pinpoint what it is, it’s a little bit of everything," James said, via Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick. "And at some point we’ve got to figure it out."

Three Lessons

All of this suggests three lessons the Heat can learn from their predecessors.

First: A little coasting is fine, but it’s time to step on the gas pedal now. Inertia builds all the way up to the playoffs, and breaking it becomes more difficult the closer a team gets.

Second: Seeding isn’t crucial, but it sure does help. The Indiana Pacers are holding a 3.5-game lead, and it’s not impossible to catch them. The Heat may not “need” home-court advantage to win, but history suggests it helps.

Third: While it’s understandable that the priority has been keeping Dwyane Wade around for the playoffs, it might not be a bad idea to spell James every now and then, perhaps in one of those games where Wade is playing.

Certainly, with the perspective of history in view, there’s no reason to think the Heat can’t win a title again.

In fact, it seems like they’re handling this campaign the way a team seeking its third title in a row and fourth straight finals trip should be.

All data for this article was collected from Basketball-Reference.com.

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