A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Great expectations: Of Wilt Chamberlain’s career and the importance of this Miami Heat playoff run to NBA history

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Miami Heat

Miami Heat (Photo credit: Keith Allison)

Two of the most important years in NBA history are 1967-1968 and 1968-1969, where Bill Russell’s Celtics won their 10th and 11th titles in his 13 year career. Most impressive though is who they beat. In 1966-1967 Wilt Chamberlain had his finest regular season and playoffs, as the Sixers went 68-13 and then ripped through the playoffs, including beating the 8 time defending champion Celtics in 5 Gs. After toiling on Warriors teams with lacked the supporting talent of Russell’s Celtics for the first half of the 60s, the trade to the Sixers in ’65 quickly evened the odds. By 66-67 the Sixers had more talent than the Celtics with a rogue gallery of stars like Hal Greer, Chet Walker, Billy Cunningham, Luke Jackson surrounding Wilt. Wilt also scaled his scoring back to increase his passing, defense and efficiency to finally use his talents to full value. Although the Celtics by the late 60s had a very talented team themselves with the aging Russell and Sam Jones, plus John Havlicek, Bailey Howell among stars, the shellacking in 67 to Philadelphia’s super-team was thought to be the end for their dynasty by most reports. Now that he had the right support, coach in Alex Hannum and know how to play the right way, it was Wilt’s league to own. Which is why after a 62 W season and a 3rd straight MVP by Wilt in 67-68, the loss to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Final blowing a 3-1 lead, is particularly devastating to his legacy. The opportunity came to own the league and the Sixers didn’t put their foot on the gas. The next year Wilt is traded to the Lakers to join Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, culminating in a Game 7 loss in the Finals to the Celtics in Russell’s last game, arguably the most important game in NBA history – and losing it meaning one more black mark in Wilt’s career, albeit he went on a title with the Lakers in ’72. Wilt’s individual greatness is so immense, that even 2 titles in his career is looked at as a slightly disappointment. Largely it comes down to 68 and 69 and what he couldn’t achieve even when handed the best supporting talent. He didn’t max out in career success.

The Miami Heat and Lebron James’ career are at their apexes. Heading for 65 or 66 wins on the backs of a 27 game winning streak, with Lebron’s 4th MVP on the way and arguably his greatest regular season. The Heat are stacked. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are still playing at a star/superstar level and the IQ and shooting of players like Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, Ray Allen make them an impossible guard. The Heat have been a masterpiece of spacing and ball movement around their stars the second half of this season. If the Heat go on to win the title this year, it will be a season of legend – the wins, the streak, Lebron’s individual greatness. Together with the 2010-2011 title nobody will be able to doubt the Miami Heat big 3 experiment.

Yet when greatness is on the table to take, as the 68 Sixers proved, leaving it on the table leaves as big a historical mark. The Heat would have lost the title twice in 3 seasons, if not in the Finals those 2 years. Lebron would have gone into the playoffs with the title favorite in 09, 10, 11, 12 and 13 and only gone 1-4. As unfair as it is, since no champion should be disrespected – the expectations for Lebron are so great, that losing again would bring back the demons and criticisms that he carried after the 09, 10 and 11 losses.

Because of the season the Heat have had, the streak, Lebron’s amazing year, how in sync this supporting cast is – it’s championship or bust for the Heat and if they bust, it will be a historic moment that haunts the face of this core for the rest of history. Make no mistake about it, even though the Heat got their title in 2011, the pressure only slightly less this year. The narrative and history can turn on the Heat in the wrong direction. The stunning season Lebron and the Heat have had is a double edged sword, because it creates among the greatest of expectations. The moment is the Heat’s to seize and if they don’t, history won’t take it easy on them.

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Written by jr.

April 16, 2013 at 2:00 pm

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