Last year's record? 47-35, lost in the first round to Boston.
Significant departures? Everyone. Honestly, they lost just about their entire roster save for Mario Chalmers(notes), and re-signed Joel Anthony(notes), James Jones(notes), Jamaal Magliore, Carlos Arroyo(notes), and Joel Anthony.
Projected record, as predicted three months ago in time to publish in Yahoo! Sports' NBA Preview Magazine? 70-12
Why I think that sounds about right?
Because I don't think anyone has watched as much game film of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls as I have. I mean that. I have nearly every game taped, and I've just watched them endlessly in the years since that run. Who wouldn't?
That team went 72-10, setting a record for victories in an NBA season. It lost two games by a single point, they were beaten by one expansion team, nearly toppled by another expansion team, and lost a couple of games in the final minute. And I think the Miami Heat can come close to replicating Chicago's run. I honestly do.
I don't like the Heat any more than you do. I find their preening distasteful, and am not looking forward to the league's next great basketball dynasty taking place in a city that only seems to come out to root for the championship contenders. I think their PA guy might be the worst in the biz, and ... well, I think you get the point.
But I'm not going to let that change the way I try to accurately gauge this team. Nor is it going to change the way I remember those 1996 Bulls.
The team that didn't have Dennis Rodman for the first month of the season, due to a calf strain, and for a spell in early spring after a suspension. A team that saw Scottie Pippen work on an MVP level for the first half of the season, and then limp around with a bad back and bum ankle for the second half of the season. A year that saw Toni Kukoc struggle with a back injury late, Luc Longley struggle with confidence all season long, and Michael Jordan still struggling to get his NBA legs back.
Despite all that, they won 72 games. They had so many chances, so many reasons, to lose a few more, and they didn't.
The Heat are entering this season with those reasons. Dwyane Wade(notes) is hurting. LeBron James is hurting. Mike Miller will miss two months. Joel Anthony should probably be struggling with his confidence. Things could go wrong. But they could also work their way toward 70 wins. They might, as those Bulls did, have the two best players in the NBA. I know you fawn over Kobe, and that the media fawns over Kevin Durant(notes), but in terms of pure production -- in terms of putting points on the board in whatever fashion and stopping the other team from putting points on the same board -- LeBron and Wade are a cut above.
When I think of the 1996 Bulls, I think of a struggle. I think of Jordan and Pippen and Ron Harper really gutting through the finals against Seattle. I think of those February and March road games, where it seemed like it was a floor-bound Michael just having to take teams down by himself. When I think of the 1996-97 team, the one that won 69 games? I think of a beautiful basketball team, healthy and working off of muscle memory. My memory of 1996? A few more wins, sure, but a struggle throughout. Despite that point differential.
Miami will have the same struggles this year, and it won't be pretty basketball most nights out. But I think they can pull 70 off. I really do.
Why I think I might be terribly, terribly wrong?
Phil Jackson, and the triangle offense.
Phil was, and possibly still is, the best in the game. And the offense that he employed back in 1995-96, with its principal architect in Tex Winter sitting beside him, made it so those Bulls were greater than the sum of their parts.
This isn't to knock Erik Spoelstra, but I don't know if he can make this Heat team greater than the sum of their parts. I think it's one + two + three = six, with this team. Jackson gave you eight.
John Hollinger detailed as much Thursday night. The Heat are going with a screen-and-roll attack. Basic, simplistic offense that involves two players and asks the other three just to kind of be ready, rather than always keeping them involved in a play as it unfolds. Phil Jackson's plays don't have endings. Nobody knows where the ball is going; the only thing they know is that the ball is always going.
Erik Spoelstra? His plays have options. A means to an end. And at some point, even the greatest teams can have their options taken away.
Beyond that, injuries can hit. Dwyane Wade has missed an average of 14 games a year over his seven-year career, and he's played just three minutes of this preseason. Mike Miller is out for a while, and any number of maladies to other parts can get in the way.
But the main reason I think the Heat might not get to 70 wins? I don't think they'll run a system that makes their collective any more dangerous than the way it is already dangerous on paper. This might not stop them from grabbing a ring this June, but it could stop them from doing some legendary stuff along the way.
Step up or step off
Get handed the keys to an odds-on championship favorite and still find yourself in a no-win situation. The universe has a sense of humor, don't it, coach Spoelstra?
Win 60-plus, invoke Moses with a fo-fo-fo-fo and breeze to a title? Well, of course you did -- you had at your disposal two of the four most unstoppable basketball forces alive, plus this one other dude who's kind of corny and annoying, but also mad good, all in their respective primes.
Why'd Arison even let you draw a paycheck? It was obvious from Jump Street that this team was going to coach itself.
A sea bass could've done your job. And not even a trained one. One who has yet to be trained.
And if you don't scorch the Earth at every turn en route to an O'Brien? Well, clearly, it was your fault. Something you did or didn't do, a button you did or didn't push, a gauntlet you did or didn't lay down at precisely the appropriate moment. How could you screw up something this easy? All you had to do was just let your players play/coach them more intensely than ever/do both at once! You simply needed to assert yourself as the sole authority figure while allowing your leaders the leeway to lead as they saw fit and shaking that season-long shiver you were getting from Mr. Riley's persistent breath on your neck. And you couldn't even manage that. "Nice" "job," "Coach." Way to waste the single greatest collection of talent in the history of the world, ever.
I don't envy your position, coach. But I'm eager to see how you respond to being in it, because I think we'll learn an awful lot more about you these next eight months than we have in the last two years. For better or for worse.
Five things about the Heat that furrow Ol' Man Howard's brow
1. I'll tell you what, I didn't care for that "Team John Dillinger" business one bit. Crimes are crimes, that man tied this nation's police forces up in knots, and "Manhattan Melodrama" was overrated. Plus, I much prefer the ring of "Team Melvin Purvis." Now there's a name you can set your wristwatch to.
2. No need for that kind of trashmouth, Eddie. Grown folk handle things differently. You want your son talking like that? Don't think so. Bad enough you filled his head with that TV cartoon program foolishness. Eight-year-olds should be reading A.A. Milne quietly and sitting up straight, not on that idiot box.
3. Quit hoggin' all the syllables, Tall Man. "Zydrunas Ilgauskas." Too many. Ought to be ashamed. And we're in a recession. What's that? Well, I don't care what the National Bureau of Economic Research says, or if name syllables and available money are not necessarily related. I know what I know.
4. For the last time, Carlos, you better turn down that damned racket.
5. I'm just going to go ahead and pretend that's not Dan Marino's number hanging in the rafters. I'm just going to go ahead and do that.
Spare. Stark. Resonant without being overpowering. A mirror of sorts, challenging you to not only face the feelings stirred in your core by a picture of an exasperated Jamaal Magloire, but also to plumb their depths and process the whirlwind they reap. This desktop wallpaper truly captures Jamaal Magloire's internal struggle (to continue reminding people that he once made an All-Star team and was once named Eastern Conference Player of the Month). Bravo.
- Mike Miller