LeBron James said winning his first NBA championship was the hardest thing he'd ever done, then 12 months later he was put to the test even further, needing seven-game series to beat both the Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs to become a back-to-back champion. So it came as no surprise that James told SI's Lee Jenkins that 2012 was the toughest season yet. And if he wants to become part of the sixth team in NBA history to win three consecutive championships, he'll again face his stiffest competition yet.
For the first time in a long time, the Eastern Conference may be just as talented, perhaps more talented, at the top than the Western Conference. The Pacers, led by Paul George and Roy Hibbert, are only getting better; Derrick Rose returns to a Bulls team that managed to advance in the playoffs last year despite injuries to Luol Deng and Joakim Noah; Carmelo Anthony enters his prime for a Knicks team that could get hot from beyond the arc in any playoff series; and the Brooklyn Nets added a pair of future Hall of Famers in Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to go with an already solid core of Deron Williams, Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson.
As back-to-back champions, the Heat are still undoubtedly the favorites. James has put together a six-year stretch that -- yes, Michael Jordan fans -- may be the most dominant in NBA history. From 2007 to 2012, James has averaged 28.2 points, 7.7 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.7 steals and has shot 51.1 percent from the field. That also includes four MVPs, a Gold medal, the aforementioned championships and two Finals MVP awards.
But again, the path back to the Finals won't be an easy one. But if history is any indication, the Heat just as good a chance of becoming three-peat champions than another team does of knocking them off the top of the mountain.
Before Miami, 10 teams had won back-to-back championships. Of those, five won a third straight NBA title. Each back-to-back champ is listed below.
|Team||Championship years||Year 3 record||Playoff result|
|Minneapolis||1952, 1953||46-26||Won NBA Finals|
|Boston||1959, 1960||57-22||Won NBA Finals|
|LA Lakers||1987, 1988||57-25||Lost NBA Finals|
|Detroit||1989, 1990||50-32||Lost in East Finals|
|Chicago||1991, 1992||57-25||Won NBA Finals|
|Houston||1994, 1995||48-34||Lost in East Semis|
|Chicago||1996, 1997||62-20||Won NBA Finals|
|LA Lakers||2000, 2001||58-24||Won NBA Finals|
|LA Lakers||2009, 2010||57-25||Lost in West semis|
The ten teams combined for a 526-281 record in Year 3, a .652 win percentage. Since Minneapolis and Boston played 72- and 79-game schedules, respectively, that win percentage isn't directly related to an 82-game record. However, a .652 win percentage most closely relates to a 54-28 record (.658 win percentage). In their two championship seasons, the Heat went 46-20 (.696%) and 66-16 (80.4), so it's a good bet the Heat top the 54-win mark. The 1970 Celtics were a bit of an outlier, going 34-48 the year after Bill Russell retired as a player/coach. If we take out that season, the nine remaining teams produced a .678 win percentage, extrapolating closest to a 56-26 mark. That seems closer to what the Heat may do this season, though James' dominance could certainly help Miami hover around 60 wins.
And as it pertains to Chicago, the roster Miami's core most closely resembles right now is the 1998 Bulls team.
By season's end, James will be 29 years old, Wade will be 32 and Bosh will be 29 (a combined 90 years old). To compare, Scottie Pippen was 32 years old, Jordan was 34 and Toni Kukoc was 29 (95 years old).
It was Jordan's 12th full season, Kukoc was in his fifth season but, at 29 years old, was already a seasoned NBA veteran. And Pippen was in his 11th season, totaling 28 NBA seasons. For Miami, it will be each of the team's Big Three's 11th season, totaling 33 NBA seasons.
Then again, it was also the Bulls' second go-round as three-peat champions, while the Heat's trio has only two championships.
So which way do the Heat go in 2014? Wade has dealt with multiple knee injuries the last two seasons and barely made it to the finish line in last year's playoffs, while Bosh is a bit of a wildcard who makes the most of his opportunities based on how defenses play James and Wade. But the x-factor -- surprise, surprise -- is James, who incredibly may not have yet reached his peak. Three-peats are extremely difficult, yet at the same time teams that have already won two in a row were just as likely to win a third than they were not to.
An improved conference and Wade's health are two hurdles Miami will need to overcome, but they're the favorites for a reason. And history says it'll be a coin flip, though James will surely see it more difficult than that.