Michael Jordan stays in the NBA shadows these days as owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, a franchise he is trying to build into a contender for his home state.
Monday night, Jordan’s star-less team got a look at the Heat, a team so rich in stars it has the NBA’s Milky Way of rosters. As the Bobcats claw to stay out of the Southeast Division basement this season, Miami will be favored to win nearly all its games.
But can the Heat beat the regular-season victory record that Jordan’s Bulls set during the 1995-96 season, when Chicago finished 72-10? Can LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and their supporting cast find the same relentless drive over five grinding months that fueled Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and their teammates? The season opener is a week away, and Miami is 3-3 in the preseason after losing 102-96 to Charlotte. Should 73 be a Heat goal?
“I remember that Bulls season. I was 10 years old and Jordan was my favorite player,” Heat guard Mario Chalmers said. “The record is something we could achieve. Our motivation comes from all the haters saying we can’t jell together.”
Mike Miller was more cautious.
“To only lose 10 games — it was hard enough to win 10 for me the last couple years,” said Miller, who came to the Heat from the wretched Washington Wizards, and before that played for the awful Minnesota Timberwolves.
James Jones gave the answer that would make coach Erik Spoelstra smile.
“Our goal is to win every game we play, to see improvement every week,” Jones said. “What I remember from that Bulls season is that when you heard Michael and Scottie talk, they said they were not taking any nights off. That consistency of effort was their blueprint for the greatest NBA season in history.”
The Heat’s best record was 61-21 in 1996-97, under the leadership of Tim Hardaway and Alonzo Mourning.
In the closest thing to a perfect season in NBA history, the Bulls ran out to a 10-1 record, then 23-2, then, after an 18-game winning streak, 41-3. They were 39-2 at home and won 33 road games.
The Heat has been playing without Wade for the past week, as he recovers from a hamstring injury and traveled to Chicago to testify against his ex-wife in a child custody hearing. The Heat struggled against Charlotte’s lanky forwards. After James left the game, Miami was outscored 39-16 in the fourth quarter. Spoelstra sees considerable work to be done on defense. It might be tough to jump out of the blocks given Wade’s absence from this brand new configuration of the Heat, plus an opener at Boston and a home opener against Orlando. But recall that Jordan returned to the Bulls (47-35 in 1995) after a 17-month retirement, forcing Pippen to readjust to a No. 2 role, while everyone had to make room for Rodman. Toni Kukoc became the sixth man.
The beauty of that Bulls team was watching it dominate with a crew of complementary players. Jordan was the demanding perfectionist, pushing and pulling his teammates along as he averaged 30.4 points per game. Pippen added 19.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.9 assists. Kukoc came off the bench to contribute 13.1 points. Ron Harper became a defensive pest. Steve Kerr shot 51 percent from three-point range. Luc Longley set picks. And Rodman, when he wasn’t head-butting referees, grabbed 14 rebounds per game.
Remarkably, Jordan, Rodman and Pippen all made the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team. The Bulls led the league in scoring and were third in defense. They lost just one game en route to the NBA Finals.
Does Miami have similar ingredients? Can James, Wade and Bosh find a special synchronicity? Can any team match the intensity of one led by Jordan?
Can the Big 3 plus a half dozen role players add up to 73? Getting the answer will be one of the delights of the season.