HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — One team in the history of the NBA can claim 70 wins in a single season. One.
The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. A perfect storm of personnel, circumstance, timing and luck produced the league’s greatest season ever: 72 wins and 10 losses followed with a championship. It was Michael Jordan in his full return from baseball out to reconquer basketball. The preposterous Dennis Rodman propped up the big top and Phil Jackson pulled the strings as only the Zen Master can.
Can 70 happen again? Could another perfect storm be brewing 18 years later for another team from the Midwest? The hot-starting Indiana Pacers are young, athletic, talented, confident, well-coached and united. They might not have M.J., but they do play in the egregious Eastern Conference.
One member of the 72-win Bulls says forget about it.
“It’s never going to happen again,” said longtime NBA sharpshooter Steve Kerr, now a TNT analyst.
Kerr quickly made clear that his adamancy is not rooted in some 1972 Miami Dolphins-style pop-the-champagne bravado that annually celebrates the continuance of a legacy upon the present failures of others.
“It’s not that,” Kerr said. “It’s virtually impossible to win 70. I think everything had to come perfectly together for that Bulls team. But mainly it’s Michael Jordan, on a great team already, winning 10 games on his own during that season that he wouldn’t let us lose. It’s a feat that is so difficult because you have to factor in everything: injuries, fatigue, luck — and I just don’t see it ever happening again.”
It almost did the very next season. The Bulls were 69-11 with two games to go. They lost 102-92 at Miami, and then 103-101 in the finale at home against New York. Jordan scored 33 points in 39 minutes. Four other Bulls starters scored 37.
A handful of other teams have come close. But near-misses only demonstrate the near-impossibility of winning better than 85 percent of the time during an 82-game schedule spanning five-and-a-half months. The 1971-72 Lakers won 33 games in a row, yet topped out at 69 wins. The 66-67 Sixers and 72-73 Lakers each won 68. Four teams have won 67 (85-86 Celtics, 91-92 Bulls, 99-00 Lakers, 06-07 Mavericks), four have won 66 (70-71 Bucks, 07-08 Celtics, 08-09 Cavaliers, 12-13 Heat) and three more have won 65 (82-83 Sixers, 86-87 Lakers, 08-09 Lakers).
The Pacers have never won more than 61. They’re currently 17-2 — the same record as the 72-win Bulls nearly a quarter through the season — and with a plus-10.2 differential, Indiana is picking apart most opponents. Like those Bulls, the Pacers rank No. 1 in defensive rating (although unlike those Bulls’ No. 1 offensive rating, Indiana is smack in the middle, 15th). Paul George is playing phenomenally. Seven-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert takes patrolling the paint as personally as anybody. David West is a leadership rock. They are deep. They are team-oriented. And after taking the Heat to seven games in last season’s East finals, they’ve assumed the steely-eyed glare and fierce facade of a team on a mission.
High level of concentration
The 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks did, too. That team won 67 games and were 61-11 with 10 games to go. They were furious (if not humiliated) after blowing a 2-0 lead and losing to the Heat in six games in the 2006 Finals. A summer hangover bled into an 0-4 start. Then Dallas and Dirk Nowitzki, in his lone MVP season, roasted the rest of the league with win streaks of 12, 13 and 17 games. With the No. 1 seed in hand, then-coach Avery Johnson eased off the gas and the Mavs finished up those last 10, 6-4.
“We were extremely focused,” said Devin Harris, a reserve point guard on that team. “We had a high level of concentration for long periods of time.”
Harris believes the Mavs win 70 that season had they snapped out of their post-Finals fog before the season started. Nowitzki, who saw these Pacers twice in the preseason, gives them at least a puncher’s chance.
“The Pacers have a great team. They’re tough, they’re long and they’ve got playmakers,” Nowitzki said. “Paul George took the next step to an absolute superstar level. They’ve got shooters, they’ve got inside presence with Hibbert, they’ve got shotmakers, so they’re a very, very good team.
“And,” Nowitzki reminded, “they play in the East. So maybe they can do it.”
Yes, the woebegone East, where only the Pacers and Heat are above .500, is a significant ingredient in a potential perfect storm. Indiana is 12-1 against its intraconference foes. The defeat, the Pacers’ first after a 9-0 start, came at Chicago before the Bulls lost Derrick Rose for the season.
The next five days should deliver strong signals whether 70 can be real or is simply a whimsical story line tossed into the breeze weeks before even Christmas arrives: The Pacers play the last two West champs, at San Antonio (15-3) on Saturday and at Oklahoma City (13-4) on Sunday; then return home Tuesday for the first of four regular-season meetings against the hated Heat (14-4).
After that the Pacers’ next 16 includes 13 against the East — 10 against sub-.500 clubs, two at .500 and a big one at Miami (Dec. 18); plus three against the West with Houston (Dec. 20) being the only one above .500.
“Is it possible?” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle asked rhetorically of winning 70. “You would have to take advantage of a year like this year; the East so far hasn’t been strong. So it would have to be a team coming out of the East.”
As sensationally as the Blazers — who beat Indiana in a tremendous game on Monday — Spurs and Thunder have started, seemingly unanimous agreement suggests no West team could possibly navigate the conference’s mine field to 70. As for the two-time champs from the East, even with the greatest player in the game, LeBron James, Miami is coming off three consecutive seasons playing into June. Dwyane Wade‘s iffy knees likely means he’ll sporadically miss games throughout the season as he did Tuesday against Detroit. On those nights the Heat will become more vulnerable to losses such as the one the Pistons, a team with a sub-.500 record, handed them on their home floor.
Pie in the sky?
Carlisle was a reserve forward on the 67-win Celtics in 1985-86. He coached under Larry Bird at Indiana and later coached the Pacers for four seasons, leading them to the franchise’s lone 60-win campaign in 2003-04. Carlisle remains close to Bird, now the Pacers’ team president and the man responsible for the current roster.
“I would say the CBA now, the way it’s geared toward equality in terms of talent and money spent, based on that premise it would be very unlikely that somebody could win 70 games,” Carlisle said. “But since the East is down this year — I mean I don’t think Indiana will do it, it’s just hard.”
But, Carlisle continued …
“It’s not impossible. A must is you would have to have a great defensive team because you’re going to lose some games just on shot-making being up or down, and it’s going to be down some nights. But they are as consistent defensively the last two years as any team I’ve seen since Chicago back in the 90s when they really had it going.
“So it would have to be a great defensive team. Miami’s the same way. But you’re talking about pie-in-the-sky.”
The Heat won 27 consecutive games last season and finished with 66 wins. Miami’s loss to Detroit provided a shining example why so many things must go right to even have a shot at 70 by the time March, let alone April rolls around. A team with a target on its back every night, and on Tuesday night without Wade, Miami simply couldn’t dial up the energy to get what on paper was a game they “should” win. The Pacers wear a target now, too.
The 72-win Bulls did a remarkable job of this. They lost only four times to teams that finished the season .500 or below. Only once did they trip over a true doormat — a 109-108 late March loss to the 21-61 Toronto Raptors. The Pacers earned win No. 17 by narrowly escaping such a defeat Wednesday night at Utah, the West’s last-place team at 4-16.
The Pacers now must go 53-10 the rest of the way.
“That’s just it,” said Kerr, who predicts the Pacers will finish with around 60 wins. “In the NBA, everybody has talent, even the bad teams have talent. The Knicks have lost nine in a row, and the Pacers really should have lost to the Knicks [on Nov. 20]. If [Iman] Shumpert doesn’t foul George on that 3 (with 5.2 seconds left in regulation), the Knicks win that game.
“Over 82 games, there’s just so many nights like that where a team gets hot, there’s an injury, there’s foul trouble, whatever it is, there’s just too many variables, and why I don’t think it will ever happen again.”