The Miami Heat are four wins away from joining an extremely elite place in NBA history: three-peaters. This is something only five teams have done in the league's 67 years: the 1952-54 Minneapolis Lakers, the 1959-1966 Boston Celtics, the 1991-93 Chicago Bulls, the 1996-98 Chicago Bulls and the 2000-02 Los Angeles Lakers.
The Heat would have to beat the San Antonio Spurs for the second consecutive NBA Finals in order to join this club, which is certainly possible, though the Heat enter the series as the underdog. If the Heat can overcome the Spurs' incredible offense, regimented defense and home-court advantage, it will start really coming through on LeBron James' boastful answer of "not four, not five, not six ... " championships when he signed in Miami in 2010.
The last team to attempt a three-peat was the 2011 Lakers, who failed to reach the NBA Finals. LA lost to the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks, who defeated the Heat in those playoffs. Before that, the 2002 Lakers were the most recent team to attempt to come through on Pat Riley's trademarked three-peat. That 2002 Lakers team had an average age of 27.9, and while they had a very tough road getting through the Western Conference playoffs in those three years, their NBA Finals matchups were fairly easy.
That's the opposite of what this Heat team has had to deal with in their run. Miami is the oldest team in the league at an average age of 30.6, and has had tough NBA Finals opponents awaiting them after rather unobtrusive paths to the Finals in the majority of the past three seasons. The Heat have managed to wade through, pacing out the 82-game campaign this season and all of the wear-and-tear that comes with trying to win a championship for a third consecutive year.
The 2013-14 Heat posted the second-best offense in the NBA and the 11th best defense. The 2002 Lakers also had the second-best offense in the league, but managed to ride an active Kobe Bryant on the wing, good defensive role players and Shaquille O'Neal as a rim deterrent to the seventh best defense in the NBA.
Michael Jordan's second three-peat of his career came with the 1998 Bulls when they breezed through the first two rounds against the New Jersey Nets (3-0) and Charlotte Hornets (4-1) before having to battle it out against the Indiana Pacers in the conference finals in seven games. The parallels to this Heat team don't end there (and no, this isn't comparing LeBron and Jordan). The Bulls ended up facing the Utah Jazz for the second successive season in the Finals, much like the Heat are doing with the Spurs this year. That 1998 Bulls team had the ninth-best offense in the league and the third-best defense, while not relying on a shot-blocker at the rim.
In terms of efficiency, the 1993 Bulls were more similar to the Heat than the 1998 Bulls, simply because they had the second-best offense and the seventh-best defense. That Bulls team breezed through the first two rounds (seems to be a theme) before dealing with a tough defensive matchup in the New York Knicks. They dispatched the Knicks in six games before facing the Phoenix Suns in the Finals.
Miami this year had a similar path with their two easy series in the opening round and the conference semifinals. They swept the Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets) before taking care of the Nets in five games. Then they took care of a Pacers team they've owned in the playoffs for three consecutive years, just like the Bulls beat the Knicks in the playoffs for a third straight year in 1993. Chicago needed seven games to beat the Knicks on the way to its second consecutive title, much like the Heat did to the Pacers last season, although they happened in different rounds. The Knicks were the best defensive team in the NBA but struggled to score, much like the Paul George and Roy Hibbert led Pacers from this year.
When we dip way back into league history with the 1959-66 Celtics and the 1952-54 Lakers, it's hard to make any real comparisons. The Celtics played in a league with seven or eight other teams during their run of eight consecutive championships. When they won their third title in that run, they were the worst offensive team out of eight and had the best defense. When they won their eighth in a row, they were the second-worst offense in the league but still the best defense behind Bill Russell.
The 1954 Minneapolis Lakers were a middle of the road (fifth out of nine) offensive team that had the best defense. Considering they had George Mikan and nobody else did, the balance of how the league operated didn't resemble anything like today's NBA. But they still managed three straight titles like the Heat are trying to do.
Of course, before the Heat can join the three-peat club, they have to beat the Spurs. This Spurs team is arguably better than they were last year because of how good Manu Ginobili is this year compared to what he was last year. They posted the fifth-best offense and the fourth-best defense while managing the minutes of their top players perfectly, after posting the seventh-best offense and the third-best defense last season. Compare them to the Jazz team that lost back-to-back Finals to the Bulls, and you'll see they're in a better position. Those Jazz teams were one of the top two offenses in those seasons but dropped from the ninth-best defense to the 17th-best defense in 1998 when they lost to Jordan once again.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh will have to be as sharp as ever in this final round of the playoffs, if they want to embody what Riley trademarked back in 1988 before his Lakers' team failed to three-peat. That Lakers team fell in the Finals to a Detroit Pistons team they had defeated for their second successive title the year before.