Most coaches would beg for the problems of Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra.
With a 9.5 game lead for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern conference, the NBA’s second youngest head coach must decide if he wants to rest his stars for their title defense in the final 19 games, or push his team to surpass one of the NBA’s greatest and oldest records.
History shows most teams that have gone on as epic a run as the Heat, typically have a 50/50 chance of winning the NBA title.
After a tight victory over Philadelphia on Wednesday, Miami now share a three-way tie for the league’s third-best winning streak with the 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks, and the Washington Capitols, who won 20 straight over the course of the 1947-48 and 1948-49 seasons.
That Bucks team finished with a 66-16 record and won the NBA title. In a much shorter season, Washington, with a spry Red Auerbech coaching, went 28-20 and 38-22, respectively, and did not win the championship.
The longest all-time streak belongs to the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, loaded with Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Gail Goodrich, and Elgin Baylor, who won 33 consecutive games. That run started in the beginning of the season, and ended against a Bucks squad that featured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson, who the Lakers would eventually beat in the title series.
The Heat do have something in common with that 1971-72 Lakers team. Heat team president Pat Riley was in his fourth NBA season with the Lakers and played 67 games for the club.
The next best winning streak belongs to the 2007-2008 Houston Rockets, which were led by Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming. That club won 22-straight games, but finished third in their division, and lost in the first round of the playoffs.
The Heat are currently 49-14, with 19 games remaining. Of those 19, 11 are on the road, there are two back-to-backs, while eight games are against playoff teams. The most notable road opponents are the Chicago Bulls and the Boston Celtics. The defending champions will also meet the San Antonio Spurs, who are one of the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, on March 31.
For the rest of March, the Heat are on the road for eight of their 10 games, but have a stretch against lowly Detroit, Charlotte, and Orlando.
MVP favorite LeBron James took care of the first half of the streak with one of the best Februarys in NBA history. James averaged 29.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, 7.8 assists, shooting 64 percent, including 43 percent from beyond the arc.
Those numbers took a dip in March, with Dwyane Wade picking up where James left off. Wade ended February with 39 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists against Sacramento. He has continued to spark the Miami offense in March, shooting 56 percent for 23.4 points, five rebounds, and nearly six assists per contest.
Lost in the shuffle of Miami’s stars, has been the resurgent shooting of forward Shane Battier. The 11-year veteran broke out of an awful three-point shooting slump in January by hitting 53 percent in February, and has shot 45.5 percent in March.
Late-season addition Chris Andersen has contributed some huge minutes off the bench, and gives Miami another shot-blocking threat behind Joel Anthony. And starting point guard Mario Chalmers is playing more like his rookie season, with 10 points, three assists, and 42 percent from three in his last 10 games.
Next up is Milwaukee on Friday. Adding up the possible twist of fate with Riley, two superstars in their prime with Wade and James, and strong, invaluable role players, it is safe to say Spoelstra’s decision won’t be easy.
While the Heat are currently enjoying this winning streak, Spoelstra is aware that how the team plays in June is far more important.