It took a SportsCenter debate all of three minutes to devolve into madness, the sort that leaves the viewer exhausted, flustered and even a little embarrassed. Stephen A. Smith and Barry Melrose, two of ESPN's most recognizable talking heads -- one for his hair, the other for his voice -- were locked into a Great Sports Debate. With the Miami Heat steamrolling the competition for what is now a 15-game winning streak and the Chicago Blackhawks having just completed 45 percent of the NHL's regular season without a loss in regulation, the stage was set: which streak is more impressive? The segment basically writes itself.
It's the sort of made-for-TV debate that's the lifeblood of the 24-hour news cycle, the perfect kind of thing to talk about in between injury updates and the next scandal in college athletics. It's also the reason a good number of sports fans just tune out ESPN's signature brand of televised trolling.
"Which streak is more impressive?" shouldn't be much of a debate, because neither deserves to be diminished in any way. What the Blackhawks are doing is unthinkable: two games away from going half of the regular season with a few shootout losses as the only blemish, blitzing opponents with a fast and skilled three-line attack and a two-headed monster in net. On paper, it looks as if few teams have a chance at halting the 'Hawks.
The Heat are similarly impressive. After spending the better part of their first two seasons figuring out how to maximize the top-heavy talent on their roster, everything came together in last season's playoffs for Miami. The new season has largely been an extension of what we last saw. The Heat spread the floor with some of the game's best shooters, patiently waiting to bail out LeBron James and Dwyane Wade should they feel so inclined to take a possession off from dunking all over the other team. It's the perfect mix of spacing, shooting and playmaking, all helmed by James, the greatest living basketball player in the world in the prime of his career.
Here's another thing these two teams have in common: each has already won a championship with its current core, rendering regular season dominance a little more meaningless than it was the first time around. The Blackhawks and the Heat are both in full-on 'Championship-or-bust' mode. Read this section from 'Hawks blog The Committed Indian and just try not to think of a Miami fan saying the same thing:
Allow me to talk less about the game and more about the Hawks season thus far. Even with a 28 game point streak (ed. note: it dates back to last season), I can’t help but realize my enthusiasm is not nearly what it was a few years ago. At some point between the point Jonathan Toews was handed the Stanley Cup and now, it’s become much less about the journey and more about the destination. Wins in November or March don’t mean nearly as much as they used to. When the ultimate goal is to win the Stanley Cup, everything else is just noise until that moment becomes closer again. And sorry, but regular season games are simply not in the same area code.
There's also something else on the table for both the Heat and 'Hawks: a shot at a modern sports dynasty. What this means in 2013 is up for debate, but the type of continued excellence showed by football's Patriots and basketball's Spurs is certainly what each team is striving to achieve. Will the Heat lose again
before LeBron goes back to Cleveland with the Big Three in tow? Are the Blackhawks set up for a decade of dominance? The salary cap era, more punitive luxury tax penalties and daily pitfalls of injury makes all of this impossible to predict, but you can be sure of one thing: if the Heat or the Blackhawks don't win their respective championship this season, their fanbases will be very disappointed.
How are these teams different? How are they similar? Here is a breakdown, devoid of any and all screaming:
Photo credit: Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports
The formation of the Big Three in Miami was supposed to usher in one of the great offensive teams the NBA has ever seen. It didn't quite work out that way in the first two seasons of the experiment. Miami finished sixth in offensive rating last season and third in their first season -- impressive, sure, but not quite as dominant as most suspected. That Miami was clearly carried by its defense the first two seasons only made its offense seem more vaguely disappointing, even as the buckets were routinely piling up.
Vague disappointment has no place in Miami this season. The Heat are posting an offensive rating of 110.5 points per 100 possessions, best in the league and better than any NBA team since the 2009-2010 Phoenix Suns. The Heat are averaging more than 107 points per game during their 15-game winning streak, outscoring opponents by over 12 points per game. This is what was always envisioned.
The Blackhawks' offense is nothing to scoff at either, of course. They're fourth in the league in goals per game. Star wing Patrick Kane is sixth in the league points. Seven players on the team have reached double-digit points on the season.
Chicago is great, but the advantage here goes to Miami.
Photo credit: USA TODAY Sports
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of how well the 'Hawks are playing has been the goaltending. Starter Corey Crawford was thought to be the only thing holding Chicago back from greatness entering the season. When the 'Hawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010, they did it largely because of the excellent play of Antti Niemi. Niemi is in San Jose now (a team the 'Hawks will likely see deep in the playoffs), but Crawford and backup Ray Emery have been every bit as good as he ever was.
Crawford enters Tuesday's matchup with the Wild at 10-0-3. Emery is 9-0-0. With a 1.41 goals against average, Crawford has been the stingiest goalie in the NHL this season. Emery, at 2.02, isn't too far behind.
Meanwhile, the Heat's defense is regressing. After acting as the team's backbone for the first two seasons of the Big Three's reign, Miami now looks something close to average. The Heat are 11th in defensive rating so far after finishing in the top five each of the last two seasons.
Oh yeah: Duncan Keith is back to being one of the best defensemen in the NHL for the 'Hawks. Nick Leddy, Brent Seabrook and everyone else on the backline has helped make Chicago a defensive monster once again.
Photo credit: Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports
Perhaps only the Penguins can match the Blackhawks when it comes to top-heavy roster talent. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp are the core of Chicago's spellbinding offense, and each is playing every bit as well as they did when Chicago won the Cup.
Of course, LeBron is the trump card here. Miami's do-everything forward is on track to take home his fourth MVP award and recently appeared in his ninth straight All-Star Game. He's the best offensive player in the world and he might be the game's most intimidating perimeter defender, too. A Nike campaign called for us to "Witness" what James was doing years ago; only now does it feel like the public has finally started to come around. This is a historically great athlete in the prime of his career, and it's a blast to watch.
The 2010 Blackhawks were successful for many reasons, but depth was chief among them. Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd were key for a team that ran waves of skilled offensive players at the competition, at least until a nightmarish salary cap tangle forced all three and more off of Chicago's roster.
Depth is no longer a problem for the 'Hawks. The third line of Andrew Shaw, Bryan Bickell and Viktor Stalberg has been regarded as the team's best over the past week or so. Brandon Saad, a 20-year-old wing, has looked good, too.
Miami isn't a one-man show, to be sure. Ray Allen and Shane Battier provide the spacing and shooting so essential to the Heat's formula. Even the signing of Chris "The Birdman" Andersen has been beneficial for Miami. But as long as the Big Three are in South Beach, even a very good Heat bench won't get an ounce of the spotlight.
* * *
Miami, it would appear, has one major thing going for it over the Blackhawks: the best team usually wins in the NBA. The reigning Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings did it as a No. 8 seed last season. The Milwaukee Bucks wouldn't have a prayer of knocking off LeBron and co. even if the first round series was played in 100 alternate universes.
There is a precedent here for what's happening, both in the NBA and locally in Chicago. The '96 Bulls started out 41-3 on their way to a 72-10 season, the best campaign in basketball history. The Heat have already lost four more games than the Bulls did and still have 24 games to play.
The 'Hawks? They've already got Chicago fully in the bag and are clearly the biggest story going in the NHL. The buzz locally blows the 2010 regular season out of the water and might already be in competition with the excitement the playoffs brought that year.
You don't need two people screaming at each other to figure out the Blackhawks and the Heat are both very good. If each keeps up this level of dominance, the discussion, meaningless or not, could keep going strong into the summer.