The definition of "great" in sports is relative. Any given NBA season, you could say that there are 3-4 "great" teams -- last year, the Bulls, Spurs, Heat and Thunder would all have fit the bill. But extend that range over multiple seasons and the standards tighten. The Spurs were great compared to the competition last year, but no one would argue that San Antonio in 2011-12 was one of the all-time great teams, right?
The 2011-12 Miami Heat, though? They might fit that definition.
We can drill down even further though and find an especially elite set of those all-time great teams -- the teams remembered in glorious detail by everyone who witnessed their exploits. For the sake of cosmic alignment, let's call these Larger Than Life teams. Can the Heat, the truly great team of 2011-12, make it into that category?
Before we determine that, let's look at history's Larger Than Life NBA teams.
Boston Celtics: 1957-69
Over 13 seasons, the Celtics won 11 titles. That's pretty good. The single most dominant team in league history starred Bill Russell, coach Red Auerbach, Satch Sanders, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones, Bob Cousy, Don Nelson, Tommy Heinsohn and about 30 other players in the Hall of Fame. (That might be a small exaggeration.)
L.A. Lakers: 1980-91
The Showtime Lakers not only won five titles in 12 years and reigned atop their conference in four others -- that's a Finals berth in nine of 12 seasons -- they inspired a generation of stars and style. No, Magic Johnson never teamed up with Larry Bird, his greatest rival. But he did team up with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy and Byron Scott. The Showtime Lakers are one of the few teams in history for which you can close your eyes and actually seeing them playing on the back of your eyelids. Usually with music piped in from outer space.
Chicago Bulls: 1991-98
The Michael Jordan-era Bulls not only pounded the competition (six titles in eight years, and a championship in every season in this span that saw MJ in a jersey for a complete season), but they helped spread the good word of basketball across the globe. Ask any foreign-born player whose come into the league in the last decade who they watched growing up, and you'll hear all about MJ and the Bulls. (I talked to Cameroonian-born Luc Richard Mbah a Moute a couple of years ago. He said he'd wake up at 4 in the morning to watch MJ play during his teenage years.) The amazing 72-win season in '96 remains the NBA's unimpeachable best year ever for a team.
San Antonio Spurs: 1999-2012
Sadly, few claim to be inspired by the Spurs' current string of dominance. San Antonio has four titles over the past 14 seasons, second to only the Lakers' five. But unlike L.A., the Spurs haven't missed the playoffs once in that span or had stretches of malaise. The Spurs' 774-326 (.704) record since 1999 is by far the best in the league; the Lakers are a narrow No. 2 ahead of Dallas with a 716-384 (.651) record. Again, no one thinks that Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili see their jerseys worn all over the world, no one namedrops them in verses and relatively few of their games end up on ESPN Classic. But there's an easy mysticism about the team, a sense that there's magic contained in their existence. Producing an aura of the supernatural certainly seems Larger Than Life to me.
Miami Heat: 2011-???
Now we reach the Heat, the latest entrant in this category I just invented and currently constitute the sole arbiter of. The Heat certainly do not have the record of success to be placed with these other clubs just yet -- please do not think I'm going to Drake this by claiming the 2010-11 Heat as the best team ever, because they were not, and neither were the 2011-12 Heat for that matter -- but it is indisputable that everyone cares deeply about this collection of talent, what it all means and what it will do. T.V. ratings don't lie. Page views don't lie. I find that folks who claim they don't really care about the Heat actually care the most -- they just happen to care about looking cool and indifferent more than they can about being honest.