Posted March 28, 2013

Lakers’ 33-game win streak all the more impressive upon closer examination

Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, Rob Mahoney
Pat Riley helped fuel the Los Angeles Lakers' 33-game win streak

Pat Riley and the 1971-72 Lakers outscored opponents by an average of 16 points during their 33-game win streak. (George Long/SI)

By Rob Mahoney

In the last few months, the 1971-72 Lakers have received about as much publicity as a single, 41-year-old team possibly could. Thus is the benefit of having an incredible, long-standing record finally challenged. No team since 1972 had come within even 10 wins of challenging the historic 33-game winning streak the Lakers minted that season, though every passing day and victory brings LeBron James and the Heat closer to that seemingly unmatchable mark.

Until now, the ’71-72 Lakers’ place in the record books was preserved by an untouchable air. But the Heat’s mounting challenge has forced us to consider the exploits of a somewhat ancient basketball team as more than a bit of NBA trivia. Those Lakers — built up to greatness by the efforts of Jerry West, Gail Goodrich, Wilt Chamberlain and coach Bill Sharman, among others — have been preserved in box scores and databases for just this occasion. The box score of that era was so incomplete as to be rather inconvenient, but there’s still plenty to learn about that record-boasting team through the resources available.

For one: During their streak, which spanned from November 1971 through January 1972, the Lakers outscored opponents by 16 points per contest. (The Heat’s margin of victory has been 11.9.) An astounding 23 of the Lakers’ 33 wins came by double digits, including eight by at least 20 points and two by 40 or more. Theirs wasn’t merely a streak of consecutive wins, but a run of continuous demolition. The relative quality of the Lakers’ opponents was actually slightly lower (.442 collective opponent win percentage) than what the Heat have faced (.468), but L.A. ran through its schedule like a bulldozer to the point that strength of schedule was something of a negligible factor.

James and Co., on the other hand, tend to toy with opponents before shifting into overdrive, often creating the illusion of a competitive game — or even the illusion of real peril — before taking control in the third and fourth quarters. It’s an act that has become such an ingrained part of Miami’s routine that it no longer holds any drama. The dissolution of, say, an early Orlando lead is about as certain as certain comes, as it’s been roughly two months since we’ve seen Miami dig itself a hole so deep that it can’t be conquered with 12-24 minutes of maxed-out basketball. That margin of victory ultimately looks a bit smaller as a result, though there’s something to be said about Miami’s display of in-game authority.

But, of course, any comparison between the two longest winning streaks in NBA history is obstructed by the differences in league dynamics between 1972 and 2013. Most of those differences are fairly intuitive (the three-point line, the size of the league, travel arrangements, etc.), but consider, too, the evolution of the NBA schedule. An 82-game slate is exhausting even with modern accommodations and relatively favorable scheduling, but the 1971-72 season pit the Lakers in six back-to-back-to-back situations (including four during the streak) and, as noted by John Schuhmann of NBA.com, saw L.A. begin its run with a stretch of eight games in just 10 days. Today’s NBA teams will never know an in-season itinerary so brutal, even in the accelerated conditions of last year’s post-lockout season. That the Lakers were able to accomplish the feat of winning 33 consecutive games is daunting in itself, but it’s almost incomprehensible when you factor in the hassle of commercial travel and the lack of advances in physical maintenance.

Still, it’s important that we don’t see the ’71-72 Lakers as merely the custodians of an impressive record, but as one of the greatest NBA teams of all time. Cross-era comparisons get dicey for all of the reasons described above (not to mention the drastic changes to the league’s salary and cap structure), but the fact remains that only one team in NBA history has posted a better single-season winning percentage than those Lakers. In that season, they did what Magic and Kareem never could, and bested even the most gaudy of Kobe and Shaq’s single-season marks. They won as many or more games than Michael Jordan’s Bulls did in all but one season, beat out even the most impressive Celtics teams and similarly trumped the most impressive regular-season clubs from every other major NBA market. That in itself doesn’t make the ’71-72 Lakers the second-best team of all time by default, but this team is more than a winning streak and more than a mere champion. It takes a special level of superiority to win 33 consecutive games, but arguably even more so to win 69 of 82.

Fittingly, the Heat offer the most apt way to put the Lakers’ amazing season in the proper perspective. Many have noted that it seems as though Miami may never lose again this season. That’s an absurd possibility. But even more crazy? If Miami were capable of such a feat, an additional 12 wins — and a 39-game winning streak in total — would bring the Heat one victory shy of what those Lakers accomplished as an exceptional prelude to their ’72 championship run.

*This post has been updated to correct the Heat’s margin of victory during the streak. It is 11.9, not 8.9.

26 comments
MartinOlague
MartinOlague

What the Lakers did in 71-72 was more impressive. The Heat did go through a lot of bad teams, as did the Lakers, but the Lakers beat some great teams during that streak with Hall of Famers as well. A case in point is the Bucks who were the defending champions and had Oscar Robinson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in their primes; they were part of the streak and they eventually ended the streak. Also this season was sandwich between 2 Knicks titles, and the Knicks had Walt Frazier, Earl "The Pearl" Monroe and Dave DeBusschere. The Bulls also were a very good team with Jerry Sloan, and they won 57 games.The Warriors had Rick Berry and Nate Thurmond. 

 

In fact, the West in the 71-72 season only had 3 teams under .500, and the majority of the streak was against the west. It's like the Lakers for the early 2000's when the west was so strong but the Lakers were stronger. It's hard to compare the two streaks, but the Lakers did have a tougher road.

 

Now if the two teams played head to head, the Heat would win because athletes in the 2010's are better than the athletes in the 70's. But what the Lakers did was harder to pull off, especially considering they lost their 3rd option and a hall of fame player within the first 10 games.

Klownchyld_1906
Klownchyld_1906

The Heat's streak is MORE impressive than the Lakers'.  First of all, there was no media scrutiny in those days (i.e., no ESPN, sports talk shows, radio shows).  The NBA was not as good as it is now.  And no one gave a BLEEP about the NBA in the early 70s.

TomLawrence
TomLawrence

@Klownchyld_1906

You chose an appropriate name. The pathetic idea that nothing that happened before you were born matters is both absurd and irritating. The Lakers of that era drew huge TV ratings, were covered by SI, newspapers and other media.

There were fewer teams then, and the talent level was astounding. Wilt, West and the squad would dominate in an era. Now go blog yourself.

 

TomLawrence
TomLawrence

 @Klownchyld_1906 You chose an appropriate name. The pathetic idea that nothing that happened before you were born matters is both absurd and irritating. The Lakers of that era drew huge TV ratings, were covered by SI, newspapers and other media.

There were fewer teams then, and the talent level was astounding. Wilt, West and the squad would dominate in an era. Now go blog yourself.

JTRey
JTRey

Really bad math by author. Heat's average margin of victory during 27-game streak was 11.6 points, not 8.9. Come on, man!

BobbyTrimble
BobbyTrimble

They look slow because of the grade of the film wilt was a world class in more than basketball check out youtube on him

David126
David126

The 1995-1996 Bulls team won 72 games to break the record for wins (that the 1971-1972 Lakers team set at 69) and then tied the old record the very next year with 69 wins. 

 

QuentinBroom
QuentinBroom

Lakers streak never will be challenged again i think. Jerry West, Wilt, Riles. UUnbeatable chemistry in all phases of the game

rmillersbs
rmillersbs

Lakers streak lives.  Props to Miami on an amazing run, but I think Lakers deserve to keep this one. #33LakersStillTheBest!

tommerj
tommerj

I have to disagree that the Lakers streak is far superior to what Miami is doing, Yes, the Lakers won their games by a larger margin, but the Lakers were doing it against some terrible teams. 1971-72 was just after the NBA did a massive expansion. In just four years the NBA added five teams to go from 12 to 17 teams and the year before (1970-71), the NBA added three teams and they were all terrible. The 1995-96 Bulls had the similar good fortune of setting the record of 72 wins in the year the NBA expanded and there were some terrible teams to feast on. The Heat is accomplishing this in an era that the NBA hasn't expanded in eight years. 

JacquesBibiano
JacquesBibiano like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Those Lakers would have wiped the floor with the Heat. Think about back in the days when they did not have three pointers and this team still averaged 121 points a game. Can you imagine what they would have scored a game if they did have threes. They had West and Goodrich, who if they had the oppertunity to take advantage of the three would probably average 30 a piece and can anyone of those Heat players handle Wilt - I think not. Granted Wilt was not his usual self but I see him dropping 25 and grabbing 20 boards a game. I just do not see the Heat even being close to those Lakers.

IrwinCohen
IrwinCohen

The Heat are about 5 times faster than any Laker back then Miami would win 119-111,go back and look at how slow those players were compared to now not even a contest. LA would keep it to 8 based on smarts only.

mwr5053
mwr5053

I didn't mean to exclude Wilt from my comment below. At that point in his career Wilt didn't run the floor like the others mentioned in my comment below but most of the time it was his outlet pass after a rebound that started the process. The other four were off to the races and Wilt found the first open man headed the other direction perfectly.

mwr5053
mwr5053 like.author.displayName 1 Like

I saw one of those wins when I think the streak was in the low 20s. The competition wasn't much (the almost new Cleveland Cavaliers in an old convention hall/arena in Cleveland) but it was fascinating to watch how well the Lakers passed the ball, especially on the fast break. I'm an old fuddy-duddy in my 60s so the in-your-face-jam of today gets old for me very quickly. To me there's nothing prettier than a team racing up the floor passing the ball on a dime and then seeing another perfect pass and maybe yet another one before a lay-up ensued. West, Baylor, Goodrich, Riley played such wonderful team ball that I still get chills remembering how wonderful it was to watch back in Jan. 1972.

RipsNordic
RipsNordic like.author.displayName 1 Like

The Heat's streak ends at San Antonio

CharlesTerrito
CharlesTerrito

it doesn't matter either way. both will be remarkable!!

SteveMac
SteveMac

I went to my first Laker game during this win streak. They actually gave all kids under 14 a certificate to go to a local shoe store, for a free pair of Chuck Taylors. I was in sixth grade and got to go to 2 more games during this streak. I was a Laker Fan before this experience, but that solidified it for me and have been a Laker Fan since.

This is also the year that Elgin Baylor retired and L.A. fans were sad to see him go. Happy Hairston filled in nicely and Gail Goodrich, a local superstar from UCLA, was the perfect compliment to Jerry West. Wilt Chamberlain finally figured out that there were 4 other guys on his team and played perfect team basketball. He was without a doubt the greatest individual player in the history of basketball. He would have literally killed Michael Jordan before he would have allowed himself to be beaten by Jordan. He was scary good.

I hope that if and when the Heat break this record that they will pay homage to the 71, 72 Lakers and I'm sure that they will, because Pat Riley will have his name on both win streaks. Riles you have had a truly charmed life and please remember my favorite Laker, Chick Hearn.

TomLawrence
TomLawrence

 @SteveMac Jim McMillian replaced Baylor at small forward. Hairston was the power forward. Wilt led the league in assists years earlier as a 76er. The 71-72 Lakers, with Wilt's power, defense and rebounding, and West and Goodrich's shooting, would handle the talented Heat. LBJ would do well, but I'd take the Lakers.

ChuckVa8
ChuckVa8

I actually witnessed that streak and by comparison, I'd say no comparison.   The Lakers' streak was more impressive.  Lebron is an incredible talent...but also, the NBAs reigning arrogant jerk and one of THE most disrespectful players around.   I hope they go on  a 33 game losing streak.

IrwinCohen
IrwinCohen

 @ChuckVa8 The Heat are about 5 times faster than any Laker back then Miami would win 119-111,go back and look at how slow those players were compared to now not even a contest. LA would keep it to 8 based on smarts only.  Put ur bias aside to be fair i hate the heat by the way.

BobbyTrimble
BobbyTrimble

 @IrwinCohen  @ChuckVa8 

Its the film grade any older film will make you think that in all sports Wilt was world class in more than basketball just youtube him

DanielWine
DanielWine like.author.displayName 1 Like

You're right....Bosh would have destroyed Wilt. Oh, wait..........

leehwgoc
leehwgoc like.author.displayName 1 Like

 @ChuckVa8 Exactly when does James act arrogant and disrespectful?  Certainly not in his interviews.  Or on court behavior.  Of twitter account.  Or... anywhere, really.

 

Haters gotta hate.  

 

And there's a reason why 'hate' is commonly bedfellows with 'willful stupidity'.

Test-Icicles
Test-Icicles

@leehwgoc @ChuckVa8 Do you mean the interview where he used a bunch of kids to push his nationally-televised agenda to tell everyone simply what team he was going to play for? James is a great player, seems to have his heart in the right place, but the example I just mentioned is one of the most arrogant acts of a player in the history of the league (NB - it doesn't matter that he gave money to a charity; if that had been his only MO then he would have wired the dough).

WCoastPro
WCoastPro

 @ChuckVa8 you could have been describing Wilt! You senior citizens are a daffy bunch!