"In basketball you can get a unique team and Miami has a unique team. They have great three-point shooting and they’re never out of a game because of that and then they have the best player in the game who does all the little things. I never thought this streak would live forever, no...I just think it’s a streak that could very easily be broken this year."--Jerry West, Hall of Famer and member of the 1971-1972 NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers
The 1971-1972 Los Angeles Lakers accomplished what no professional team had ever done before--in fact, it wasn't even close. That LA team won 33 straight games, which still stands as an NBA record today. That streak was 13 more than the 20-gamer by the 1970-1971 Milwaukee Bucks, who were on their way to the town's only NBA championship.
The Lakers did all this on the amazing play of three Hall of Fame players, and the inspiration of one more. West, Wilt Chamberlain and Gail Goodrich teamed up to form one of the most lethal inside-out combinations of all time, their play spurred on by the surprise early season retirement of Elgin Baylor. The first of their 33 straight began on November 5th, 1971 and ended nearly two months later on January 9th, 1972 in a 120-104 loss to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his Milwaukee Bucks. The wins helped the Lakers set an NBA record at 69-13, a mark that stood for 24 years until Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls broke it. Regular season immortality wasn't enough for that Lakers team--a few months after their win streak ended, the Lakers won the franchise's first title in Los Angeles, a first for West and a second for Chamberlain.
But now this 40-year-old record is on the verge of being broken by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the rest of the Miami Heat. The reigning NBA champions have won 24 straight games which now ranks as the second-most all-time. With only 3 of their next 10 games against playoff teams, what was once thought of as an unbreakable streak is now within range of turning breakable.
Inevitably, there have been comparisons between these two teams, with the Worldwide Leader summoning up images of West, Chamberlain and company with every Heat victory. At this point, there's little doubt that the Lakers' 33-game streak is the more impressive of the two. However, with the improvements in sports science and scouting, as well as the expansive media and public scrutiny following the team, is winning 24 games in today's NBA more impressive than it would have been in 1972? Is what LeBron and company are doing that much more difficult than how West's Lakers glided through one of the low points in league history?
Well, we've crunched the numbers here on Silver Screen and Roll and compared them against each other. Keep in mind the data (courtesy of basketball-reference.com) is very incomplete for the 1971-72 Lakers. The box scores of the '70s only covered field goal attempts (but oddly, not field goals made), free throw attempts, free throws made (even odder) and total points. Team field goal percentage wasn't a daily box score fixture yet, leaving it very difficult to compare deeper offensive or defensive statistics between the two teams.
Still, we've taken the numbers we have and compared the two streaks:
1971-1972 Los Angeles Lakers
Streak: 33 wins
Dates: November 5th, 1971 - January 9th, 1972
Back-to-back sets: 3
Back-to-back-to-back sets: 4
Home/away: 17 home, 16 away
Points per game: 123.3
Opponents points per game: 107.3
Average margin of victory: 16 ppg
Opponents win-loss record: 371-468
Opponents win percentage: .442
Games versus playoff opponents: 13
2012-2013 Miami Heat
Streak: 24 wins
Dates: February 3rd, 2013 - ???
Back-to-back sets: 5
Back-to-back-to-back sets: 0
Home/away: 12 home, 12 away
Points per game: 105.1
Opponents points per game: 94.2
Average margin of victory: 8.9 ppg
Opponents win-loss record: 643-733
Opponents win percentage: .468
Games versus playoff opponents: 13
As West mentioned in an interview yesterday, the Lakers had a grueling schedule, including 4 back-to-back-to-back sets during their streak, all while traveling on commercial airlines. This of course was in addition to playing 3 back-to-backs, which left them twice playing five games in six days. Three games in three nights of course no longer exists in today's non-lockout-shortened NBA, with four games in five nights being the most difficult scheduling any team might face.
During their streak, the Heat have been put in 5 back-to-backs, sometimes looking no more the worse for wear--they destroyed the Bulls 86-67 in Chicago the night after an away game in Atlanta, and dismantled the Timberwolves in Minnesota 97-81 just 24 hours removed from defeating the Knicks in New York.
The 1971-72 Lakers have the decided advantage here in regard to sheer difficulty of traveling and playing on three consecutive nights four times, as well as cramming their gigantic bodies onto small, commercial airlines. Training, diets and day-to-day physical rehab--not to mention chartered flights--has improved so much over the past four decades, that even if faced with the same type of schedule, it's hard not to imagine that an NBA team would fare better today. However, it's not like Miami hasn't felt the pressure of the schedule either.
Strength of Opponents
For now, let's just work with the sheer numbers here: the Heat have faced opponents with a total record of 643-733, good for a .468 winning percentage. Meanwhile, the Lakers of yore took on teams with a collective 371-468 record, a .442 winning percentage. Overall, Miami has played a slightly tougher slate of opponents, especially in that they've played teams later in the season, presumably with dozens more games of experience and chemistry to improve their play. That's not always the case, but it's also a steady rule that squads are regularly disorganized and still coming together early in the year.
Even more in Miami's favor is that the Heat have played 9 opponents that are 10 games under .500 or worse, while the Lakers did so 11 times, albeit much earlier in the season (at the beginning of their 33 games, LA and the rest of the league had only played about a dozen regular season contests). The Heat have also played 13 playoff-qualified opponents in just 24 games, with the Lakers having played the same number in 33 games. However, it's important to note that in 1972, only 16 teams were in the league and 8 of them made the playoffs.
It seems that the Heat have the slight edge here, especially when their streak's time of year (in the midst of playoff races) is taken into account.
Margin of Victory
The NBA game has changed dramatically in the last 40 years, not only with the size, strength and speed of the athletes, but also in how well teams are prepared for games with advanced statistics and detailed video scouting. Thus, comparing points per game or opponents' points per game isn't really an accurate measure of win quality.
However, we still can compute margin of victory, which should keep these streaks somewhat relative. The '71-'72 Lakers didn't just win, they won big. On average, they took home the W's by an average spread of 16 points per game. LA won 23 games by at least double-digits, 69.6% of the streak, including two games by 40+ points. Remarkably, West, Chamberlain and Goodrich only had to squeak out two wins of 5 or less points. Coach Bill Sharman had his guys locked in, night after night.
Miami's not to be outdone, though. They've still emerged victorious by an average of 8.9 points, but taken 14 games by double digits--58.3% of their streak. As opposed to the Lakers, the Heat have only won two of their games by 20+ points, and played in five 5-point games.
On average, LA's victories were more impressive--they weren't just winning, they were destroying their opponents by huge margins. Those Lakers were by far the class of the league at that point, and it didn't appear to be close, for 33 games, at least.
Both teams have largely played a 50/50 schedule home and away, so let's call this one a wash.
Doing cross-generational comparisons like these are often a fruitless pursuit as, quite simply, the NBA game has evolved and changed so much over the past 40 years. So many components of the league have changed, from the very rules on the court (three-point field goals, hand checking just for starters) to the change in an athlete's physique, that it's extremely difficult to find middle ground between two teams.
Still, there are enough statistics and schedule information available that relative comparisons can be made. In today's NBA, the talent pool is deeper even with twice as many teams as the 1970s. LeBron, Wade and Bosh are competing against some of the finest athletes that have (no exaggeration) ever walked this planet. The daily scrutiny and pressure that the Heat face every game is astronomical compared to the '71-'72 Lakers, let alone during this current streak they're on. While the schedule itself might not be as grinding as three games in three nights (several times!), the physicality of teams who have been briefed on every one of their opposition's weaknesses might take an even greater toll than playing a truckload of contests four decades ago.
However, the most telling statistic here is just how much better West's Lakers were than anyone they faced. The Heat have come very close to losing in these past 24 games, including a one-point win at home against the lowly Magic and a miraculous comeback 3-point victory over the Kyrie Irving-less Cavaliers. LA came within 5 points twice in 33 games. Incredible. Moreover, even with the advancements sports medicine has made over the last 40 years, the Lakers playing that many three-in-a-rows and five games in six days makes their massive accomplishment that much more remarkable.
At this point, the Lakers' 33-game streak lords over what the Heat have accomplished, as impressive as it's been. Even if Miami gets close or exceeds 33 games, there's the possibility that West, Chamberlain, Goodrich and company could still own the most impressive streak in NBA history.
Regardless, the 1971-1972 Lakers are the 1971-1972 NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers. The question here is, if LeBron and the Heat cannot parlay this streak into a NBA title, will setting the record even matter? Let's wait 10 games before anyone asks that.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino