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.