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Creating a legacy: Comparing Miami Heat, ’72 Lakers win streaks

Mar 26, 2013, 9:05 PM EDT

Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West Getty Images

It’s about legacy.

When you talk about the 1972 Lakers 33-game win streak you talk about a team that had been the best in the West for the better part of a decade but had no rings to show for it, and when they put it together that year they dominated the league for a season like few others have.

That kind of legacy — of dominating a season, of dominating an era — is what the 2013 Heat are playing for. It’s one thing their current 27-game win streak can help bring them. Setting a new record would be mentioned as part of this team’s legacy the way we talk about the 72-win Jordan-led Bulls squad. The Lakers absolutely owned that season; that’s the legacy the Heat want.

But when you look at who has been better in their respective streaks you see neither team had it easy. There is no easy way to win 27 in a row. Yet the key to how we will remember the run 15 years from now is how it ends for Miami — how many wins and is there a ring to go with it?

Looking at the numbers one difference stands out — the Lakers won the games in their streak by an average of 16 points a night. They dominated. The Heat are at 11.9, which certainly is impressive in its own right. Only three times in their streak did a team come within six points of the Lakers, the Heat have had that or gone to overtime 9 times. That 16-point differential is insane, it speaks to a level of dominance over their competition that even the Heat on this streak haven’t shown.

The two teams have plenty of things in common, starting with the obvious of three big stars on each — Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Gail Goodrich are all Hall of Famers. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade will be without question; Chris Bosh has an 88 percent chance of getting elected according to Basketball-Reference’s probability estimates (if he gets a few more rings with this Heat side it is pretty much a lock). Both teams also had good fitting role players around their stars — remember Heat president Pat Riley was one of those players for the Lakers, along with Jim McMillan and Happy Hairston (the latter of which averaged better than 20 points a game during the streak). Miami has Shane Battier, Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers and others that fit their style of play and what they want to do.

The other big similarity: Defense. We know the Heat’s run is built on it — in the last 10-games they are allowing just 97.7 points per 100 possessions, second best in the NBA in that time. The Heat are aggressive, forcing turnovers and converting those to easy buckets and monster dunks the other way.

That Lakers team was sixth in the NBA in points per game (in that era certain stats were not kept so it’s impossible to estimate possessions and the stats that come from them). But former Lakers coach Jim Mullaney said that Bill Sharman, who had taken over to coach that team, had “Chamberlain playing like he is Bill Russell.” (Quote from the book “Lakers Glory.”) When Chamberlain wanted to own the defensive end or glass, he could do it.

That Lakers team did have to deal with things the current Heat do not — the Lakers run started during a string of eight games in 10 days (nod to John Schumann at NBA.com). You read that right. It started on a back-to-back-to-back, they had a day off, then had another back-to-back on the road (Chicago and Philadelphia), then one day off to travel back to Los Angeles before another back-to-back-to-back. And five of those eight teams won 47 games or more that season. During their streak, the Lakers had a total of four back-to-back-to-backs.

That said, the Lakers cumulative winning percentage of teams they beat during the streak (.477, measured by records at the end of the season) is pretty much right in line with where the Heat are now.

It’s hard to compare across decades — the 17-team NBA of 1972 was a very different place than today’s NBA. Fewer teams could mean more condensed and deeper teams (although there were 11 teams in the ABA at the time) but there were also no foreign players to speak of at the time to deepen the player pool.

I think someday we’ll look back on the runs as similar in that they showed the team’s dominance over the league that year — if the Heat win a title this spring.

And that is one other difference — the Lakers streak started in November and ended at the hands of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson and the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks on Jan. 9. Teams can have letdowns when streaks end — those Lakers lost four of six starting with the Bucks — and getting it over early was a good thing said Jim McMillan, the Lakers starting forward on that team, speaking with Marc Spears of Yahoo Sports.

“We had a chance to regroup emotionally, mentally, physically,” McMillian said. “We said, ‘OK, we had a good run on the streak and let’s get ready for the championship run.’ [The Heat] are pushing themselves to break this record and not lose. They are not going to have a chance to regroup because next thing you know the playoffs are here.”

The Heat are riding this wave into the playoffs. We’ll see how — or if — the streak impacts their title run.

But someday my guess is we’ll look back at both streaks the same way — a sign of a team dominating the league for a season like few others have.

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