Miami Heat: Winning Streak One of NBA’s Best Ever
LeBron James scored 27 points as the Miami Heat beat the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday, March 13, to extend their winning streak to 20 games. Photo Credit: Mark Runyon, Basketball Schedule
The Miami Heat extended their winning streak to 20 games on Wednesday, March 13, beating the Philadelphia 76ers 98-94.
Miami becomes just the fourth team in NBA history to win at least 20 straight games in a single season. The Heat matched the 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks with 20 straight wins; the only two teams with longer runs were the 2007-08 Houston Rockets (22 games) and the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers (33 games).
The other team to win 20 games in a row did so over two seasons; the Washington Capitols put together 20 wins at the end of the 1947-48 season and into the beginning of the 1948-49 campaign in the old Basketball Association of America, a forerunner to the modern NBA.
I am normally one who fights against a younger audience to recognize the greatness of the players and teams of yesteryear, but in the case of the winning streaks assembled by the Lakers and Bucks in the early 1970s, those streaks need to be taken into context.
Tracy McGrady (1) led the Houston Rockets to 22 straight victories during the 2007-08 season. The Miami Heat joined the Rockets as one of only four teams in NBA history to win at least 20 straight games in a single season. (Photo by Keith Allison/Flickr.com)
There are many out there who believe today’s 30-team NBA stretches the available talent pool too far. Analyst and Hall of Famer Charles Barkley told ESPN Radio in 2012 that he was “embarrassed” by the quality of play in the league (per Deadspin.com). Heat star LeBron James said in 2010 that the league was “watered down” (per Forbes.com).
There is some truth to those statements.
But never in the history of professional basketball was the talent pool stretched so thin as it was in the early 1970s.
At that time, there were two professional leagues—the NBA and the now-defunct American Basketball Association—fighting for survival, relevance and, most importantly, talent.
If 30 teams is considered to be too many at a time when the talent pool stretches across the globe more than it ever has, imagine how poor the overall quality of basketball was in 1970-71 and 1971-72, when there were 28 teams across two leagues drawing their talent solely from the United States.
In 1970-71, the NBA added three expansion teams—the Buffalo Braves, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Portland Trail Blazers—to increase its number to 17 teams. The ABA had 11 teams at that time.
The Bucks were 66-16 in 1970-71, the year they added Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson to a team that already had a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and an emerging star in small forward Bob Dandridge.
Milwaukee went on to win the title that season—the franchise’s only title—by beating the San Francisco Warriors in five games in the Western Conference Semifinals, the Los Angeles Lakers in five games in the Western Conference Finals and closing the deal with a sweep of the Baltimore Bullets in the NBA Finals.
But there were some truly horrific basketball teams that year.
The expansion trio combined to win just 66 games. Portland was the best of the lot at 29-53, while Buffalo was 22-60 and Cleveland only managed a 15-67 record.
But it’s also important to remember that, at that time, the league had expanded in a huge hurry, more than doubling its ranks from eight teams in 1965-66 to 17 just five years later.
Milwaukee’s epic streak began with a 111-85 win over the Warriors on Feb. 6, 1971, and didn’t end until an overtime loss to the Chicago Bulls more than a month later, a 110-103 decision on March 9, 1971.
But there was so little balance in the league that season—Milwaukee led the league with an off-the-charts points differential of 12.26 while Cleveland’s differential was an abysmal minus-11.17.
When the Lakers put together their record stretch the following year, it was part of a season during which Los Angeles set the all-time record with 69 victories (a record later topped by the Chicago Bulls in 1995-96).
Milwaukee also topped the 60-win mark in 1971-72 (63-19), while the Bulls (57-25) and Boston Celtics (56-26) each topped 55 victories.
On the other end of the spectrum, however, were the Detroit Pistons (26-56), the Cavaliers (23-59), the Braves (22-60) and the Trail Blazers (18-64).
The Lakers had a trio of Hall of Famers in guards Jerry West and Gail Goodrich to go with center Wilt Chamberlain, but also had an emerging young small forward in Jim McMillian, who flourished once aging Elgin Baylor retired early in the season, and a terrific rebounding power forward in Happy Hairston to go with a strong bench anchored by Flynn Robinson, Leroy Ellis and Pat Riley.
L.A.’s record streak started with a 110-106 win over the Bullets on Nov. 5, 1971, and didn’t end until they were knocked off by the Bucks 120-104 on Jan. 9, 1972. At that point, the Lakers were 39-4 and went on to win the title. In the playoffs, Los Angeles swept the Bulls in the Western Semifinals, beat the Bucks in a six-game Western Final and then took down the New York Knicks in five games in the Finals.
The Bucks and Lakers were, by the standards of the time in which they played, massively loaded. But when compared with other eras, including the current one, these teams weren’t overwhelmingly talented.
Instead, they were both gigantic fish in very, very small ponds. For my money, the streaks assembled by the Rockets five years ago and the Heat this year are more impressive because, across the board, the talent level in the league—while considered too thin by some—is light years better than it was in the early 1970s.
Hoops Habit's assistant editor is also a veteran of 20-plus years in the newspaper industry as a writer and editor. His roots are as a sports writer and later in his career transitioned to news for several years. He also assisted with the development and maintenance of a newspaper website and also has experience in the advertising arena. Currently a self-employed sports commentator with a locally syndicated radio show and blog, he is currently based in Upper Michigan.