The Lakers have been one of the league's crown jewel franchises since their inception in 1947. Five NBA championships in Minneapolis, 12 in the City of Angels, the team has shown its ability to win at the highest levels year in and year out. With each memorable moment, there comes a story. Fifty years ago, the 1971-72 Lakers accomplished a feat that remains unbroken. 33 games, 33 wins. The greatest win streak in NBA history.
Following the move from Minneapolis to Los Angeles in 1960 and with a roster led by Hall of Famers Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain joined the Lakers after asking for a trade from Philadelphia before the 1968-69 season, setting up a lineup of unstoppable forces.
The Lake Show would make the NBA Finals seven times over the decade but wound up losing in every matchup (six times to Boston Celtics, once to the New York Knicks).
After losing in the 1971 Western Conference Finals to the Milwaukee Bucks, Bill Sharman was brought in to replace Joe Mullaney as head coach. With Sharman at the helm, the team was introduced to morning shootaround and doing calisthenics on gamedays in the team locker room – two concepts of the game that are now routine in the NBA.
"When guys doze off or mope around their room of the lobby, they get so logy they may not get sharp until after the game is lost," Sharman explained in an interview. "What I want them to do is develop a game-day routine."
The Lakers held a 6-3 record through the first month of the new campaign despite Wilt Chamberlain approaching what appeared to be the end of his career (he was 35 when the season began and only played in 12 games during the 1969-70 season because of a knee injury). On top of that, West turned in his ankle in a win against Atlanta and would go on to miss the remaining five games of the month.
In his absence, the team would go 2-3 and entered November on a two-game losing streak following losses to Seattle and Golden State.
On Nov. 4, 1971, Baylor announced his retirement, due to nagging knee problems and would explain his reasoning in front of the press that met at the Fabulous Forum:
"Out of fairness to the Lakers and to myself, I've always wanted to perform on the court up to the level and up to the standards I have established during my career. I do not want to prolong my career to the time when I can't maintain those standards."
The next night, West returned to the Lakers lineup as the team faced the Baltimore Bullets. A tightly contested affair ended in favor of L.A., who won by a final of 110-106. West scored 19 points and three Lakers each recorded a double-double, including Chamberlain who scored 12 points and grabbed 25 rebounds.
Fast forward nine days – the Lakers found themselves the winners of the last seven straight and were playing for third straight day against their rival Celtics. A four-point halftime lead for L.A. turned into a 13-point victory by game's end. The most eye-catching stats of the night was that of Chamberlain, who ended his night scoring just three points but recorded 31 rebounds, 13 blocks, and 10 assists – a rare points-less triple-double.
Dec. 5, 1971: The Lakers finished off a perfect month of November going 14-0 (9-0 at home, 5-0 on the road), and were 2-0 heading into the third game of December, as they welcomed the Portland Trail Blazers, looking for their 17th-straight win.
The 123-107 final pushed the win-streak one game further and with three more wins over Houston, Golden State and Phoenix tied the then NBA record for most consecutive wins set by the Milwaukee Bucks just one season prior.
The Lakers hosted the Atlanta Hawks on Dec. 12, 1971, with a chance to set the mark. The Hawks gave the Lake Show a run for their money the entire game, as L.A. led by one with a minute left. Gail Goodrich would find Chamberlain under the basket for the easy hoop and with three steals in the final 39 seconds, the Lakers sealed the history-making, 105-95 victory.
"We had been playing good basketball up to the latter part of the stretch," Chamberlain said after the game. "But the pressure began to catch up with us. We all got a little tired. It's been tough…Really, I'm just very glad it's over."
With the NBA record-setting victory in the rearview mirror, the media turned its attention to that of the 1916 New York Giants, who, with their 26-straight victories, held the longest streak in American professional team sports.
That was until Dec. 22, 1971, when the Lakers won their 27th game in-a-row in Baltimore over the Bullets.
"I don't think any of the players were paying attention to it," Jerry West said postgame.
Three more wins later, the Lakers closed out December and for the second-straight month, finished with a perfect record.
The calendar flipped to the new year of 1972 and L.A. was 30-0. A win over Boston, a win over Cleveland, and a dominating 44-point victory over Atlanta. Would the streak ever end?
A Sunday night showdown was set against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson and the Milwaukee Bucks, who were not only second to the Lakers in league standings, but now held the second-longest win streak in NBA history.
While it was merely an early January matchup on paper, the atmosphere was described as playoff-like throughout its entirety.
The Lakers trailed by six at the half despite being outscored 25-17 in the second quarter. Overall, the team did not shoot the ball well most of the night (no Laker hit more than seven of their field goal attempts). West, Chamberlain, and Goodrich would combine for more than half of the team's points (53), but Abdul-Jabbar dominated the Purple and Gold, posting 39 points and 20 rebounds in 47 minutes.
A packed Milwaukee Arena counted down the final 10 seconds like it was New Year's Eve in Times Square and as the final horn sounded, the scoreboard read 120-104 in favor of the Bucks.
The streak was no more.
During the 33 games, the Lakers averaged 119.4 points per game (outscoring their opponents by a margin of about 12 points), held their opposition under 100 points on eight occasions and won by a margin of 15-plus points, 16 different times.
A 39-4 record remained the best in the NBA and the Lakers would go on to finish the season a solid 69-13, while their longest win streaks to follow lasted no more than eight games (two separate occasions).
L.A. would be the top seed in the playoffs and knocked off the Chicago Bulls in four games in the Conference Semifinals, defeated Milwaukee in six games of the Conference Finals, and hoisted their sixth NBA championship in franchise history (first since the team moved to Los Angeles) following a five-game series win over the New York Knicks.
Jerry West described this group as, "…the greatest team I've ever been on. Forget personalities. We had a lot of different ones. But when you watch this team on the floor, it was like one mind thinking alike."
The streak still holds to this day with the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors as the team closest to breaking the record when they won 28-straight games, though four of those games were won at the end of the 2014-15 season.
The 1971-72 season was not only one for the record books, but it set the standard for Lakers basketball in Los Angeles. Baylor, Chamberlain, Goodrich, and West all have their jersey numbers retired and hanging in the rafters. Pat Riley was a part of every championship won in the 1980s as an assistant and head coach of the Purple and Gold.
On top of the highs, there have been many lows, but despite being at the bottom of the league in some years, the Lakers franchise has shown the ability time-and-time again to regroup and build a contender.
The Lake Show has won at least one title in every decade outside the 1960s and 1990s and are the only team in NBA history to have at least one Finals appearance in every decade in the league's 75 years of existence.
There was the "Showtime Lakers" of the 80s, the "Kobe and Shaq era" of the mid-90s to 2000s, back-to-back titles at the end of 2010s, and a "bubble" season ending with LeBron James and Anthony Davis leading the way for the team's 17th championship.
Today, the Lakers are shaped based on their modern-day dominance, decade after decade, and now a veteran group looks to make new history, chasing franchise ring and league-leading title No. 18.