Remembering Greatness: The 1972 Lakers

Darius Soriano —  August 15, 2011

J.M. Poulard is a friend of the site and contributor to fellow TrueHoop Network site, Warrior’s World. Over the summer he’s been dishing out tremendous historical pieces and today offers another installment to his ongoing series here at FB&G. You can reach him by email here and find him on Twitter @ShyneIV.

The National Basketball Association has been blessed throughout its years of existence with some truly impressive teams that have managed to be remembered even today. Such an accomplishment can only come from an unprecedented level of domination of one’s opponents; but star power is also a huge component as far as how we remember teams.

Indeed, it’s not by accident that some of the greatest teams ever featured some of the greatest and most popular players of all time. Have a look at some of the best teams the league has ever seen (listed chronologically):

  • The 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers were led by the ever-famous Wilt Chamberlain and sported an unprecedented record of 68-13. That Sixers team defeated the Boston Celtics (led by Bill Russell) in five games in the Eastern Finals and eventually won the NBA title.
  • The 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks were led by both Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. They owned the regular season as well as the playoffs, losing only two playoff games and sweeping the Finals.
  • The 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers were led by Julius Erving (Moses Malone was obviously a huge part of the team though) and breezed through the regular season and only lost one playoff game during their run to the title.
  • The 1985-86 Boston Celtics were led by Larry Bird and they essentially put a chokehold on the NBA throughout the season on their way to the championship.
  • The 1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers were led by Magic Johnson at the peak of his powers. That team handled the regular season with ease and were one of the most dominant playoff teams the league has ever seen.
  • The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls were led by Michael Jordan and amassed an impressive 72-10 regular season record on their way to the NBA title.

The list is far from complete mind you. There are other great teams that were important to the league’s history by virtue of their sheer talent and accomplishments. One team that deserves to make the list above is none other than the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers.

The ’72 Lakers featured one of the greatest coaches ever (Bill Sharman), arguably the greatest center in league history (Wilt Chamberlain) and most probably the second best shooting guard of all time (Jerry West).

One of the most peculiar developments of that Lakers team was that they featured more talent in previous seasons. Indeed, in the three seasons prior to the 1971-72 campaign; Los Angeles was also home to Elgin Baylor, whom many would argue had been the best small forward the league had ever seen at the time.

However, those Lakers teams struggled to blend perfectly under the tutelage of Butch Van Breda Kolff and Joe Mullaney. Now to be fair, those teams faced several injuries; nonetheless the coaches failed to get the trio to play as a team. Instead, it came down to the stars getting heir opportunities while the remainder of the teammates just stood and watched.

Both coaches had asked Wilt Chamberlain to focus on defense and rebounding, but the Big Dipper thought better of it. After being eliminated by the Milwaukee Bucks during the 1971 playoffs, the team felt that a coaching change was necessary.

During the summer of 1971, the purple and gold turned their attention to Bill Sharman, who had coached the Utah Stars to the ABA championship the previous season and who had also led the Cleveland Pipers to the title in the ABL. In addition, he was the coach of the San Francisco Warriors team that fell to the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1967 NBA Finals.

The Lakers hired Sharman (who decided to bring in former Celtic K.C. Jones as an assistant) who brought with him instant respect given the fact that he had been a successful head coach and player in the league. But more so than anything, the most important thing the new coach brought him to Los Angeles was without a doubt the Celtics mystique.

Sharman had played on those Celtics teams with Bill Russell, and thus understood winning. In his book Wilt: Larger than Life, Robert Cherry obtained this quote from Lakers guard Gail Goodrich:

“When Sharman arrived and said, “We’ll try to do things like this,” I think Wilt, who had a great deal of pride, like all players, said, “Well, this is the way that the Celtics and Russell did it, and they were successful. And I’m every bit as good as Russell. I’m  going to show that I can be as good as Bill Russell and, if I had the supporting cast that Boston had, we would have won a few more championships.”

Hence, when the new coach moved Jerry West to point guard, turned the squad into a running team and then asked his star center to focus on rebounding and defense, there were very few grumblings.

Chamberlain was lukewarm to the idea, but an interesting development facilitated the move.

Elgin Baylor was no longer the player he had once been and was holding the 1971-72 Lakers back. He had always been an isolation type of player, but his Achilles tendon tear had robbed him of some explosiveness and mobility, which meant that it took more time for him to set up his defender and break him down. The end result was that it put halted ball movement and turned his teammates into spectators.

In order to remedy this situation, Sharman told Baylor that he would make him a sixth man and promote Jim McMillian into the starting line up. Bill Sharman offered this quote to Roland Lazenby in his book Jerry West:

“He just wasn’t the Elgin Baylor of old. I knew he felt bad, and I wanted him to keep playing. But he said if he couldn’t play up to his standards he would retire.”

And on November 4th, 1971, Baylor announced his retirement.

The star forward’s departure from the team meant that the Lakers would need a new captain; a role that Jerry West declined because he chose to focus on his basketball duties. Thus the onus fell on Chamberlain’s shoulders.

The added responsibilities meant that Wilt would have to not only get on his teammates when required, but also lead them. Thus, Chamberlain accepted his role as a premier defensive anchor for the team but not without condition: he would accept such a role as long as the team won. If he only knew…

On November 5, 1971 (one day after Elgin Baylor’s retirement), the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Baltimore Bullets as Wilt managed 25 rebounds and six assists. The date is significant because the purple and gold’s next loss would come on January 9, 1972. The Lakers won a seemingly impossible 33 games in a row (think about this; which seems more impressive: Wilt’s personal total count or the Lakers streak?).

Chamberlain was a huge part of the streak given his willingness to be receptive to his coach’s demands. But in truth, Sharman did not ask anything of his star center. He explained to Robert Cherry:

“I wouldn’t coach him like I coached other players. With other players I’d say, “I want you to pick out high and roll to the basket.” With Wilt I’d say, “Now what do you think we should do? Use the high post or do you think we should do the low post?” I’d keep asking him questions till I got him to say what I wanted him to do, and then I’d say, “Wilt I think that’s a great idea. Let’s do it that way.” I wanted him to think it was his idea. And he would go out and bust his fanny to do it. But if I told him, “Do this, do that,” I don’t think he would respond as well.” 

With that said, for all of Wilt’s considerable gifts, the streak came as a result of team play. The backcourt played marvelously together as Gail Goodrich moved exceptionally well off the ball and scored off of West’s set ups. At forward, McMillian was an active player who ran the floor, posted up, shot it well from midrange and did a good job on defense.

Complementing all of these players was a bruising power forward by the name of Happy Hairston. He was a decent scorer and fierce rebounder. As a matter of fact, he is the only forward to ever play next to Wilt Chamberlain to gather a thousand rebounds in one season. Have a look at the starters’ production during the 1971-72 season: 

PLAYER

PPG

RPG

APG

FG%

Gail Goodrich

25.9

3.6

4.5

.487

Jerry West

25.8

4.2

9.7

.477

Jim McMillian

18.8

6.5

2.6

.482

Wilt Chamberlain

14.8

19.2

4

.649

Happy Hairston

13.1

13.1

2.4

.461

The Los Angeles Lakers were represented by Goodrich, West and Chamberlain in the 1972 All-Star Game and eventually finished the season with the best record in the history of the NBA at 69-13. It took 26 years and the greatest player the league has ever seen for a team to finally eclipse their record, when the Chicago Bulls won 72 games during the 1995-96 season.

The ’72 Lakers entered the postseason after a truly remarkable regular season as the top team in the league, mind you many wondered if they would be able to defeat a Bucks team led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson; whom had won the title the previous season. 

Los Angeles swept the Chicago Bulls in a rather physical Western Conference Semifinals (at the time the semifinals were the actual first round of the playoffs) that set up a Western Conference Finals with Milwaukee.

The Bucks dismantled the Lakers in Game 1 by 19 points. Oscar Robertson was slowed down by a painful stomach muscle injury but he still harassed West into a four-for-19 shooting night.

In Game 2, the offenses were let loose as the Lakers won 135-134. McMillian scored 42 points while West put up 28 points, but was limited to 10-for-30 field goal shooting.

In Game 3, Gail Goodrich stole the show as he put up 30 points while Wilt blocked 10 shots. Abdul-Jabbar still managed to score 33 points but was held scoreless in the final quarter as the Lakers won 108-105.

Milwaukee won Game 4 rather easily, by the score of 114-88; as the Bucks center poured in 31 points on his 25th birthday while West was limited to nine-for-23 shooting.

In Game 5, the Lakers blew out the Bucks out of the Forum by a score of 115-90, where Chamberlain outrebounded his counterpart 26 to 16.

The Lakers eliminated the Bucks in Game 6, as they won 104-100. Several key players contributed to the win but this game will always be remembered for Oscar’s inability to play in the second half because of his stomach injury.  Bucks fans can only wonder what would have happened had Robertson been healthy.

If injuries played a key factor against Milwaukee, they would certainly be a huge factor in the NBA Finals against the Knicks. The Lakers were every bit as good as advertised, but the truth is that New York Knicks were banged up. Willis Reed was absent (meaning that the 6’8 Jerry Lucas would have to guard Wilt) due to knee troubles and Dave DeBusschere was largely ineffective due to pulling a muscle on his right side near his hip.

Jerry West had been stuck in a shooting slump since the Western Conference Finals but managed averages of 23 points and 9 assists in the Finals against the Knicks. Mind you, he only shot 38 percent from the floor.

Nonetheless, the Lakers dispatched the Knicks in five games to claim the NBA title. Wilt Chamberlain was named the Finals MVP after registering 24 points, 29 rebounds and 10 blocked shots in the Game 5 clincher.

Regular season and playoffs combined, the Los Angeles Lakers won 81 games and lost 16. Have a look at how their winning percentage compares favorably to other great teams:

Team

Wins

Losses

Win %

1996 Bulls

87

13

.870

1972 Lakers

80

16

.833

1967 Sixers

79

17

.823

1986 Celtics

82

18

.820

1983 Sixers

77

18

.811

1987 Lakers

80

20

.800

Needless to say, this team is one of the greatest the league has ever seen but their biggest impact might just have been with the Logo himself. Indeed, the ’72 Lakers gave him the blueprint to build his future teams: Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Byron Scott during the 1980s and then Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Rick Fox and Ron Harper in the early 2000′s. 

Imitation is the greatest form of flattery, and although the 1971-72 Lakers will never be duplicated, the fact that so many teams tried to replicate their formula (1995 Rockets, 2005 Suns and 2005 Spurs to name a few) is a testament to their greatness and how they stood the test of time.

The irony of course is that they needed the help of two former Celtics to get there; and their style of play caused Bill Russell to call them “Celtics West”.

Go figure…

-J.M. Poulard

Darius Soriano

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13 responses to Remembering Greatness: The 1972 Lakers

  1. I’m sorry, but Wilt Chaimberlain was not the greatest NBA Center of all time. The man had a reputation of being a selfish stat stuffer and was hated amongst his teammates and coach. In one Finals series, the Coach didn’t put in Wilt in a crucial point in the game knowing that he would be fired if the team lost. That’s how much people did not like Chaimberlain.

    Even Shaq would be ahead of Wilt among the greatest of all time. I can’t believe you would put Wilt’s name as the best, when Kareem Abdul Jabaar, another Laker, far eclipsed Chaimberlain’s career. Chamberlain won just 2 titles in his entire career wheras Kareem won five. Kareem still remains the all-time leader in points scored TO THIS DAY. And you call XChaimberlain ” agruably the greatest?” PLEASE!!!

  2. J.M. Poulard — You should ask ESPN.com to correct an error in one of your points on the Lakers in that 5-on-5 discussion.

    You said Lakers owner Jerry Buss wanted to trade James Worthy after losing to the Celtics in 1984. Actually, the big “trade Worthy” push came in 1986, after the Lakers lost to Houston and there was lots of talk about dealing Worthy to Dallas to get Mark Aguirre, Magic’s good pal. Thankfully cooler heads prevailed and no deal came.

    Your point is still valid, but the supporting details were slightly off.

  3. 1)
    Compared to his competition I think Wilt is the greatest player of all time not just Center. Titles won has more to do with ones teammates and competition as it has to do with ones own greatness. That is largely why what Dirk did this year with no other All Star on his team is one ofnthe greatest accompishments of all time. Beating the Lakers and Heat?

  4. 3-

    Dallas might not have another all star, but they are arguably the deepest team in the league with the highest payroll.

    If you want to base greatness on teammates and competition, Kobe taking a team with Smush, Cook, Luke and Kwame to the playoffs in the stacked Western Conference IMO is one of the greatest accomplishments in history.

  5. #1

    JT, I saw Wilt played in the 60′s perhaps on delayed games in the Phils. he can be regarded as one of the best Centers of all time.

    Hard to compare era’s between shaq & wilt or even da’ dream, there are different rules, playing tempo, different players tho’ same basketball.

    Let’s just accept what Hall Of Fame has recognized, it means that they were the best during their time.

  6. I have seen Wilt play. When he took off his shirt there were welts on his body. It was a physical, physical game.

    Wilt was a world class track and field athlete.

    Wilt was dedicated to his sport and was able to do whatever he wanted on the court. Sorry but averaging 50pts and 27rebounds a game against fewer teams and tough competition is something no other center has even approached. Tell me another center who led the league in assists.

    It was a tough time, Wilt was a tough individual – on or off the court in the turbulent 60′s – and the media didn’t like that ‘uppity’ black man who flagrantly dated white women.

    All these things factor into who Wilt was as an individual – as well as who Bill Russell was on and off the court.

    Shaq’s biggest problem was that he didn’t make the most of his talent.

  7. When he refers to Wilt he is saying “arguably” the greatest center of all time. I would argue for Kareem, but I wouldn’t deny that it can be argued.

    Frankly I am more concerned with saying that Jerry West is “most probably the second best shooting guard of all time.” Since he refers to MJ as the “greatest player the world has ever seen” and MJ was also a shooting guard, then he is saying that West is “most probably” better than Kobe, an even stronger endorsement than “arguably” would have been.

    I love me some Jerry West, as a player and as an executive. 15 years ago I would have agreed with calling West the second best. But now, I am fairly comfortable with saying that anyone who says that the logo is a better player than Kobe is “most probably” a hater.

    And what does West have to say about it? He called Kobe “the greatest Laker player we’ve ever seen in terms of talent and in terms of determination. I’ve never seen one like him. I have great admiration for (Kareem) Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Magic Johnson. But we’ve never seen a player with his talent in a Laker uniform.”

  8. 4,
    I agree. That in my opinion was Kobe’s greatest accomplisemt. When people point to all the championships I will bring up that season and being up 3-1 on the Suns.

  9. “and most probably the second best shooting guard of all time (Jerry West).”

    Interesting. Most people would put Jordan as the best SG. I take it that you view Kobe as being behind Jerry West on the list of all-time shooting guards?

  10. I have a problem with people that say “player X was the GOAT in (sport x)”. How can one measure such a thing? Players that enter such discussion played in different times, so all you can actually “measure” is their level of dominance against others said player played against. And no, stats are not the way to prove it either… Stats don’t measure defense nor the skill of the opposition. Also, we must not forget the role that TV, internet and big name companies (Nike, Adidas, etc.) play in selling “player X” as the best (ever or of its time).

    For example, if you check Jordan’s stats from the 80′s you’ll see over 5 assists per game each season. Those are good numbers… until you remember he was actually a ballhog. Those numbers happened mostly because Jordan was forced to pass out of a double team not by actually creating a play for someone else.

    Also, when people say that Jordan was the best ever, my question is this: why was Jordan better than Wilt (for example)? How can you compare players that don’t play the same position? Was Jordan more skilled than Wilt? Sure he was… But Wilt was a big man and he was schooled differently than Jordan. Did Jordan win more titles than Wilt? Sure he did… But then again, Bill Russel won more than Jordan and noone uses that to say that Russel was better than Jordan and team titles require an actual team. Did Jordan get more recognition from the general public? Sure he did… But he was the first to capitalize on a sports brand and use the power of TV to sell its image. Make no mistake, I agree that Jordan was great and, arguably, the best SG or wing player ever. But if someone shows up and tells me that he saw both Oscar Robertson and Jordan play (because he is old enough) and tells me that Robertson was a better wing player than Jordan I will respect his opinion and listen to his argument, because it can be made. Or for Jerry West. Or for (insert all-time great name).

    I really don’t understand the need to have a GOAT at every position and I really don’t understand the need to have a GOAT player, no matter what position, and having people say that said GOAT status is not even open to discussion.

    So, I’m somewhat puzzled by the nature of this post and the references to Wilt, Jordan, etc.

    Everyone has a case for Wilt, Kareem, Shaq, Mikan, Hakeem or even Walton as the best center ever. For body of work, for level they reached in a single season, for dominance over his peers, etc. Same can be said for Jordan, Robertson, West or for Magic, Zeke, Stockton, Cousy…

    We can discuss great teams and talk about an all-time great or even say that “player X was, arguably, the most dominant player at his position” or that “player X was the best I ever saw at his position” but it’s just wrong to go beyond that. It’s somewhat disrespectful to the history of the game, to other all-time greats that you (probably) didn’t see play live and to the readers that actually understand the game and love to discuss it. Most guys that talk about Jordan that way didn’t even see Jerry West play…

    NOTE: We get this in all sports. In football (soccer), people always have the Pélé vs. Maradona discussion which is borderline ridiculous. They didn’t play in the same position, the peak of their eras is 20 years apart and the rules were different! Just a stupid discussion…

  11. The ’72 Lakers are hands down the greatest NBA team of all time. 33 in a row…are you kidding me. It was insane and you knew you were watching greatness. I remember being in awe of them. Also, the teams they beat to get there had some great players on them and not the list of bums the Bulls beat for there 72-10 mark.

    As far as Wilt goes he is the 2nd greatest center of all time “hands down”.
    Kareem is the best and the “Greatest BBall Player ever at all levels” Lost only one game in high school, only two in college and won the NBA ring many times including his first year.

    But Wilt was the strongest player and the best athlete to ever play in the NBA. Simply was a marvelous athlete and still holds many records at Kansas or did for a long time. He benched over 400 pounds and was a great track and field man also. He was larger than life and was an exceptional person on and off the court.

    Shaq gets my vote for 3rd best but I agree he could have done more during his career. But what an awesome physical specimen with unstoppable power at the rim.

    It is a testament to the Lakers organization that all three were Laker greats!

  12. Of all of the great things Elgin Baylor had done for the Lakers, retiring might have been the greatest.

    His retirement allowed McMillian to flourish without looking over his shoulder.

    Chamberlain could operate in the middle without being in Baylor’s way and vice versa.

    The team wouldn’t slow down waiting for Baylor to get set.

    And Baylor left by his own choice, rather than hanging on.