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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