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Saturday, December 04, 2021

How Significant is a Long Regular Season Winning Streak?

Last night, the Golden State Warriors routed the Phoenix Suns 118-96, avenging Tuesday night's 104-96 loss to the Suns while also ending Phoenix' franchise-record 18 game winning streak. Phoenix point guard Chris Paul is the only player in NBA history to play for three different teams that had winning streaks of at least 17 games; that is an interesting statistic, but while some commentators cite it as an example of Paul's impact on winning I look at it differently: Paul has been on several excellent teams but he has only made one NBA Finals appearance and he has not won an NBA title, which undercuts any assertions that Paul has not had enough talent around him to win a championship--particularly if one buys the notion propagated by "stat gurus" that Paul is at least as good as Kobe Bryant and that Paul is a great clutch player. The evidence suggests that whatever impact Paul has on regular season winning does not extend to the postseason, which in turn raises the question of how significant it is for a team to have a long regular season winning streak.

The longest regular season winning streak in NBA history--33 games--was posted by the 1971-72 L.A. Lakers. Led by Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, and Gail Goodrich, the Lakers won the championship. No team came within 10 wins of matching the Lakers' winning streak until the 2012-13 Miami Heat featuring LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh won 27 straight regular season games en route to capturing the second of back to back championships in the midst of making four consecutive NBA Finals appearances.

The Golden State Warriors surpassed the Heat by winning 28 consecutive regular season games, starting with the final four games of the 2014-15 season and then continuing with the first 24 games of their record-setting 73 win 2015-16 campaign. The 2015 Warriors won the NBA title, but the 2016 Warriors lost in the NBA Finals after squandering a 3-1 lead versus the Cleveland Cavaliers

Perhaps the most remarkable long regular season winning streak in NBA history was posted by the 2008 Houston Rockets. The 1972 Lakers, 2015-16 Warriors, and 2013 Heat were each stacked with Hall of Famers/future Hall of Famers, but during the bulk of their 22 game winning streak the 2008 Rockets trotted out a lineup featuring Tracy McGrady surrounded by Shane Battier, streetball legend Rafer Alston, rookie Luis Scola and undersized center Chuck Hayes. All-Star center Yao Ming contributed to the first half of the winning streak before suffering a season-ending injury, but it is important to remember that Houston's record that season (and in general) was much more impacted by McGrady's presence than by Yao's presence; prorated over 82 games, the Rockets' winning percentage with McGrady matched the performance of a championship contender, while the Rockets' winning percentage without McGrady was equivalent to that of a Draft Lottery team.

The regular season success of the 2008 Rockets demonstrates McGrady's impact on winning--which was no less, and probably more, than Paul's impact on winning for teams that had other All-Star caliber players--but also brings to light that long regular season winning streaks do not necessarily lead to championships. The Washington Capitols won 20 straight regular season games over a two season span (1947-49) but did not win a title in either season. The 2009 Boston Celtics and the 2015 Atlanta Hawks each won 19 regular season games in a row without reaching the NBA Finals. The 1982 Celtics and the 2020 Milwaukee Bucks each won 18 straight regular season games without reaching the NBA Finals. Of course, the 1981 Celtics, the 2008 Celtics, and the 2022 Bucks won NBA titles with the same star players who led the way for the long regular season winning streaks in the adjacent seasons.

Here are some notable regular season winning streaks by great players who led their teams to championships after the season in which they posted their longest regular season winning streak:

1) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's longest regular season winning streak was 20 games during the 1970-71 season, when he led the Milwaukee Bucks to the NBA title. Abdul-Jabbar played in 10 NBA Finals and he won six championships. Abdul-Jabbar's Bucks also had a 16 game winning streak in 1970-71 and a 16 game winning streak spanning the final two games of 1972-73 through the first 14 games of 1973-74. The 1974 Bucks lost to the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals.

2) Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant led the 2000 Lakers to a 19 game winning streak before setting a playoff record with a 15-1 postseason run that included a 4-1 NBA Finals victory over the Philadelphia 76ers. 

3) In addition to leading the way during the 1972 Lakers' 33 game winning streak, Chamberlain also won 18 games in a row with the Philadelphia 76ers spanning the end of the 1966 season and the beginning of the 1967 season. The 1967 76ers went 68-13--setting a regular season wins record broken by his 1972 Lakers--and won the NBA title. 

4) Michael Jordan's longest regular winning streak was 18 games during the 1995-96 season, when his Chicago Bulls set a record with 72 wins (since broken by the 2016 Warriors) en route to capturing the first of three straight championships. 

5) Bill Russell led the Boston Celtics to 11 championships, including a record eight straight titles from 1959-66. His longest regular season winning streak was 17 games during the 1960 championship season. He also had a 16 game regular season winning streak during the 1965 championship season.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:28 PM



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