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A roster change and tough love — what started the historic 33-game winning streak of the '71 Los Angeles Lakers

Getting rid of a superstar and implementing discipline, the ’71 Lakers turned into a juggernaut that still holds the NBA's all-time winning streak record. Do the ’22 Lakers have enough character to do the same?
Los Angeles Lakers guard Elgin Baylor, center Wilt Chamberlain and guard Jerry West

Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, and Jerry West

The L.A. Lakers own the record for the longest winning streak in the NBA, and it was set in 1971. However, unknown to many, the team was struggling at that time. The players lacked chemistry, and they developed bad habits. Here’s what changed that fueled the winning run.

New coach, new system

The future didn’t look bright for the Lakers until a new coach stepped in and implemented a much-need change in the system and mindset among players. Bill Sharman introduced many things, including a morning shootaround, which was unheard of before he came to coach L.A. in the 1971-72 season. 

Sharman was a legend in his own right, winning several titles as a member of the Boston Celtics. Bill averaged 17.8 points and 3 assists in his career and led the NBA in free throw percentage for several seasons. Those achievements granted Sharman a lot of respect among the players.

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At that time, Elgin Baylor was 37, Jerry West was 33, and Wilt Chamberlain was 35. With a new system that required a lot of running, it took some time for these veterans to adapt. Bill Sharman asked Baylor if he could come off the bench, which Elgin interpreted as a sign to hang it up. He retired on the same day. But that was not the only thing Sharman had to change. He also told the players to quit smoking.

Let’s remember that in the 70s, it wasn’t as strict regarding players’ diet and fitness. The Logo witnessed how his teammate, The Big Dipper, consumed food good for ten people. So the players probably ate, drank, and smoked whenever they wanted. But that had to change under Bill Sharman. His run-and-gun system required players to have better cardio and conditioning. Good thing, the players responded, and it turned things around for the team.

The historic 33-game winning streak

Once 37-year-old Baylor and unhealthy habits were out of the way, the Lakers realized their full potential. (To be fair, Elgin would’ve still been useful off the bench). Wilt was the defensive focal point, and everyone else ran when he got the rebound. The system gave the players the chance to contribute in their own way. West played inspired basketball and averaged 26 points per game. Wilt averaged 15 points and 20 rebounds, and several players contributed 6 points per night, according to Basketball Mecca.

The 33-game unbeaten streak remains the longest winning streak by a team across major sports in the U.S. Sometimes, to become great, you have to let go of the things that feel good or comfortable. In the case of the Lakers, getting rid of a popular player in Baylor and correcting the players’ habits created big changes. 

Can the present-era Lakers do the same? Get rid of players who become excess baggage and instill discipline on and off the court? Sometimes, a team needs to tweak the little things instead of focusing on overhauling the roster and players. 

Hire a new coach who use to play in the league and will have the respect of the locker room? Darvin Ham fits the bill. So let’s see if he can use that capital like Bill Sharman did and put a group led by aging superstars out of their comfort zone. 

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