Down through the years, any time another NFL team has approached matching their feat of an undefeated season, the members of the 1972 Miami Dolphins have openly rooted against them, even popping the cork on a celebratory bottle of champagne at the first loss.
However, as the leading man on the 1971-72 Lakers team that holds the NBA record for consecutive victories at 33, Jerry West is not only a believer in the Heat, but a fan.
“Honestly, I think they’ve got an incredible chance to do it,” said the Lakers Hall of Famer, now an executive with the Warriors, on a conference call Thursday. “I really do.
“People say to me, ‘Does it bother you?’ Absolutely not. I think it’s great for the league and I’m delighted obviously for my friend Pat Riley that he’s going to be able to maybe replicate this not only as an executive but as a player. That’s pretty special.”
Though the marquee lineup of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh grabs most of the attention, West praised the Heat for coming together to make a unit that’s greater than the sum of their parts.
“They have a team,” West said. “So much of the NBA has been about marketing its stars and players that have a flamboyant way of playing and we’ve got some incredible athletes playing this game. So much of the marketing of the NBA frankly has been about players.
“I think it’s time we talk about teams. When I look at the league this year, we’ve got a number of really good teams. And I’m not talking about individuals. You look how they play together. You’re talking about Denver, Memphis, San Antonio, obviously the Heat, and I don’t want to leave anyone out. I’m just mentioning those four teams, if you watch them play, particularly three of them.
“Miami has the biggest star in the game, OK? The best player in the game. Having him as a teammate has to be very special for all the other players. He makes it easy for them. He’s one of those unique players that comes along, a Kobe Bryant, players like that. (Kareem) Abdul-Jabbar, some are truly great, great players that will live forever. He’s in that class and Michael Jordan is, obviously. He just makes it so much easier for those guys. He’s just an amazing player and frankly I’m thrilled for him because of all the negative things that were said about him as a player and I think he’s rightly proved what kind of player he is and, more importantly, what kind of person he is.”
With the Miami streak now at 24 after the Heat’s 27-point comeback at Cleveland on Wednesday night, West said there’s no reason to think it can’t go on for a long time.
“It may not end. That’s why I think it’s so remarkable. I look at the schedule and I see one team on there that’s a terrific team and obviously that’s the Spurs. I don’t know what game that would be. That would be a game that I would be concerned about, playing in San Antonio and they’re going to have Tony Parker back by then.
“I just think … some nights you’re gonna go out there and you can’t make a shot and it might be all of you and it becomes contagious. But the one thing they’ve got going for them is defensively they can really get after you because of the ability of Wade and particularly LeBron. They’re ballhawks, and when you turn the ball over, it’s going to be a layup. It’s not going to be a jump shot. It’s going to be a layup. Those two guys in particular, if they’re in the open court, you can forget it. They’re going to score or get to the free-throw line.
“I just think it’s going to take a combination of a team that’s shooting the ball well that also has the capability to defend to beat them and obviously a poor shooting night on Miami’s part. But honestly, I haven’t looked at all their schedule, but I see their schedule coming up. There’s gonna be more and more focus on the games and I think it makes the players focus more on trying to achieve the record that everyone said couldn’t be broken. I think they’ve got a great chance to do it myself.”
West, who was also the architect of the “Showtime” L.A. teams of the 1980s and the Kobe-Shaq combo that “3-peated” to start the 21st century, cautions that this year’s Lakers could still be a playoff force if they qualify.
“I definitely wouldn’t want to play them, I know that,” he said. “I think they’d have a chance against anyone.
“I think if the Lakers would have their preference, they probably wouldn’t want to play Denver. I don’t think anyone would want to play them. Denver has proven they can win on the road and they just don’t lose at home.”
He called Memphis “a bunch of pack dogs” and the Grizzlies the toughest match for the Lakers because of their defense and their man in the middle.
“To me, they’ve got the most underrated player in the league on their team in Marc Gasol,” West said. “That guy is really a good player.”
He did not disparage the defending Western Conference champion Thunder, but has questions.
“If you watch Oklahoma City, to me, they don’t look like they’re the same team,” he said. “I think that they’re terrific, but they lose a great player in James Harden, and that’s going to happen to a lot of teams today, and can they make up for the loss of him? I’m not sure.”
West is also not sure who is up to finally ending the Miami streak.
“I look at their schedule and I say, my gosh. And you think to yourself: ‘I don’t know who.’ Unless they just have a horrible, horrible shooting night, I just don’t think those teams are capable of coming close to them.”
Even though it’s been 41 years and even though no other team had gotten closer to his Lakers’ streak than 11, West said he never believed the record was untouchable.
“I never thought that way,” he said. “I think this is what makes sports so intriguing. Is a number out there — (Joe) DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. Will anyone ever do that? Football, the Dolphins, undefeated. A lot of people don’t think those things are possible. Well, they are possible.
“Particularly in basketball, I think you get a real unique team and Miami has a unique team. They’ve got great 3-point shooting and they’re never out of a game because of that. Then they’ve got the best player in the game that does all the little things. I’m sure any coach would love to coach him because he does so much.
“I never thought this streak would live forever. No. Not in today’s games… I just think it’s a streak that could very easily be broken this year. I really believe that.”