The 2013 Heat vs. the 1972 Lakers: Who Wins?

LeBron and Co. may be enjoying a great run, but I wouldn't sleep on the Wilt-led Lakers.

The Heat are decent, I guess. That LeBron guy is on pace to have a 31.3 Player Efficiency Rating (PER), the NBA's highest since his own 31.7 mark in the 2007-2008 season. That Wade guy has the highest effective field goal percentage of his career at .528. The team's 112.7 offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) would make them the single most efficient offense since the '09-10 Suns.

And oh yeah: they're heading into tonight's game in Chicago having won 27 straight games.

A lot of the talk in the blogosphere centers around breaking down whether the Heat can actually manage to top the monumental 33 game winning streak of the 1971-1972 Lakers. That question is all well and good, I'm not one to judge. But being the projectors that we are, numberFire likes another question even more.

If the 1972 Lakers and 2013 Heat played each other on a neutral court, who would win?

Considering Gail Goodrich is more at home on the NBA TV set than the hardwood these days, I don't think we're ever going to see a legitimate answer to this question. However, it doesn't stop us from speculating with the help of our mathematical modeling.

Behind the Numbers

The Heat part is easy; all of their analytics are safe and sound in our database. But that database only goes back to 2000, however, so our Chief Analyst Keith Goldner made due with estimates. Namely, he looked at the Lakers' field goal percentages, assist data, and any other available and compared them to other teams of the time.

Since this is a comparison of how far up the bell curve these teams are in comparison to their peers, you can interpret our data more easily as, "Which team dominated their specific era more?" You could argue that there was less talent in the NBA in 1972 than there is in 2013, and you'd probably be right. However, you can only beat the teams that you play. And if LeBron had grown up in the '60s, there's no telling whether he'd be the same player that he is today. (My guess is no.)

Especially since turnover and rebound data for the early '70s is scarce, there is a relatively large margin of error for our data. We tried to spring for a time machine so that we could record more specific data, but in the end, we scratched that idea. There are only so many times that you can listen to "A Horse with No Name" (No. 1 in March 1972) without losing a bit of your soul.

'13 Heat vs. '72 Lakers: The Battle

Which side would take it? Well, let's just say that on a neutral court in a neutral time period, we're hitching our money on the L.A. bandwagon.

VictorSeries LengthOdds
L.A. Lakers4 Games8.79%
L.A. Lakers5 Games15.72%
L.A. Lakers6 Games17.32%
L.A. Lakers7 Games16.72%
Miami Heat4 Games4.10%
Miami Heat5 Games10.07%
Miami Heat6 Games13.08%
Miami Heat7 Games14.20%

With Jerry West at the helm, we would expect the Lakers to win the series with 58.6 percent odds. 41.8 percent of the time, Miami's squad wouldn't even be able to force a game 7.

More than anything else, this just says how dominant that Lakers team could be in that '71-72 season when compared to the rest of the league. Perhaps time has dulled the sensation a tiny bit, but the Lakers crushed the rest of the NBA in multiple key categories. Let's look at a few of the key ones: effective field goal percentage (eFG%) and free throw factor (FT/FGA). These are the only two of Dean Oliver's Four Factors we can decipher with the information we have from the way-back machine.

'13 Miami'13 NBA Rank'72 L.A.'72 NBA Rank
Offensive eFG%.5491.4902
Defensive eFG%.4879.4322
Off. FT Factor.2265.2604
Def. FT Factor.20416.1771

Miami may be able to shoot lights out, but the Lakers smoke the Heat in the other three categories. Shooting percentages across the board were down back then compared to today's NBA, but a .432 defensive effective field goal percentage is still a ludicrously low number. Say what you want about Wilt's exploits off the court, but that man could play some defense as well as score (pun not intended).

That free throw factor, measured by FT/FGA, provides a few more insights. Especially with Wilt down low, the Lakers were able to get to the line with extreme regularity. Perhaps the more surprising statistic, though, is just how little they fouled. Two teams this season have a lower FT factor than the '72 Lakers: the Brooklyn Nets (.167) and the '13 version of the Lakers (.162).

For what it's worth, the '13 Thunder might be more similar to that '72 L.A. team than the Heat; OKC currently sits No. 2 in offensive eFG% and No. 4 in defensive eFG%. They also, by the way, sit ahead of Miami in our overall team power rankings, even with Miami's current long streak. We don't pull this stuff out of thin air, you know.

How About the Bulls?

Just for fun, we ran the same type of numbers for Michael Jordan's return team, pitting the '95-96 Bulls against these Heat. There was the same type of issues (different time period means you can only compare to other teams at the time), but there is considerably more efficiency data to go off of from just 17 years ago.

VictorSeries LengthOdds
Chicago Bulls4 Games9.99%
Chicago Bulls5 Games17.34%
Chicago Bulls6 Games19.44%
Chicago Bulls7 Games17.68%
Miami Heat4 Games3.76%
Miami Heat5 Games7.73%
Miami Heat6 Games11.19%
Miami Heat7 Games12.88%

Yeah, we're taking MJ with even more confidence over this Heat squad. Given a neutral floor and neutral time period, that 72-win Bulls squad would defeat this Heat team with 64.5 series victory odds. That would be just another trophy for Jordan to add to the shelf.