The Los Angeles Clippers won their 11th consecutive game Monday night, tying the franchise record for longest winning streak last accomplished over 38 years ago, in November of 1974 by the Buffalo Braves. The Braves were an NBA expansion franchise in 1970 who then changed their name to the Clippers when they moved to San Diego in 1978 and eventually settled in Los Angeles in 1984. So this franchise record was actually set an entire decade before the team even arrived in Los Angeles. Grant Hill, the second oldest player in the NBA, was two when the Braves won 11 straight. No other player on the Clippers roster was even born.
We know practically everything there is to know about the 2012 Clippers, but we know practically nothing about the 1974 Braves. Let's see if we can't get in touch with our heritage a bit today.
Just looking at the Braves roster from 1974 you can see that they were good. Bob McAdoo was starting his third season after having won the Rookie of the Year award in 1973. Ernie DiGregorio followed up McAdoo's ROY by winning the same award the following season. They were joined by the late Randy Smith, holder of almost very imaginable franchise record and several other recognizable names from the NBA of the 70s: Jack Marin had been a two-time All Star with the Bullets and the Rockets, Jim McMillian had started the NBA Champion Lakers in 1972, Gar Heard would eventually play for the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals where he hit one of the more memorable shots in Finals history.
But the roster doesn't tell the story of the win streak -- not at all. For one thing, DeGregorio suffered a knee injury on October 29th in a loss to the Warriors, four days before the start of the winning streak. This was in the days before arthroscopic surgery and although Ernie D had "only" suffered torn cartilage, the resulting invasive surgery kept him out of action for more than half the season. Sadly, Ernie D (a player I remember more from his days at Providence College than as an NBA player) was never the same again after that surgery.
For younger basketball fans, it's difficult to explain Ernie D. He was a six foot tall Italian kid with big floppy hair and he was probably the flashiest passer in the game at the time. Think about Pete Maravich, except as a pass-first point guard. Ernie D was one of the best passers I've ever seen -- maybe the best, but it's hard to compare, not too mention that when I was watching him in the NCAA tournament in 1973 I was 10 years old. Maybe a young Jason Kidd is the best analog. He led the NBA in assists per game as a rookie before his knee injury. He was eventually traded to the Lakers where I got a chance to watch him a bit more, but he just couldn't move on that knee. He retired in 1978 at the age 27, just four years removed from having won the Rookie of the Year. He tried to come back a couple of times after that -- he was in training camp with the Clippers in 1980 -- but couldn't do it.
So the winning streak was destined to happen without the injured DiGregorio. With Ernie D out, Smith took over a lot of the ballhandling duties while Ken Charles, Lee Winfield and Bob Weiss (who would eventually become an NBA coach, coaching the Clippers in 1993-1994) all got more minutes.
As if the loss of DiGregorio weren't enough, six games into the win streak McMillian was diagnosed with appendicitis. The resultant surgery had him out of the lineup for over a month, and now the Braves were missing two starters. So the 1974 winning streak was accomplished with one starter injured the entire time, and a second starter out for the final five wins.
Make no mistake, this win streak was about McAdoo. He led the league in scoring that season at 34.5 points per game on his way to the Most Valuable Player award. During the 11 game win streak he led the team in scoring in nine of the games, with Smith taking game-high honors in the other two.
As has been the case for the Clippers, the Braves benefited from some friendly scheduling during their streak. Seven of the 11 wins came against teams that finished below .500 on the season, but the other games did include some very impressive scalps. The streak included road wins over the Boston Celtics (the game was actually played in Providence) and the Washington Bullets, who finished tied for the league's best record at 60-22 that season, and a home win over Rick Barry's Golden State Warriors who would go on to win the NBA championship.
The winning streak came to an end on November 24, 1974 in a two point loss to the Bulls in Chicago.
The 1974-75 Braves remain the high water mark for the franchise in many ways, but probably not for very much longer. Last year's Clippers beat their single season winning percentage, though not their win total because of the lockout. If this year's team doesn't win more than the 49 games of the 74-75 Braves I know we'll all be very disappointed, especially given where they are at this point. This could also, believe it or not, prove to be the first division title in franchise history (the Braves had the misfortune of playing in the Atlantic Division with the Celtics).
There's one mark that may be safe though. We're pretty sure that the Clippers have never had a lead over the Lakers larger than the seven game cushion they currently enjoy. However, 1974-75 happens to have been the worst season in Lakers history since they left Minneapolis and the best season in Clippers/Braves history until last year. In the final standings, the Braves were 49-33 while the Lakers were 30-52 -- a 19 game advantage for the Braves. The Braves and Lakers were of course in different Conferences in the 70s, but that 19 game advantage is clearly the largest ever enjoyed by the Clippers franchise over the Lakers franchise.