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Streak of Streaks: The 5 really unbreakable records of the NBA

All sports abound with their own discussions and debates on which records and streaks are the most accomplished and deserving of the most critical acclaim and celebration, and basketball is certainly no different. There have been many spectacular statistics throughout the history of the NBA, but which one might be justly called the “best”?

The Streak of Streaks (Unbreakable Records)

In 1988, renowned evolutionary biologist and lifetime Yankees fan Stephen Jay Gould wrote an article titled “The Streak of Streaks” in which he considered the greatest streaks and records of winning and losing in Baseball. He referenced statistical analyses borrowed from the world of science that were used to determine whether these streaks could be predicted based on the known performance averages and such of players and teams, or if they were so exceptional that simulated models couldn’t predict them. It turned out that given the length of time that Baseball had been played, the distribution of scores and so on, “the longest runs of wins or losses are as long as they should be, and occur about as often as they ought to”.

However, there was one exception – one record was so far outside the range of expected outcomes that according to the scientific models it should never have happened. You guessed it – this record was Joe DiMaggio’s spectacular 56-game hitting streak. The models calculated:

that to make it likely […] that a run of even fifty games will occur once in the history of baseball up to now […] baseball’s rosters would have to include either four lifetime .400 batters or fifty-two lifetime .350 batters over careers of one thousand games”. Of course, only three men have ever exceeded a .350 batting average and never by far. DiMaggio’s feat was so spectacularly improbable that Gould declared it “the most extraordinary thing that ever happened in American sports”.

We pose the question – what, if any, is the equivalent of this “Streak of Streaks” in NBA history?

Streaks like DiMaggio’s, and the similar ones we’ll look for in the NBA, astonish us for the very reason that they violate these statistical distributions and audience expectations. In this way, they act like probability puzzles that we can’t quite wrap our heads around. They add uncertainty and confusion so that we never know what to expect.

The NBA’s unbreakable records

That’s the great thing because rare streaks in sports are what add to the true exhilaration to sports. The fact that something so counter intuitive and statistically improbable can sometimes occur is what makes them so much fun to follow. Anything can happen in any NBA game. And if all the stars are aligned, history can happen.

We present to you our five contenders for NBA’s “Streak of Streaks” organized by the highest likelihood of being broken to almost impossible to break.

5. Fifty-Five Rebounds

On November 24, 1960, Wilt Chamberlain pulled down 55 rebounds for the Philadelphia Warriors. That record has stood for 60 years. No one has come close in the last 35 years and only one player has surpassed 30 or more rebounds in one game in the last ten NBA seasons (Kevin Love with 31 rebounds waaaaay back in November 2010). Thirty rebounds is impressive, but that’s still 26 rebounds short of the all-time record.

All that said, we can foresee a physical specimen coming into the league (like an Andre Drummond that actually tries) and averages 23 rebounds a game? We can see that player having the big night against an opponent having a terrible shooting night and approaching the 55 rebound single-game record.

4. How Many 50-Point Games?

Perhaps the most incredible records in the NBA, maybe even across all sports, belong to Chamberlain. He achieved many great scoring feats that could have been included here, not least his 100-point game. But perhaps even more outlandish are his 50-point game records and streaks.

Chamberlain logged the most 50-point games in his career (118) by a long shot. The runner-up is Michael Jordan’s 31 games with 50 points or more. Wilt also holds the first, second, third and fourth place for most consecutive 50-point games with 7, 6, 5 and 5 games. In fifth place is Kobe Bryant with 4 straight games with 50 points.

3. 1192 Consecutive Games Played

A.C. Green holds the superhuman record of playing 1,192 consecutive games from 1986 to 2001- a truly astonishing feat of endurance genuinely deserving of the title “Iron Man”. Part of what makes this streak so spectacular is that the runner-up Randy Smith played “only” 906 consecutive games.

2. Eight-Peat Championships

Led by Bill Russell, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones, Tommy Heinsohn, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Tom Sanders and Coach Red Auerbach, the Boston Celtics famously won eight straight NBA Championships in a row between 1959 and 1966.

The idea of winning one championship is daunting enough. Setting your goals to winning eight championships for your franchise is another. Especially considering only two NBA teams have ever won that many championships in their franchise history.

However, winning eight consecutive championships in the modern NBA requires not only making nearly every right draft choice, trade move, and tough decision from a player perspective, but a whole lot of luck. This team would have to be a generational-type team featuring at least a couple generational-type talents and  a roster that’s reloaded a few times over the course of those eight seasons.

They also would have to avoid any significant injuries.

Successfully managing a whole team and roster through each season and winning consecutively eight times in a row is wildly impressive enough on its own. But when you consider the teams that are in second and third place on this list of most consecutive championships sit at “just” three consecutive Championships, the magnitude of this achievement becomes more apparent.

1. ONE HUNDRED POINTS in a game

You probably guessed this last one as we all know about Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game vs New York Knicks on March 2nd, 1962.

In a distant second place is Kobe Bryant‘s 81 points. Third place is Wilt’s 78 points and the list just gets further and further away from the seemingly impossible feat. As implausible as it may be to see that broken, we’ve ranked it #4 on this list because we can envision a time when a generational skilled player comes along that can not only dominate physically, shoot from three and accurately hit free throws comes along to threaten that record.

In fact, during this generation of three point shooters, shooting guards like Devin Booker and Klay Thompson have nights where they can’t be stopped. Booker scored 70 in one game while Klay scored 60 points in just 29 minutes of play!

Even so, seventy is not eighty. Eighty is not ninety. Ninety is not one hundred.

And one hundred isn’t the one hundred and one you need to surpass Wilt’s unbreakable scoring record.

Surely these statistical improbabilities and unbreakable records might measure up to DiMaggio’s achievement and the title of NBA’s “Streak of Streaks”.

Improbability and Counter-intuitive Puzzles

How we came up with the NBA streaks is by looking for a record so unbelievable that it would seem almost counter-intuitive to accept its truth, as in the case of DiMaggios’ 56-game hitting streak.

One of the reasons that DiMaggio’s streak stands out quite so much is that the runner up, Willie Keeler, only has 45. This strikes us as spectacular because most sports statistics tend to even out into a normal distribution, or bell curve, with some players and teams scoring low, some scoring high, but most in an averaged middle. And those that do score higher than average tend to form a relatively close succession of marginally increasing values.

DiMaggio’s record is so amazing precisely because it deviates so much from this expectation. In other words, it’s not enough for a streak to simply be the best in order to qualify for a Streak of Streaks, it has to be so much better than the runner-up that it hardly makes sense! And this isn’t just some theoretical exercise – many bettors rely on solid knowledge of normal distributions and similar statistics to inform their betting strategies.

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