Old and in the way in the NBA
On top for years, the Lakers, Celtics and Spurs look as if their time has passed
On the West Coast, the graying (and eventual retirement from the 2011 playoffs) of the Los Angeles Lakers was accompanied by supermarket-tabloid pop psychology: Did a personal rift between Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol fray and derail another championship run? Did the players stop listening to the Zen Master as he walked the path of mindfulness for the final season?
On the East Coast, responses to the end of the Boston Celtics at the hands of the Miami Heat were typical Boston, meaning they seemed less like glitzy tabloid chatter and more like embittered backseat driving: Did Danny Ainge, the Celtics' general manager, undo a championship nucleus with fatal impatience by trading away the core?
In the middle and to the south, the San Antonio Spurs are still reeling, wondering what steamrolling through the regular season means if it culminates in humiliation by the eighth-seeded Vancouver/Memphis Grizzlies.
Good questions all, especially in the wake of these unsettling facts: 1) The Lakers, two-time defending NBA titlists and three-time Western Conference champions, were dusted in a blur by Dallas, a franchise they had personally tormented since the days of Detlef Schrempf and Rolando Blackmon. 2) The Celtics, the model of team cool over flashy individualism, played against Miami as though they'd all just met during the morning shootaround, folding in the crunch in three of their four losses; in the finale, the Celtics led 87-81 with three-and-a-half minutes left and did not score for the rest of the season. 3) Against the Grizzlies, the Spurs, who were once 44-8 on the season but went 17-13 down the stretch, expended all of their energy just to stay even and needed a miracle shot to avoid being eliminated at home.
The Celtics and Lakers, who have 33 NBA titles combined, appeared in the conference semifinals and between them won exactly one game. The Lakers and Spurs have won all but one Western Conference crown since 1999; neither reached the conference final this year.
Fans, and the teams, can sift through the troughs of possible excuses forever -- what if Rajon Rondo hadn't dislocated his elbow in Game 3; what if Gasol hadn't picked the worst time to have his worst postseason series ever; what if Manu Ginobili had been healthy -- but the reality is that the Celtics, Spurs and Lakers must face one fatal fact: There likely is no "wait 'til next year" hope for any of the three. History strongly suggests that, as currently constituted, their runs are over.
History, in fact, is littered with teams which have legs and minds that finally tire, with teams which are eclipsed by hungrier adversaries, with teams forced to face the reality that a lopsided playoff defeat means the end of a great run.
The 1988 Celtics, beset by injuries and fatigue, were the top seed in the East but were beaten by Detroit -- a team they had once tormented -- in six games. The next year, the Celtics fell to eighth, were swept by Detroit and didn't seriously contend for a title for the next 20 years.
For years in the '80s, the Pistons thwarted Michael Jordan consistently, but when Jordan and the Bulls finally toppled Detroit in the 1991 conference finals, the series was a blowout and the Pistons disappeared.
The Showtime Lakers went to the Finals in eight of 10 years in the '80s and were defending consecutive titles in the 1989 Finals, when Detroit swept them. L.A. appeared in the Finals again in 1991 against Chicago, but it wasn't the same team, and the Lakers did not revive until Shaquille O'Neal and Bryant arrived.
Then the Shaq-Phil-Kobe Lakers were distracted and disoriented in the 2004 Finals and demolished in five games by a more cohesive Pistons team. That Lake Show group had won three straight titles, but the gossip, the grind and the egos put a period on a great team. O'Neal was soon gone, and the team reconstituted.
And it is true across sports. In 1994, the flagging Buffalo Bills were expected to find the will to challenge for a fifth consecutive AFC title until they were exposed by a rising New England team, which destroyed them 41-17 in Orchard Park. The run was over. The Bills made the playoffs periodically after that, but the Jim Kelly-Andre Reed-Thurman Thomas era ended that December afternoon.
Two years later, in Charlotte, the Dallas Cowboys were beaten by Carolina 26-17 in a playoff game that signaled the end for a great Cowboys run. Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders were knocked out of that game. Troy Aikman threw three interceptions. Dallas won six games the next year and hasn't sniffed the Super Bowl since.
Some examples exist to the contrary, of course, in which a courageous team wheezes but makes a final stand, but they are very few. The 1967 Philadelphia 76ers were hungry and tired of humiliations at the hands of the Celtics and destroyed Boston in five easy games on the way to a title. But the Celtics, old and slow but still full of heart, came back to win the NBA championship the next two seasons.
Joe Torre's Yankees lost one of the great World Series in 2001 then waited eight years before winning it again (this time with Joe Girardi as manager). But in between, the team won 100 games four more times and appeared in the 2003 World Series.
In that light, what happened this spring to the Lakers, the Celtics and the Spurs perhaps should be no surprise at all.
Those three NBA powers followed a fatal pattern. Throughout the season, the champion Lakers ran on talent and reputation, appeared to be able to sustain their focus only in short bursts and -- save for a short stretch following the All-Star break, when many teams seem to pack it in for the winter -- were never the fearsome group that won consecutive titles. The Lakers fought themselves to rediscover their edge, but even Phil Jackson was unable to construct the appropriate challenge to this mentally weary group. Winning, believe it or not, didn't seem to provide enough motivation.
The ebbing of their skills has been eroding the core of the Spurs for the past three seasons, and finally, the floor gave way from underneath. San Antonio has tried to get younger and more athletic, hoping that Richard Jefferson could reinvigorate the slashing offense Ginobili and Tony Parker once provided. The run has been valiant. The Spurs have hung on with bravery and class, understated in their delivery.
Boston assembled in 2008 to win a championship and did just that immediately. The last two years, the Celtics have been exposed for lacking a secondary slashing-to-the-basket offensive threat. Paul Pierce, as proven over the last two postseasons, cannot give a team a championship quarter anymore. The trade of Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City undermined the Celtics' greatest advantages: their continuity, chemistry and interior toughness. They never recovered. It was an admission that coach Doc Rivers made last week. Ainge gambled with the deal, and lost.
The pattern includes the types of teams to whom they lost. The Celtics weren't upset; rather, they lost to the next power team in the NBA, the Heat. The Lakers were not stunned but lost to a very good Dallas team that at various points of the season was considered the best in the league. Until the playoff series, the difference had always been that the Mavericks (like everyone else in the league) had no answer for Kobe Bryant.
The Spurs, meanwhile, were upset but lost to a younger, more athletic team that made them look even older than their years.
If nothing else, these patterns offer a reminder that though Jordan's teams in Chicago played during a transitional period for the league and never came up against a challenger equal to their greatness, those Bulls were a wonder. The Jordan teams certainly tired of their leader and of each other and certainly suffered from fatigue under the pressures and boredoms of being good again and again; yet on the court, they never lapsed. During this season, Steve Kerr, who was a member of the final three of those Bulls title teams, talked incessantly of the Lakers' challenge to not wander mentally into the pettiness, the boredom, the egos and fatigues that are human nature and can destroy championship teams.
Perhaps if Jerry Reinsdorf had kept the Bulls together, Jordan might have suffered the same fate that ultimately befell Magic, Kobe and Isiah, beaten finally by hungrier, younger foes and by the demands of relentless maximum concentration.
It shouldn't be a surprise that dynasties and great eras pass with decline and decay; the decline in its own way is a tribute to the effort required to sustain championship concentration over several seasons. When the tank of a great team empties, it usually does so with complete exhaustion. As the challenger peaks, growing stronger as it finally crests the elusive mountain, the champion, beaten, fades away.
As has been proven over the years, and again this year by the way three great teams of their era were knocked to the canvas decisively, the torch is rarely passed gradually. Rather, it's taken by force.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.
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