Explaining the Lakers Collapse (and my latest for the Huffington Post)

Posted on May 10, 2011 by


Would the NFL be Destroyed if the Players Won?  This is the question I ask (and I think I answer) in my latest for the Huffington Post.  It is my intention to comment again on the NFL’s labor dispute soon.

Of course, in this forum the focus tends to be basketball.  So for people wishing to hear something about “the Association”, here are my thoughts on the Lakers’ demise.

On Sunday the two-time defending NBA champs were swept out of the playoffs by the Dallas Mavericks.  The blow-out on Sunday led some to argue that the Lakers humiliated their coach (Phil Jackson), the team’s performance was inexcusable, the Lakers lost their cool, and the Lakers quit.

Although all of this might be true, some historical perspective might make fans of the Lakers feel a bit better (or it might not). 

Across the past 25 years, the NBA champs have had the following outcomes during the next season:

  • Won title: 10 times
  • Lost in NBA Finals: 3 times
  • Lost in Conference Finals: 2 times
  • Lost in 2nd Round: 7 times
  • Lost in 1st Round: 2 times
  • Did not make the playoffs: Once (Chicago Bulls in 1999)

Last year the Lakers had the most common outcome for a defending champion.  The Lakers won again.  This year they had the second most common outcome, a defeat in second round.

Of course, the Lakers weren’t just defeated.  They were swept out of the playoffs.  How often is a defending champion swept?

Perhaps surprisingly, this is not that uncommon.  Here is a list of defending champions who were swept out of the playoffs the next season:

  • LA Lakers in 2011
  • Miami Heat in 2007
  • Houston Rockets in 1996
  • Detroit Pistons in 1991
  • LA Lakers in 1989

The Lakers in 89 lost to the Pistons in the NBA Finals.  The other four times a defending champ got swept, though, it happened before the team reached the Finals. 

What happened to the Lakers this past week reminded me of the Pistons back in 1991.  In both cases the defending champs suffered their worst loss in Game Four. And in both cases, the defending champs had to apologize after being swept for unsportsmanlike behavior.

So why does this happen?  Here is some speculation that I do not think I could empirically test (but I am tossing it out there anyway):

Four years ago I made the following observation about the NBA playoffs.  Players are paid for the regular season.  There is a pool of money that is paid out for playoff performance, but for most players, this money pales in comparison to what the player has already been paid.  This means that players are not really playing for money in the playoffs.  Players like Jason Kidd, Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom (i.e. the top players on the Mavericks and Lakers) are really playing for pride and the desire to win an NBA title.

There is a problem, though, with this desire from the Lakers’ perspectives.  The Lakers have just won two titles.  Yes, Kobe would have like to Michael Jordan with six titles.  And yes, Gasol and Odom would like to win three.  But one suspects that the happiness the Lakers would have derived from another championship is not the same as the happiness they received from their first.   In others words – as we say in economics – there is diminishing marginal utility. 

When the series started, the Lakers and Mavericks looked to be fairly even.  My thinking was that the Mavericks could win, but since I thought the series would go to seven (again, I thought these teams were not very different in quality), I favored the Lakers (since LA would host the last game).

The first game was very close, but the Mavericks prevailed.  The Lakers were also competitive in games two and three, but again, the Mavericks prevailed. 

Prior to Game Four, the Lakers talked as if they were going to make history.  But to make history, they would have try very hard in four consecutive games.  And that would only earn them the right to play in two more series to win a title.  In contrast, the Lakers could just go through the motions and go home. 

In terms of costs and benefits….

  • Costs: Try very hard for four games and then play at least eight more games (and maybe 14).
  • Benefits: If you do all that, you will win yet another title.

Most players on the Lakers, though, already had two titles (if not more).  When we look at the costs and benefits, it seems easy to understand why the Lakers did what the Detroit Pistons did in 1991.  They didn’t try very hard.

Of course, part of them was very upset that they couldn’t find the will to put forward more effort. And that anger led some of the Lakers to physically attack the Mavericks.  Again, such unsportsmanlike behavior is the same thing we saw from the Pistons 20 years ago.

One should note, my explanation for the Lakers collapse (i.e. the happiness from an additional title was not enough to motivate a great deal of effort) is not the only possible explanation.   Andres (Dre) Alvarez has noted that teams that get swept tend to be older.  And I think Jeremy Britton might have yet another explanation (which I hope he puts in the comments).

Dre has also send along some analysis examining who exactly played well (and poorly) in this series.  Look for that post in a few hours.

– DJ