Few considered the Dallas Mavericks a contender to the Los Angeles Lakers’ championship throne prior to the start of the 2011 NBA Playoffs. The Mavericks received their chance to prove all of their detractors wrong in the 2011 Western Conference semifinals, when they faced off against the Lakers. The shocking result, a 4-0 sweep of the Lakers, catapulted the Mavericks toward the NBA Finals, and an eventual championship victory over the Miami Heat.
The loss was as devastating as it was unimaginable for the Lakers, and most importantly, it ended one of the best runs in franchise history. Above all else, the final game in the series, a 122-86-blowout victory for the Mavericks, served as Phil Jackson’s last game in his illustrious coaching career. Jackson’s retirement, along with the on-court meltdown of the Lakers, foreshadowed the instability that would come to define the team today.
In the wake of defeat, the main questions left for the Lakers to answer were how could a team with three-straight NBA Finals appearances and consecutive titles allow themselves to flameout the way they did, and where would they go moving forward? This was a team that didn’t go out with a bang, but rather a whimper, one that looked as far removed from a cohesive unit as it ever did before.
The sin of sloth is the failure to develop or connect both physically and spiritually, most commonly known as laziness. Jackson, the Zen Master as he was known, believed that the true blueprint to a championship team was through spiritual development, both individually and as a whole. Jackson’s methods for reaching these goals included prescribed readings for his players on long road trips, yoga sessions during practice and locker room sage rope exercises, all of which provided the necessary and unique spiritual embodiment of what a team needed to develop championship chemistry.
It’s not hard to envision how a team like the Lakers began to drift apart once they reached the top of the mountain. It has happened to teams before them, and it will happen again. But for a team to be embarrassed in the magnitude that they were reveals more than just a few missed defensive sets and poor offensive execution. What the loss really revealed was a lack of focus, effort and care, both mentally and physically, to meet the demands of the challenge.
Plain and simple, the Lakers ran into a hungrier team, consisting of individuals who bonded on a championship level – a level that allowed them to pick up one another at every single turn. The Mavericks consisted of a cast of perennial playoff losers for most of their careers, led by Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, Jason Kidd, Tyson Chandler and Jason Terry, just to name a few. The Mavericks’ 2011 playoff run ended up being exactly what that cast of losers needed in order to become winners. Playing a Lakers team that was no longer capable of doing what it took to win, the Mavericks spent the necessary time watching and breaking down game film and looking for opportunities to crack the Lakers’ defense, especially from the three-point line, an objective they mastered by hitting 20 three-point shots in that final game.
For the Lakers, it was quite simple. Phil had had enough. Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom together were not better than the sum of their individual talents, and Kobe Bryant was distant from the team, sitting out practices to remain durable for game action. The little things the Lakers did to drive themselves toward those championships vanished, and the motivation they needed to overcome their past defeats was no longer a driving force toward winning again.
For a team that motivated itself to avenge a 2008 Finals loss to the Boston Celtics, by the time 2011 had come around and revenge had been served, the Lakers were as satiated as one could be after dinner at Benihana. In the end, the Lakers were guilty of being a product of their environment. When the Lakers finally achieved their goals, it just didn’t seem as great to keep trying to sustain what they had once worked so hard to build.
The sin of Sloth ended the Lakers champion run, but it was the sin of Lust that broke up the team’s core for good.