On The Decline Of NBA Empires, Or: How The Lakers Are Like the Bad Boy Pistons

A look back at the Detroit Pistons of the late '80s and early '90s suggests what might lie ahead for the Los Angeles Lakers and their three-peat campaign.

Why do empires fall? The answer depends both on who's providing it and on which empire we're talking about. In the late 18th century, the English historian Edward Gibbon published The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, arguing that it was a loss of civic virtue in imperial Rome that left it vulnerable to invading savages. More recently, Harvard professor Niall Ferguson wrote The Ascent of Money, in which he suggests that the gargantuan debt load of contemporary America foretells a decline similar to that suffered by 17th century Spain. Gibbon and Ferguson are part of a long tradition of scholarship whereby historians in one imperial era gaze back at empires that came before with the aim of finding lessons germane to the present day.

Which brings us, a bit tortuously, to the Los Angeles Lakers. Having been to the Finals three straight years and bagged themselves a title the last two, the Lakers are the NBA's version of an imperial hegemony. But the empire built by Jerry Buss, Mitch Kupchak, Phil Jackson, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol will come to an end. All sports dynasties do. The only questions are "when?" and "how ugly will it be when it happens?" The latter is almost impossible to predict in advance, but the answer to the former is always "sooner than you think."

Reflect back on the last true NBA dynasties (all, conveniently enough, coached by Phil Jackson). Who would've imagined that the first reign of the Chicago Bulls would falter because Michael Jordan wanted to play baseball? Who would've thought that the second would come crashing apart because of personal feuds among Jackson, Jordan and owner Jerry Reinsdorf? Who predicted that the 2003-04 Lakers, on the verge of the fourth title of the Shaq-Kobe era, would get hammered in the Finals by the Detroit Pistons so badly that Buss would fire Jackson, trade Shaq and plunge his franchise into the basketball wilderness? When the end comes, it comes fast -- Lehman Brothers bankruptcy fast -- and rarely at the exact moment when anyone expects it.

The Lakers' horrid play over the past five weeks has raised the prospect that their rule is reaching its end days. They're not just getting beat; they're getting crushed. And not just by elite challengers like the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs, but by the Milwaukee Bucks and Memphis Grizzlies. Maybe it's just an off stretch for a team that'll get its act together eventually. But even if it's just that, these losses pretty much ensure that whatever playoff gauntlet the Lakers will have to survive is going to be way more taxing than anything they saw the last two seasons.

While Phil Jackson's other three-peat teams will always be the natural point of comparison for this Lakers squad, I find myself instead thinking back, in a way that I'm confident Gibbon and Ferguson would consider the equal of their own historical insights, to a different champion: the Bad Boy Pistons. There are a few telling similarities between the arc the 1988-91 Pistons took and the one the Lakers appear to be on right now. Perhaps the most important is something no one in Lakerdom seems anxious to discuss: age.

The Bad Boy Pistons took an incremental approach to the NBA summit. In 1986-87 they won 52 regular-season games and lost in the conference finals to the Boston Celtics. The next year, they won 54 and broke the Celtics' iron grip on the Eastern Conference but lost in the Finals to the Showtime Lakers. In 1988-89 they won 63 games, the best in the NBA, and swept the Lakers to win their first NBA title. Although their regular-season win total dropped to 59 in 1989-90, they nonetheless repeated as champs by holding off Jordan and the Bulls in a seven-game conference finals series and then disposing of the Portland Trail Blazers. In 1990-91 the Pistons won only 50 games but scraped their way back into the conference finals, where the Bulls swept them en route to the first title of the Jordan era. Throughout this period Detroit more or less maintained the same basic eight-man core, comprising Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer, Vinnie Johnson, Rick Mahorn, Dennis Rodman, James Edwards (acquired via trade in February 1988) and Mark Aguirre (acquired via trade in February 1989), and employed just one coach, Chuck Daly.

Given this continuity of roster and leadership, what brought the Bad Boy epoch to a close? Two things, really. One was the ascendancy of Jordan, who in tandem with Scottie Pippen became simply too good for anyone to beat. In retrospect, given that we now basically accept MJ as the greatest hoops player ever, it seems inevitable that he'd gather all titles unto himself, but at the time it was anything but. In fact, many of the same criticisms that people level at LeBron James today were, in the late ‘80s, directed at Jordan: he's just a stat-generating machine who can't carry a team to the highest level, he's too selfish, he's unduly preoccupied with being a corporate pitchman, he'll never win a ring, and so on. Whether LeBron, in tandem with Dwyane Wade, will transcend the established NBA ruling class as MJ did and usher in a new era is an open question. But Laker fans who've already written him off - and there are many - should keep in mind that LeBron today is more than two years younger than Jordan was when he captured his first ring.

The second cause of the Bad Boy decline is even more straightforward: they got old. In the 1987-88 season their average player age, weighted by playing time (i.e., their "effective age"), was 28.3 years, right at the sweet spot for a professional athlete's prime. When Jordan and the Bulls swept them out of the conference finals in the spring of 1991, thus ending their three-peat campaign, the Pistons' effective age had climbed to 31.3 years. At the moment only two NBA teams have effective ages above 31: the Dallas Mavericks and the Los Angeles Lakers. In fact, the Lakers' four-year aging curve is quite similar to what the Pistons experienced from 1987 to 1991.

Season

Lakers' Effective Age

2007-08

26.9

2008-09

27.4

2009-10

29.0

2010-11 to date

31.1

The top seven Lakers in minutes played this season are all over 30 years old. And to be honest, the occasions when the team looks long in the tooth are becoming increasingly frequent. They've lost twice to the young and athletic Grizzlies. When Memphis blew them out at Staples on Sunday, a 24-year-old Rudy Gay ran circles around a 31-year-old Ron Artest. On Dec. 10 in Chicago the Lakers were unable to contend with the physical gifts of 22-year-old Derrick Rose. The same problem reared its head against LeBron and Wade on Christmas Day. In San Antonio last week they got torched by the 21-year-old DeJuan Blair. It's apparently a rule of Laker coverage that every loss must be couched in terms of the team's effort and/or Kobe's shot attempts, but evidence is piling up that aging is really the issue.

What befell the '91 Pistons isn't necessarily the fate of the '11 Lakers. As Bradford Doolittle of Basketball Prospectus put it recently, "It seems like every season, there comes a point when we question the Lakers' reign only to see Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant lead a spirited charge.... I've learned that it doesn't pay to forecast a Lakers demise. I'll believe it when it actually happens." That's pretty much my mindset as well. It's worth remembering, though, that every once in a while a crisis is actually a crisis, and the barbarians you think could never get past the gate are about to enjoy a spirited charge of their own.

Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore. Some of the effective age stats appearing in this piece are taken from Pro Basketball Prospects 2010-11.

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