The Los Angeles Lakers are arguably the NBA’s most storied franchise by virtue of their 17 world championships. They’ve been so successful over the decades that even when they haven’t won it all, they have had some impressive squads that were memorable, not to mention talented, star-studded and very competitive.
In 1985, the Lakers had truly come of age by defeating the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals for the first time ever. Now, it was time for them to move on to even bigger and better things as the decade wore on. But successfully doing so would require an attitude adjustment that wouldn’t be easy.
What's next after the victory of a lifetime?
Defeating the Celtics, who had beaten the Lakers in eight previous Finals matchups, was a career achievement and a lifelong highlight for members of the Purple and Gold. When they reported to training camp at the end of that summer, they had to get motivated and fired up once again.
But after finally vanquishing their hated rivals, what was next on their bucket list? What was their incentive to win it all again, other than the inherent desire and need to do so?
When an individual or organization achieves a sublime accomplishment, it is human nature to have a letdown afterward, not to mention a lack of next-level motivation and desire. It is that type of next-level motivation and desire that is needed to win it all in the first place, and the lack thereof after doing so is a big reason repeat championships seldom occur.
In the early weeks of the 1985-86 season, there was no sign that the Lakers were lacking anything intangible. They won 24 of their first 27 games and 31 of their first 37, and they looked truly invincible.
But as the dog days of the schedule arrived, they got themselves into a rut. After starting 31-6, they lost four of their next five, which included a 110-95 setback at the hands of the Celtics, and more losses to inferior teams followed. In March and April, L.A. started winning games in bunches again, but it wasn’t doing so in familiar blowout fashion.
In the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers faced the Houston Rockets, a young, seemingly inferior team that had the Twin Towers duo of 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson and future Hall of Famer Hakeem (then known as Akeem) Olajuwon. They won Game 1 rather easily, and it looked like a third straight Finals matchup with Boston was upcoming.
But the Rockets won each of the next four games to take the series as Olajuwon bore down and showed everyone he was a truly dominant center. It ended in stunning fashion with Sampson’s infamous game-winner at the buzzer of Game 5 in front of the Lakers’ own fans at The Forum.
In retrospect, head coach Pat Riley realized the Lakers were complacent coming off the 1985 championship over the Celtics. Another factor was the departure of key reserve Bob McAdoo in the summer of 1985, as well as the acquisition of veteran enforcer Maurice Lucas, who never quite fit in and was accused of sporting a self-entitled attitude.
The Lakers would rebound from the loss versus Houston to reach even greater heights over the next couple of years. It would take Riley’s intense motivational tactics to get there, but once they did, it was clear they had become arguably the greatest team in NBA history.