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To win an NBA title, you need more than just luck

(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Roar Guru
26th April, 2016
6

The dialogue relating to the role that luck plays in the NBA playoffs is quite frankly becoming a little tiresome.

When the Golden State Warriors won the NBA title last season, plenty talked about how ‘lucky’ they were.

Sure, Mike Conley was injured in their second round match-up with Memphis. They avoided the San Antonio Spurs who lost in the first round against the LA Clippers.

They then avoided the Clippers after Chris Paul and crew inexplicably blew a 3-1 lead to the Houston Rockets who were over-matched and outplayed in the Western Conference finals by a rampant Warriors side.

So the Warriors needed every dose of luck to win the West, right? Well, not really. While they didn’t experience a serious injury and every major opponent suffered one in their conference, they built a body of work over the course of the season that had them deserving the #1 seed.

They were prohibitive favourite to win the conference, which they duly did.

When they moved onto the NBA Finals they played the Cleveland Cavaliers who were without All-Star Kevin Love, and lost fellow star Kyrie Irving to injury in Game 1. Despite this bad injury ‘luck’ the Cavaliers went up 2-1 behind a historically brilliant performance by LeBron James.

Talent and class caught up as the series went on and the Warriors deservedly won the title in six games as they adjusted well to what the Cavaliers did in the absence of their second and third best players.

Granted, some will claim that it was luck that James was left with a summer league squad while taking on one of the more talented teams of recent times but that is just the way it played out.

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Were Golden State lucky in some ways? Absolutely. Was there an asterisk against their title? Not in the slightest.

Sure, they played a weakened opponent but nothing we had seen throughout the season would have made Cleveland anything but underdogs, even with Love and Irving in uniform. The Cavaliers were better defensively without two of their worst defensive players, so perhaps they were ‘lucky’ that the injuries took place.

Media saturation means we as fans get more coverage of the NBA than ever, which makes for some terrible journalism that is skewed towards the popular teams.

When Steph Curry tweaked his ankle early in the series against Houston, the talk of luck became a reality. Arguably the world’s best player is injured, whatever would his team do?

Well, given the team won 73 games I am sure they will cope! What everyone knew was that Curry could sit out the entire first round and the Warriors would still beat the putrid mess that is the Rockets because the ankle injury was minor.

However when the reigning MVP, coming off a historically great season, sprained his MCL in Game 4 the NBA world began to talk about how unlucky the Warriors were and the idea that they were no longer prohibitive championship favourites became a reality. But there was no luck involved here.

Let’s define luck as unpredictable and uncontrollable forces that shape events for an individual or group.

Golden State have not had a major injury all season, in a league where injuries are common place. Is that luck, or do their medical staff get credit?

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Either way, it’s a stretch to claim that one reasonably minor injury is bad luck, just as it was a stretch to claim that their seemingly charmed injury run of last season was good luck.

Curry will miss two weeks and if the Warriors are as good as most think they are, they should win the next series without him. Who is betting against them to do just that?

This morning, LA Clippers superstar point guard Chris Paul broke his hand and is in danger of missing the rest of the Clippers season.

Given they will play the Warriors if they get past the Portland Trailblazers, that end may be nigh. Paul is arguably more valuable to his team than Curry, and may well have lost the best chance he has ever had to make a conference final.

Before Curry’s injury, the Clippers had little chance of springing an upset but would have entered the series as favourite should Curry have missed a majority of games. Power forward Blake Griffin injured his quad in the same game and while he will play through the pain, the Clippers find themselves underdogs to even face the Warriors.

Is it bad luck that Paul and Griffin are injured at the same time, when such an opportunity is so close? You could argue that the Clippers are less fortunate on the injury front than the Warriors are, but it would be a reach to claim that luck alone is to blame.

If we are talking luck, the counter argument is that a lack of poise cost the Clippers a chance to take on the Warriors last season, and that even the loss of Curry wouldn’t have swayed the series if Paul and Griffin had been fit.

After all, Golden State will still have home-court advantage and a quality squad and it would take a brave person to have bet against them against even a full-strength Clippers team.

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The San Antonio Spurs played with fire at the end of last season, seemingly underestimating the New Orleans Hornets on the last day of the regular season and falling from third to sixth seed in the process.

This cost them home-court advantage and ultimately led to their early demise. Luck wasn’t involved, despite them making a mistake in Game 82 that cost them a chance to win the title.

Those same Spurs are the second favourite for the title and would become overwhelming favourites should Curry be injured for longer than expected, should the Warriors lose in the next round or both.

While they will go as far as Kahwi Leonard takes them, they have had a great injury run and it wouldn’t be considered bad luck should they lose a key player or two.

It would be something they would deal with, address and move on. As a lower profile team, one wonders whether it would even be reported as ‘bad luck’ should they be crippled by injury.

Their second round opponents, the Oklahoma City Thunder, rely on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook more than any other team relies on two players. An injury to one would likely see them swept (granted, they will do well to win more than one game in the next series anyway) but one would struggle to blame luck should they suffer an injury.

A better approach to addressing their drastic drop in roster quality would have been to better equip this team to not rely on two players. Even better, they could hire a coach who can run a play but I digress.

The amount of airtime given to the concept of luck is quite frankly tiring. No team can win an NBA title without a degree of fortune but skill, depth, coaching and adaptability play far more of a role and are more justifiable and educated than rolling out the line ‘they were lucky’.

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Every team has their fair share of good and bad fortune and that’s a fact of professional sports so let’s not accept a narrative based on luck.

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