On the opposite side of the Western Conference playoffs bracket, but only a state away, the Oklahoma City Thunder are reeling from the loss of guard Russell Westbrook for an as of yet undetermined amount of time. Should it prove longer than a week or two, the prohibitive Western Conference Finals will likely see their season fall short of lofty expectations.
In Los Angeles, regardless of what happens against the San Antonio Spurs, the Lakers season fell apart the moment Kobe Bryant fell to a gruesome Achilles injury.
It was a seemingly harmless play, a step that Bryant had made thousands of times before in his basketball career. And like that, whatever hopes the Lakers had reclaimed for a playoff run in the second half of the season ended.
That an entire basketball season could be determined by one misstep, one random collision, is proof enough that so much of what determines an NBA champion is actually out of the hands of the team that wins it.
For all that we can quantify in what factors into success, the one element we have no control over is perhaps the most important–luck.
Every championship run comes with a healthy amount of luck, whether that shows itself in terms of good health at the right time, bad health for the right opponent, falling on the right side of a playoff bracket, or simply finding a ball bounce the right way at a key moment.
For those intrigued by the possibilities Westbrook's injury leaves for the San Antonio Spurs, note that the Spurs themselves are one wrong Manu Ginobili or Tony Parker step away from the opportunity to not even matter. Yes, the Westbrook injury, should he be out an extended period of time, makes the path to the NBA Finals a little easier than it would have been, but the Thunder were hardly the Spurs most troubling opponent in the first place. It's been their own health.
It has been six years since the Spurs last won a title, and still the Spurs are viewed as the league's model franchise despite the lack of what claim to be the only success that matters. Over that time the front office and coaching staff have not lost any touch in building the roster, and their processes are no less successful than they were when they were winning championships every other year.
Instead the playoff failures can be traced back to an injury to Manu Ginobili in a loss to the Lakers, an injury to Ginobili that kept him out of a playoff series against the Mavericks, a yearlong bout of injuries to Tony Parker and a first round injury slowing the momentum of Ginobili against the Phoenix Suns, the wrong matchup and a fluke injury to Ginobili against the Grizzlies, and an impossible shot or two from James Harden last year against the Thunder.
The Spurs have also been on the beneficial end of this, missing out on a dangerous Dirk Nowitzki-led team twice, once due a Nowitzki knee injury and a second time due to the Mavericks finding the wrong matchup against the Golden State Warriors. Against the Phoenix Suns, the Spurs rarely had to play a Steve Nash-led team at full strength due to a combination of injuries and suspensions.
Over the long haul, part of what has made the Spurs so successful is the acknowledgement of luck in their success. They were fortunate in drafting Tim Duncan, they were fortunate in finding Ginobili and then Tony Parker. During their playoff runs they had relatively good health. In acknowledging the role of luck, Gregg Popovich and RC Buford have also rarely overreacted to it.
To win a championship you absolutely need good fortune, but you also have to be prepared to take advantage. That's why the Spurs have kept this core together with tweaks around the fringes of the roster even as some called for a rebuild over the past six years. It's why Popovich continues to rest players throughout the season, even as some question its effectiveness given the amount of injuries incurred over the years.
You control what you can and adapt to what you can't. In terms of luck, you can do things to shift the percentages in your favor, but ultimately everything is out of your hands.
In Westbrook's injury, the Spurs suddenly have an opportunity in a vulnerability to the Western Conference's best team. All the work during the regular season has been in preparation to take advantage of such an opportunity, and as the Thunder and Lakers have proven, all it takes is one step to take that opportunity away.