“You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do you, punk?” — Harry Callahan
In a San Francisco absent Google buses and segways, Clint Eastwood’s Inspector Harry Callahan spits one of the most famous lines in movie history. His gun trained on a wounded criminal, he asks his adversary if there’s still a bullet left in the chamber — whether he just fired six shots or five. Callahan claims to have lost track himself, but he’s simply masking his dramatic irony as ignorance. The criminal considers his chances and surrenders his weapon. Before Callahan walks away, the criminal asks to know the truth, to know if there was actually a bullet left in that gun. “I gots to know,” he beseeches. An amused Callahan points his revolver at the terrified perp and harmlessly clicks the trigger of an unloaded gun.
This is often how we confront the tricky concept of “luck.” Not necessarily by staring down the barrel of Clint Eastwood’s mortal threats, but by confusing confusion with kismet. When we talk about luck, we’re often talking about what happens beyond the limits of what we understand. In this particular situation, had the “punk” kept track of how many shots Callahan fired, he wouldn’t need to “feel lucky” as the gun met his gaze. Had he properly understood the situation, he wouldn’t need good fortune to navigate it. Such is the perplexing nature of luck. We all need it to a certain extent, but the more you know, the less luck you need.
“You need luck in the West. Look at Golden State. They didn’t have to play us or the Spurs.” — Doc Rivers
This offseason, the defending champion Golden State Warriors have been the subject of a rather metaphysical conversation about luck in sports. It came to a boil when a few Warriors players responded vituperatively to this Doc Rivers quote. Doc was mocked for portraying his collapsing Clippers as something the Warriors were lucky to avoid, but his statement — and subsequent statements — got at something interesting, if not subversive: What does winning even mean if you need luck to do it?
In theory, winning is the argument ender, definitive proof of which team deserved success. We love that sports is something of a hard and fast meritocracy in a world that often feels unfair. At the same time, we also love that elements of luck gift us with the possibility of an underdog victory. Basically, we want sports to determine superiority while also hoping that a lucky underdog makes a farce of this whole “which team is best?” process. This is a crazy paradox, and it’s one the NBA’s largely avoided until recently.
“You get some breaks here and there through the season. Normally you stay healthy, but when it’s all said and done, to win the best-of-seven series against the other best teams in the league, that’s not luck.” — Luke Walton
Traditionally, the NBA is where luck goes to die. In investment strategist Michael Mauboussin’s book, “The Success Equation,” he ranks sports on a continuum between luck and skill. Basketball, with its many possessions for the superior team to use and its many touches for its best players to leverage, comes out as the most skill-determined sport. Throw in the NBA’s long playoff series, and the worse team isn’t just fighting an uphill battle — it’s often drawing dead.
Many NBA fans know this, and love this about the league. Quality wins out, and luck is a minimal factor. If we’re now questioning whether the best team won, as has happened with the 2013 Heat and 2015 Warriors, it might represent a shift in how the sport is viewed.
“Golden State was the best team in the league, but they also had everything go right for them. They didn’t have one bad break.” — J.J. Redick
The Warriors might seem like an odd lightning rod for this luck conversation, considering how they didn’t just win the championship, but did so with relative ease. After winning 67 regular-season games, Golden State met some strife in the playoffs but never faced a Game 7 or even had to suffer through a competitive Game 6. Unlike some other title winners, there was never a moment when one shot could decide a season. No Ray Allen in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals, not even Boris Diaw in Game 4 of the 2014 first round. When they needed a game, the games weren’t close.
“I felt like we would’ve definitely won an NBA championship if we had everyone healthy” — Kyrie Irving
So why Golden State? Because the Warriors were healthier than their opponents. They faced an ailing starting point guard in every playoff series. Dwight Howard said he played on a torn MCL and meniscus in the Western Conference Finals. Kevin Love missed the Finals because Kelly Olynyk used his shoulder to play tug of war. Even if Kevin Pelton argues convincingly that Golden State didn’t get an easy title path, many will believe otherwise.
The NBA playoff picture has been rocked by a few high-profile injuries. Derrick Rose fell down in 2012, and the Eastern Conference was never quite the same. Patrick Beverley bumped Russell Westbrook out of the playoffs in 2013. A year later, Oklahoma City had to grapple with Serge Ibaka‘s calf injury in the playoffs. Last season, it was Kevin Durant‘s turn to suffer an unexpected season-snuffing malady.
In Oklahoma City’s case, the injuries were especially resonant because the Thunder seemed so inevitable. There was a story arc to this amazingly talented group. They were a young team on the rise expected to win championships. Dominance was their destiny. It was shocking to see them torn asunder unexpectedly and repeatedly. Their injury-ended seasons likely fueled the sense that luck is essential in the modern NBA. If the Thunder weren’t so inevitable, then nobody was safe from the fates. A similar situation played out last season when the title favorite Cavs ran out of manpower.
“You’ve got to have a little luck. And we were playing great, but we had no luck and we weren’t healthy.” — LeBron James, after Game 6 of the NBA Finals
There’s a thorny question attached to Oklahoma City and Cleveland’s troubles: Why is health viewed as luck? Why isn’t it viewed as just part of the sport, another probabilistic endeavor that a team can influence to a degree? In 2012, Scott Brooks played Durant every game of the season at a 38.6-minute average. He did it despite having James Harden coming off the bench. Durant continued to log heavy minutes after Harden left, doing so until he suffered a foot fracture last season.
David Blatt told the media that Irving wasn’t healthy the day he played him nearly 44 minutes in Game 1 of the Finals. Irving fractured his kneecap in overtime. Blatt and Brooks probably made sub-optimal decisions in regards to player health. You can’t definitively blame the injuries on those decisions, but such decisions look risky in retrospect. Maybe these injuries were simply “bad luck,” but there’s a logic to how this bad luck may have occurred.
As teams gather more information on health, it’s hard to parse which ones are benefiting from luck and which teams need less luck on account of knowing more. Last March, the Warriors sat starters in a loss to Denver. Golden State did it in large part because their body tracking technology suggested they should. Maybe this seemingly mundane decision averted disaster.
“We were fortunate in a lot of ways this year. Maybe No. 1 was health. And to win a title there’s obviously a lot of work, but a lot of luck as well, and we had a lot of luck on our side this year.” — Steve Kerr, after Game 6 of the NBA Finals
Kerr, who obsessed throughout the season over how his great, young, insouciant team might waste an incredible opportunity, will readily admit to being lucky. He has the perspective of a coach, someone who must worry about every little thing that might go wrong. It can be said that “the Warriors” felt a certain way about Doc Rivers’ comments, but that would be misleading. Based on conversations with Golden State front office executives, coaches and players, there’s nothing close to consensus on how fortunate they were.
You hear a lot about how the Warriors “made their own luck,” taking advantage of opportunities in the way prepared teams can. A couple of Golden State executives pointed out how malleable the Warriors were last postseason, demonstrating an ability to play whichever style was thrown their way. Sure they didn’t see certain teams at full strength, but they’d made a habit of solving opponents in fewer than three games. An executive also pointed out how Golden State didn’t acquire certain players specifically due to health concerns. Durability was a major factor in why Klay Thompson wasn’t traded for Kevin Love. That’s not to say any player could withstand what Olynyk did to a shoulder socket, of course.
The players tend to believe least in the luck factor, as evidenced by the responses to Rivers by Thompson, Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. Curry, who has triumphed over a great deal of doubt in his career, was succinct when asked how much luck title teams need: “I don’t believe in luck. That’s the answer to that question.”
Green has recently taken a kinder view of Rivers’ thoughts on luck. “When I really heard Doc’s comments and you listen to them, it’s true. You do need a little bit of luck. I wouldn’t necessarily say that luck is not playing the Clippers and not playing the Spurs, but you need a little bit of luck. Whether the luck is for the balls to be bouncing with you that day, whether it’s sometimes just the other team just can’t get s— right. You need a little bit of that. Anybody, no matter how good you are.”
Then Green paused and considered what he’d just said. “Actually, I call it a blessing. I don’t really believe in luck. You need a few blessings. And they happen in different type of ways.”