Does Luck Run the NBA?

ESPN.com recently ran a feature where Chad Ford and John Hollinger ranked the potential for future success of all 30 NBA teams (Insider required). Every team was ranked based on five important characteristics, players (weighted 40%), management (weighted 20%), money (weighted 20%), market (weighted 10%), and draft (weighted 10%).

As a Nuggets fan and observer I believe they forgot one very crucial category, luck.

Whether you call it luck or intangibles, mojo or fortune it comes down to the fact some teams seem to have things go their way a little more often than others. Look at the teams that have dominated the NBA over the previous two decades. Chicago, San Antonio, Los Angeles and Boston had at least one tremendously lucky break that has paved the way for their success.

The Michael Jordan Bulls and the Lakers of the early 2000’s probably had the least they owe to Lady Luck. Even so the Bulls landed the best player of all time with the third pick in the 1984 draft and it happened due to one of the most maligned picks of all time, Portland selecting Sam Bowie the pick ahead of them. Bowie was decent young center, but he was probably the least talented of the top seven selections in that draft. From there it took years to mold the Bulls into a championship team, including the heist of Scotty Pippen for Olden Polynice, which was good management, not luck, but the die was cast when Jordan fell in their lap.

(Quick parenthetical sidebar, make sure you click on the link to watch the clips from the 1987 draft. The difference in production value and readiness of information – no trading first round picks until after the second round, or not – plus Rod Thorn refers to “you people” during an interview with an individual of African-American descent.  Of course he is referring to the media not minorities.  I guarantee no one gave that phrase a second thought in 1987.)

The 2000-2003 Lakers were expertly built over time primarily through the free agent signing of Shaquille O’Neal and the draft night trade where they acquired Kobe Bryant from the Charlotte Hornets who selected him with the thirteenth pick. Whether the Lakers were lucky Kobe fell to the Hornets or not, it was certainly fortunate he was available at that point in the draft. Not only that he was available, but that he became the player he is. However, to be fair, it was good scouting by Jerry West and the Lakers deserve the credit for taking a risk on Kobe as they traded a legitimate starting center in Vlade Divac to acquire him.

As fortunate as the Lakers were to get a player of Bryant’s talents before someone else could snatch him up they might have experienced a greater act of providence in the form of Jerry Krause. Krause was determined to drive Phil Jackson out of Chicago and he did just in time for him to join the Lakers as Kobe was about to enter his prime. It is possible any coach could have guided that tandem to three straight championships, but it was certainly helpful that Jackson was looking for a team to coach as John Stockton and Karl Malone were running out of gas in Utah and David Robinson was on his way out in San Antonio.

Ultimately, it is not fair to say the 2000-03 Lakers won only because they were lucky. Even so they were able to take advantage of a series of a few pleasant coincidences (the Magic blowing the first game in the finals to the Rockets leading to a four game sweep in the 1995 finals making it easier for Shaq to leave, Michael Jordan returning from retirement to prevent Shaq and Penny Hardaway from dominating the east, Kobe being available, Jackson becoming available and Kobe turning into a dominant force).

If there ever was a team who had their championship foundation built on luck it is the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs capitalized on a one in seven chance to get the top pick in 1987 and won the right to draft David Robinson. Robinson was an MVP caliber player, but he built them into a dynasty by getting injured. Robinson had missed 17 games in his first seven seasons yet would only play six games in 1996-97 resulting in the Spurs tallying a miniscule 20 wins.

The Spurs had the third worst record in the NBA, but ended up with the second best chance at the top pick behind Boston due to the fact the NBA’s worst team, the Vancouver Grizzlies, were not eligible for the first pick per their expansion agreement with the NBA. The Spurs and Denver Nuggets were tied for the third worst record in the league heading into the final game of the season. Denver would inexplicably win game 82 in Dallas, against another atrocious team, thanks to Antonio McDyess and Dale Ellis playing a combined 89 minutes. Thanks to that pointless twenty-first victory by the Nuggets the Spurs probability to win the first pick received an extra 2.4% boost (give or take a fraction of a percent). I have no idea if the combination that gave the Spurs the number one pick in the draft would have belonged to Denver had the Nuggets not done the opposite of tanking. I do know it did not hurt their chances.

Not only were the Spurs lucky to actually win the lottery the season Robinson missed most of the season. They were lucky the prize of the lottery was young big man Tim Duncan. Duncan would have been the first pick in the draft had he left Wake Forest after his junior season, but for some reason chose to return to school for one more year. Had Duncan done what 99.9% of the people in the world would have and left early to be the top pick the Spurs would have ended up with Keith Van Horn or Tony Battie. It is not always good fortune to win the top pick as not every draft has a franchise star in it (the names roll off our tongues Ellison, Olowokandi, Kwame). The Spurs have only been in the lottery twice since its inception in 1985. Not only did they win it both times, each time they ended up with two franchise changing big men.

As lucky as the Spurs were to end up with their Twin Towers, it must be recognized that they won twice after Robinson retired. Their front office is second to none. They ended up with other great players because they did their homework and knew what they were doing. Even so, how many titles would the Spurs have won if not for Robinson missing 76 games the very season Tim Duncan was available. I seriously doubt there would be any banners hanging in the rafters without that incredibly lucky break.

Everyone knows the series of events that led to the Miami Heat winning their championship was triggered by Bill Duffy forgetting to submit Anthony Carter’s player option for the final year of his deal (the extra cash led to Lamar Odom signing with the Heat who was eventually traded to the Lakers for Shaquille O’Neal). When else has that happened? Never is the answer that comes to mind.

Moving on to the Celtics’ 2008 championship the good fortune begins with Red Auerbach pulling off a trade that made Kevin McHale a Celtic with the third pick in the 1980 draft. Kevin McHale went on to play with Danny Ainge and both players would become NBA General Managers. McHale was shrewd enough to draft skinny high school big man named Kevin Garnett with the fifth pick in the 1995 draft, but he did little right after that. Somehow McHale managed to keep his job for years after he proved he was not capable of surrounding Garnett with quality players.

In the summer of 2007 McHale was pushed into a corner where he had to either do the unthinkable and trade KG or watch the Timberwolves sink into the abyss as their best player lost his ability to carry the team. McHale was able to work out a deal with his old teammate who was running his old team and Garnett was traded to Boston. If McHale was fired when he should have been, the general manager who traded Kevin Garnett would probably not have had any ties with Boston making a trade with the Celtics less attractive. Of course if David Kahn was hired to replace Kevin McHale three years ago he probably would have worked out a much worse deal that McHale did.

It also bears mentioning that any discussion of luck and the Boston Celtics must include the fact they are the only team I know of to have two active very talented young players die in Len Bias and Reggie Lewis. Any team who has experienced that level of tragedy deserves a few things to go in their favor.

After all of that we return to the current NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers who are still riding the MVP caliber play of Kobe Bryant, but were only able to get over the top recently thanks to the wildly one-sided trade that brought Pau Gasol to Tinseltown from Memphis. Plus, do not forget the previously mentioned trade that brought Lamar Odom to town that was made possible by Duffy’s oversight with Carter’s player option. That one of a kind boo-boo helped build two title contenders.

We kind of glossed over the Rockets, but if you want fortune, how about the best player of all time retiring prematurely, or being suspended for 18 months whichever you prefer to believe, and opening the door for someone else to win a couple of titles?

If you are a fan of one of these teams, please understand I am not trying to diminish any of these accomplishments. All of those championship teams have quality front offices and have made numerous insightful transactions that have earned them their banners. Even so you cannot deny good fortune has played an important role off the court in how these teams were constructed. Nearly every championship team needs some luck along the way.

That brings us to the Denver Nuggets. In 42 seasons the Nuggets have never won a championship in the ABA or NBA. In fact, they have only made the finals once in the final season of the ABA. When it comes to luck, they have never been granted that bounce that went their way and turned the franchise around. For evidence of their sorry fortune look no further than the fact they have never once moved up in the lottery. I said it before and I will say it again for effect, the Spurs have been in the lottery twice and won it both times! The Magic won the lottery in back to back seasons, plus they won a third time in 2004. The Wizards have won twice as has Milwaukee and I think the Clippers have won the lottery 28 times.

Starting in the summer of 1991 the Nuggets were in the lottery 11 times in 13 seasons. Seven of those times they were one of the four worst teams in the NBA and twice they had the worst record and thus the greatest chance of winning the top pick. They were as terrible as any team in the league.

In 1990-91 the Nuggets had the worst record in the league and they drafted fourth, the lowest pick they could have received, ending up with Dikembe Mutombo. The next season, 1991-92 for those of you who struggle with math, they were the fourth worst team in the league and drafted fifth where they ended up picking LePhonso Ellis in the Shaq draft. Denver enjoyed a mini resurgence never winning fewer than 35 games from 1992-93 through 1995-96, but they bottomed out again with the fourth worst record in the league in 1996-97 (instead of tied for the third worst record with San Antonio as previously mentioned). Of course they drafted fifth in the Duncan draft ending up with Tony Battie who was immediately dubbed “El Busto” by commentator, and Battie’s future coach/GM, Dan Issel. The next season Denver flirted with the worst record in NBA history winning only 11 times and ended up drafting third which brought Raef LaFrentz to Denver. During the lockout shortened 1998-99 the Nuggets worked their way to the fourth worst record and ended up fifth although that pick was sent to Toronto in the first Chauncey Billups trade and became Jonathan Bender.

Denver then enjoyed two more mediocre seasons where they were not one of the four worst teams in the league before once again posting the fourth worst record in the NBA in 2001-02 resulting in the fifth pick and the rights to Nikoloz Tskitishvili. Believe it or not with Skita on the roster the Nuggets actually got worse and won only 17 games in 2002-03 which tied them for the worst record in the NBA with Cleveland. Denver would draft third and the Carmelo Anthony era began.

In addition to their poor performance in the lottery which has never brought a Michael Jordan or Tim Duncan and David Robinson to town, the Nuggets have never pulled off that one trade to push them over the top. The reality is they have never been a contender long enough to have time for a Pau Gasol or Kevin Garnett to fall into their lap.

Championship teams have championship front offices and as we have seen winning the lottery when a Shaquille O’Neal or LeBron James is sitting on the board does not guarantee you a championship. The fact is Denver has never had a championship caliber front office in place, or at least not one comparable to the San Antonios or Los Angeleses (Lakers, not the Clippers) of the world.

Hopefully, with the anticipated ascent of Josh Kroenke to the ownership chair that will change. Regardless, whether teams make their own luck or something we do not understand is at work, if fortune was part of the ESPN.com future rankings, the Nuggets would have to rank at the bottom.

The good news is if luck exists and does indeed help guide the fortunes of NBA teams, luck can change. As Nuggets fans we have to hope it will.

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  • Colby

    You have to admit that the nuggets did get pretty lucky that Melo didn’t go second and we would have ended up with Darko. But then again, if Melo did go second, we could have gotten Chris Bosh or dwade. But personally, I would rather have Melo over any of the other players in that draft.

  • http://espn.com Chris

    lucky we did end up with melo Because kiki wanted to draft Darko, the nugets could heve drafted vince Carter, T-mac and Amarie but no they didn’t because their scouts are horrible and if there are guys out there who can make your team better, and you don’t draft them then you should be fired.
    Hello Nugget T-Mac is still out there, Grant Hill was hurt and returned to have a productive Career.

  • ParkHillNative

    You’re so dead-on about the ridiculous luck of the Spurs. I actually wonder if that’s the only way a small-market team can win a championship — to have a guy like Duncan fall in your lap via the draft.

    If he’d ended up with another team, the Spurs would have zero championships. If he’d never been born, the Lakers would probably have close to 20 championships by now, and would probably have something like 35 Western Conference titles.

    The Lakers are a well-managed team and have benefitted from a little luck, but more than anything I think they just benefit from having far more resources at their disposal than any other team.

  • RMookie

    Melo was a stroke of luck in the Nuggets favor, but I totally agree with your premise. Some franchises seem destined by odd bounce and wayward personnel hiccup to remain stranded somewhere between the lottery and the title.

    Increasingly I get the feeling that Melo is a stroke of luck like Chuck Person in Indiana. That can make for some fun games, but nothing but heartache when the season ends. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a sight better than the Todd Lichti, the Chris Jackson, on and on, picks of my youth. But these guys (the new crop of superstars) seem more soft in the brains and with much less killer instinct than their predecessors.

  • asdqqq

    Good article Jeremy. If you add location (which ESPN did take into account) to luck, that’s a huge chunk of NBA success that is entirely out of the hands of the front office. Shaq goes to LA primarily because of the location, not because of any great management. The most interesting thing though, is the team you didn’t mention here, the Detroit Pistons. The more I look at them, the more remarkable that team really was. Let’s look at the top players on those championship teams.

    Chicago: Jordan-luck (picking third with Jordan on the board, every GM would have taken Jordan, so it was all luck that they were the ones in that position); Pippen-good management.

    Houston: Olajuwon-luck (won lottery); ’94 Otis Thorpe-good management; ’95 Clyde Drexler-good management.

    San Antonio: Duncan-luck (won lottery); ’00 Robinson-luck (won lottery); ’03, ’07 Parker-good management; ’05 Ginobli-good management.

    Los Angeles: ’01, ’02 Shaq-luck (location); ’01, ’02, ’09, ’10 Kobe-good management; ’09, ’10 Gasol-luck (total incompetence by Memphis management, no other NBA GM would have turned down this trade offer)

    Boston: Garnett-(I’d say more good management than luck, but there was a good bit of luck and location involved here because Garnett’s soon to expire contract gave him a lot of control over the possible destinations he would accept a trade to and it crazy that he was even available in trade); Pierce-good management.

    And then there’s Detroit. While it’s debatable who their best 2 players were, all 5 candidates were good management, rather than luck, moves: Billups, Hamilton, the Wallaces, Prince.

    So it looks like both good luck and good management are usually required to win a championship. Only SA in ’00 won with their top 2 all luck. Only the latest LA teams won with a best player they got entirely through good managment rather than luck. And only Detroit won based entirely on good management.

    Since the Nuggets have been so unlucky and don’t have an elite location (probably only NY, LA, Miami, and maybe Chicago or Phoenix do), it makes the focus on great management and preserving the little luck they have had (Melo) all the more important.

  • yep

    Kobe going to LA was also luck. Gasol too.

    Kobe basically told the league before his draft that he wouldn’t play for anyone but the Lakers. He dared other teams to draft him, Charlotte did, but they did so knowing they’d have to trade him (to LA.)

    And let’s also point out here that once an NBA team is good/great, they then have the built in advantage (yes, sometimes earned, but still) of having the “set up” necessary to draw even more good players who’ll play for less late in their careers etc, not to mention bringing in their fellow star friends.

    Also, the “new school” way NBA players think does little to take a historically bad franchise out of the mire. These low integrity players just bide their time until they can go to a winning franchise instead of truly dedicating themselves to turning THEIR franchise around.

    What would be potentially more glorious for LeBron? Make Cleveland a winner? Or take the easy way out in Miami?

    Players run the asylum….er, league, these days. Some may find this good. I think it makes it more likely that the haves and have nots will stay the same.

  • Tony

    This is a good article Jeremy but I think it all comes down to office and owners. The Yankees do it in baseball and the Lakers were doing it in basketball until Boston pulled it off for one year and now Miami. It’s what I call buying championships. If you take a look at the luxury tax each team has had to pay you will see that the Lakers have always been at the top. Lakers: $21.42 million. The Mavs billionaire owner Mark cuban is trying to buy a championship and doesn’t mind spending money as they have been paying the luxury tax every year since it started. This year was Mavericks: $17.79 million. Celtics: $14.98 million. Cavaliers: $14.8 million. Knicks: $14.65 million. New York took on salary (and thus tax) this year to get further under the cap next year. Magic: $12.07 million and Spurs: $8.853 million. Then we have Denver at $5.19 million. Our billionaire owner has said cut salary to get under the tax. But putting the cheapest team together is not going to win us a championship. As the Lakers prove you gotta spend to win. Amundson anyone?

  • Steven

    The Garnett deal was even worse than it appears now because only a year before, Minnesota had traded for four Celtics players, Ricky Davis, Mark Blount, Justin Reed and Marcus Banks in exchange for Szcerzbiak, Olowokandi and Dwayne Jones. In two years, Minnesota ended up acquiring 9 players from the Celtics, none of whom were named Pierce, Rondo or Perkins and gave up their franchise player, Garnett.

    The Gasol deal was ridiculous but the sum total of taking 9 players (!!!!) from a team and not end up taking their best player and their best young player is inexplicable. It’s one of the worst GM performances ever.

  • http://www.roundballminingcompany.com/2010/08/09/does-luck-run-the-nba/ Cory

    We could use a little help all we need is chance but Melo is the best thing that has ever happened to this team othe than winning the first round of the playoffs as the 8th seed. Melo was the best in the 2003 draft maybe behind LBJ and wade but all will be in hall of fame so that doesnt matter

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