There's A Difference Between Luck That's Received And Luck That's Found

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Other franchises will want to make a replicable plan out of the Toronto Raptors’ journey to one of the truly amazing championships in NBA history. That’s how it goes. There has to be some parable in what everybody just watched, even if it’s the dullest kind, the kind about the friggin’ salary cap. Let this one be about the value of hanging in there long enough for luck to show up.

That might seem like a backhanded compliment to the Raptors, but it isn’t. They did indeed get several doses of good fortune this postseason, in the form of injuries and setbacks to the teams they needed to get past: the calf and then ankle injuries that caused Kevin Durant to miss all but just under 12 minutes of the Finals; the hamstring that kept Klay Thompson out of Game 3 of the series and then the catastrophic ACL injury that snatched him out of what was shaping up to be one of the best games of his career in last night’s decisive Game 6; the weird casserole of gastrointestinal and/or respiratory maladies that limited Joel Embiid during that incredibly tight and hard-fought seven-game second-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers. In the face of all that, it scarcely even seems worth mentioning that Kevon Looney and DeMarcus Cousins, the centers who played a combined 45 minutes for the Warriors last night, were both visibly limited by their own injuries.

Beyond that, there’s also the Raptors’ corresponding good injury luck: The only significant member of their rotation dealing with any noteworthy health issues by the time the Finals rolled around was reserve swingman OG Anunoby, who missed the entire postseason after undergoing an emergency appendectomy in April. And there’s the biggest lucky stroke of all: That, in the aftermath of his weird, lost 2017-18 season and the collapse of his relationship with the San Antonio Spurs franchise, Kawhi Leonard, who fit Toronto’s roster perfectly and represented a vast and comprehensive upgrade over DeMar DeRozan, happened to come available for acquisition a whole entire year earlier than anybody could have expected, right as LeBron James finally vacated the throne atop the Eastern Conference, and under circumstances that depressed his trade value just enough for Toronto personnel mastermind Masai Ujiri to acquire him for the relatively low price of a protected first-round pick, a bench big the team could afford to lose (Jakob Poeltl), and the exact player he’d be replacing in the lineup (DeRozan). That’s a lot of good fortune!


But also, that’s the point. Every NBA champion gets lucky; every runner-up gets undone at least in part by some bad breaks. In 2015, the Cleveland Cavaliers were down Kevin Love by the time the Finals began and lost Kyrie Irving before the end of Game 1, and it still took the Warriors six tough games to finish them off. In 2016, Draymond Green earned a hugely important one-game suspension for smacking LeBron James’s nutsack in the closing minutes of Game 4; in Game 5, Warriors center Andrew Bogut suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second half; the Cavaliers won in seven games. In the summer of 2016, Kevin Durant, one of the most extraordinary talents in the history of the sport, happened to hit free-agency at the exact same time as a huge and completely unprecedented one-time salary-cap spike enabled even a team as stacked as the Warriors to make a competitive bid for his services; the Warriors deserve credit for having assembled a team he’d want to join, but it’s nevertheless one of the luckiest breaks a sports team has ever received, and it decided the following two championships—as long as the Warriors didn’t get stung by bad injury luck.

This brings us back to the Raptors. At so many points over the past seven seasons (the run spanning Lowry’s time with the team), they’ve hit the types of junctures front offices and observers customarily receive as the sound of a team crashing into the hard, low, and permanent ceiling atop its current iteration’s hopes. That rumble, the one that’s so often taken as a sign that it’s time to tear it all down and start rebuilding, kept sounding: When they followed up their promising playoff debut in 2014 by getting swept out of the first round by a lower-seeded team the following spring and seemed to quit on the floor. When LeBron’s Cavaliers swept them out of the second round in 2017 by a combined 61 points amid baffling meltdowns by Lowry and DeRozan. Last season, when an overhauled offensive style, career-best seasons by DeRozan and center Jonas Valančiūnas, and the blossoming of the league’s deepest supporting cast kindled hope that things could finally be different ... and then LeBron swept them out of the second round again, in completely one-sided fashion.


At any of those points, as drafted players grew into higher pay brackets, as Lowry in particular aged out of synchronicity with the rest of the team’s developmental timeline, and as the results broadly stayed the same, any rationally run NBA franchise might have made the choice to tear down the existing roster and go in the tank, for lottery picks or for the salary-cap space to take a swing at free-agent superstars. Indeed, at a certain point—you can debate exactly when Toronto reached it—Toronto’s continued refusal to do so started to seem foolish, if not downright perverse. (Personally, I wrote the Raptors off a handful of times, right here on this website, including as recently as five weeks ago.) Their steady return to the playoffs year after year seemed Sisyphean, a grim death march; LeBron left the conference, so the perfunctory springtime work of beheading each next doomed Raptors squad would have to fall to Embiid, or Kyrie Irving, or Giannis Antetokounmpo. What seemed certain was, somebody would do it.

But luck doesn’t just happen in the draft lottery, and thus isn’t only a friend to clubs that intentionally default on their obligation to put a competitive basketball team on the court night after night. The Raptors never pulled their own plug. They hung in there, outside of true contention but within sight of it, year after year—and thus didn’t have to pin all their hopes on a single free-agency masterstroke planned years in advance, or the bounce of some lottery balls. A fluky one-time window opened, when a discontented superstar with a temporarily depressed trade value came suddenly available for what might possibly be just a one-year stay, on offer from a franchise that would be disposed to prefer an established veteran over abstract unrealized assets in return. The terms of that arrangement wouldn’t make sense for the teams tanking their slow way to rebuilds, and the league’s healthiest franchises wouldn’t gut themselves for a rental. It wasn’t an opportunity for those clubs; it was just a thing that happened somewhere, a stranger across the country getting invited to go on Jeopardy.


It was an opportunity for a good team that had reason to think it might be one big upgrade away from the real thing; a team that had good, established, productive players it could offer in return for Leonard, and that knew those players had taken it as far as they could; a team that had experienced bitter postseason disappointment enough times to regard a damn-the-torpedoes single-season sprint for the championship as worth the risk and the price, even if Leonard bailed the following summer. It was an opportunity for a team that had put itself in position to Go For It, and then stayed there, stubbornly, year after year, until it had the chance.

Hindsight has the effect of making the Leonard trade look like the culmination of a master plan, but that’s a trick of perspective. Nobody in Toronto had a scheme to lie in wait for Kawhi to decide he didn’t trust the Spurs organization and demand a trade with a year left on his contract, and then to pounce when he did, because nobody had any way of knowing that would ever happen. Ujiri just did all the parts of his job well, at a point in the league’s history when front-office orthodoxy holds that smart, forward-thinking general managers should pick a subset of the job—usually asset acquisition—and strategically neglect everything else. He drafted well and traded well and invested in building up the players he had as though they might be the only players he’d ever have; he kept a good team on the floor, the kind of team that could aim to make a run to the conference finals year after year, and he preserved the flexibility to make the big move that could push it over the top, should that move ever present itself, and he made that move when the opportunity arose. Kawhi Leonard wasn’t going to push the friggin’ Phoenix Suns over the championship hump, even if they did have anything the Spurs would take back in exchange for him, you know?


So yes, the Raptors got lucky, but it was luck born out of effort. Teams that decide to forgo several seasons of competitive basketball in exchange for a few dice rolls and the chance to pick a potential franchise savior off the menu aren’t so much making wise but difficult decisions as they are lazily putting the franchise on autopilot and allowing the structural benefits of the amateur draft and salary cap to work their magic. Tanking teams are making the easy decision that scores of teams have already made before them; Masai Ujiri and the Raptors made a hard one.

And then at the end, they got to face these Warriors, wrung out and pulled in several different directions by egos and contract shit and then shredded by injuries, the most vulnerable iteration of that team since it hired Steve Kerr as head coach in 2014. But again, that vulnerability didn’t mean dick to the friggin’ New York Knicks. Joel Embiid’s two-week case of frickin’ cholera or whatever the hell that was, it didn’t prop open a brief championship window for the goddamn Charlotte Hornets. LeBron leaving the conference didn’t create a running lane for the Chicago Bulls. All that stuff amounted to luck for the Raptors, because the Raptors never stopped shooting their shot, even when idiots like me thought they were wasting their time, and idiots like too many of Ujiri’s counterparts would have gone into full retreat.


So if there’s a lesson in there, it’s this: The Toronto Raptors have delivered an NBA championship to their fans today because Masai Ujiri kept them in the game when he had a safe rhetorical basis for forfeiting, and insisted upon competing on all fronts, on and off the court—because each time an opportunity presented itself, he and they were still there, stubbornly hanging in with the ever smaller group of possible beneficiaries, until they were the only possible beneficiaries left. Every fanbase should be so lucky, and a couple dozen would be justified in asking why they aren’t.