There are many words which help to define the Los Angeles Lakers: Success, glamour, winning, championships, winning championships ... but, if you are looking to describe how the Lakers have maintained such an authoritative grip on relevancy and success in the NBA, one of the chief descriptors is luck.
The Lakers have always been a lucky team. They were lucky to have the league's first dominant big man, George Mikan. They were lucky that a draft pick traded for years in advance turned into the first overall pick in 1980, and even luckier that 1980 was the year Magic Johnson was available to be drafted. They were lucky to be purchased by a visionary owner who never failed to pursue greatness. They were lucky Shaq wanted to make movies, lucky that twelve teams passed on Kobe Bryant before a thirteenth selected him at their bidding, and lucky to trade a bunch of garbage for Pau Gasol. That there are elements of skill involved in all of these situations, that the Lakers have done their business better than any other team in the league's history, is assured. But that doesn't make the Lakers less lucky. Hell, the Los Angeles Lakers are even lucky to be the Los Angeles Lakers. This city, with all of its glitz and glamour and money and fame and culture, has allowed the Lakers to be a prime time destination for big name players since the dawn of the league. It has allowed the Lakers to offer more money to their stars, or if not, certainly more prestige. Just another element of that luck that constantly seems to be going the Lakers way.
Until last season, of course. Last season, in just 86 demoralizing and depressing games, the luck of the Los Angeles Lakers didn't fall apart so much as get professionally demolished so as to implode on itself. The Lakers made the moves necessary to appear a stacked team, with four capable star players, but you know what happened. One guy crashed out in the 2nd game of the year and likely will never recover, another played the entire season like it was a chore he didn't have much interest in before bouncing out of town, and the one player who gave everything he could to the team ... well, he gave more than perhaps even he bargained for. All while nearly every important player on the team suffered at least one major injury. It was like 60 years worth of good luck were being paid back in a single season.
Thank God that was a blip. This year, the Lakers have gone right back to their lucky ways.
This year, the Lakers are going through a spate of injuries which is somehow far worse than anything they suffered last year. They are missing five of their top seven guards, all five of whom are the Lakers' first five choices for ball-handling. They've been forced into giving significant starters minutes to a guy that didn't even have a team two weeks ago. They currently have 9 active players, and four of them are centers. It is one of the worst injury runs I have ever seen. And it could not have come at a better time.
Last year, the Lakers' bad luck ruined whatever chance they had to formulate a contending team out of their excellent (if ill-fitting) selection of parts. This year, all the luck in the world wouldn't have gotten the Lakers into contention. They might, might have been able to make the playoffs if everything went well, and early in the season, everything was going well. The Lakers played .500 ball in Kobe Bryant's absence, and their role players were providing everything we could hope for them to. The Lakers were on their best possible trajectory, looking to barely make the playoffs, or to just fall short. Problem is, that's a terrible trajectory to have. If you just make the playoffs, chances are that you are nowhere near good enough to actually compete with the teams at the top of the league. And your chances for improving the team are not very good with the mid round draft pick a trip to the bottom of the playoffs entails.
It is for that reason, and a draft class that is being hailed as one of the best and deepest drafts in history, that many teams have chosen to tank the season. Certain teams have worked hard to be very bad this season. The Utah Jazz accepted two of the worst contracts in the NBA (Andres Biedrins and Richard Jefferson) for nothing more than a bunch of draft picks that will all probably end up being bad. Philly traded away its best player for a young big man that may not even play this season due to injury. These teams are two of the league's worst, and that is not an accident. They have chosen to tank.
The Lakers did not choose to tank. Once Dwight Howard left, they knew they were in a tight spot, with a team that didn't have any hope of contending. They could have tanked. Lots of people, myself included, wanted them to. They could have traded Pau Gasol, encouraged Kobe to take a long, long time coming back, and watched the losses pile up. Instead, they did the best they could with their budget limitations (the Lakers could offer only one $3 Million contract and a bunch of veteran's minimum contracts, because they were over the salary cap) to fill out the roster with effective players. It was working, too. The Lakers were OK. The Lakers did not choose to tank. And that's why they are lucky, because they didn't have to choose.
Instead, the tank chose them. Despite the Lakers' best intentions, they are one of the worst teams in the league right now. And with one of the league's hardest schedules over the next month (ten of their next thirteen games are on the road), the Lakers could easily be in the bottom five, record wise, by the All-Star break. Strategically, there can be no arguing that this is the best position for them to be in. For some, that's enough to approve of tanking as a strategy. For others, tanking is a dirty word, because it is cheating the system, challenging the integrity of the game. And the Lakers are too proud to choose tanking. "We don't do that", the Lakers say. And they haven't. They've tried their absolute best to put an entertaining and competitive product on the court, and considering the limitations they were dealing with, they've done a great job. Only, none of it matters, because the team is being absolutely decimated by injuries. So the Lakers now get to shrug their shoulders and say "Well, we tried" all the way to the bottom of the standings. They get to have their cake, and draft it too.
Some teams really do have all the luck.