In the NBA and sports lexicon, “luck” has become a sort of taboo word, one that comes with negative connotations. If a team got lucky, the idea is that they didn’t deserve what they accomplished.
In reality, luck is not only common in all championship teams, it’s almost impossible to find a title-winning side that didn’t get lucky in some capacity. Each Lakers team that has won a title? They’ve gotten lucky in some way.
Were they also good? Absolute. Does their good fortune undermine their achievement? Of course not. Luck and skill are not mutually exclusive. If you believe in old cliches, luck is when preparation meets opportunity. You’re only able to take advantage of good fortune if you’re in the right position with the right amount of skill.
Having said all that, the 2020-21 Phoenix Suns got lucky. Injuries to opponents gave them an easier pathway to the NBA Finals, which they took full advantage of and nearly parlayed it into an NBA title. That’s a credit to their talent, preparation, and durability, and their 2021-22 campaign, though, serves as ample evidence that they are a supremely talented group as well. There are no “asterisks” for them (Asterisks are the lamest discourse in sports, but I digress).
Every bit of good fortune comes with someone else having misfortune, and it’s just as clear that the Lakers were an incredibly unlucky team last season, particularly when it came to injuries. After a hot start to the campaign, the team was ravaged by maladies. Not just to role players, but to stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis, too.
Those realities intersected in the first round of the playoffs. For one of the few times in the season, the Lakers got healthy and, after falling in Game 1, they were turning the Suns into memes by the end of Game 3 as they went ahead 2-1. Considering how the Lakers handled so many playoff series in the bubble by losing the first game before reeling off four straight wins, that series was starting to follow a very similar trend.
And then, midway through Game 4, Davis went down, the Lakers lost their buoy on the defensive end and the domino effect led to a complete collapse over the next 2.5 games. Phoenix smelled blood in the water and buried the Lakers, then used that momentum to make a Finals run.
Why are we talking about this just shy of a full year later? Well, in all honesty, because some local media in Phoenix sensed a blowout and needed something to talk about. So on Sunday, head coach Frank Vogel and Davis were asked if they felt the latter’s injury is the reason the team lost the series.
“We’ll never know,” Vogel said. “I really don’t want to paint a picture that if he doesn’t get (injured), we win that series because I think that takes away from how good (the Suns) are, how good they were last year. They were definitely a team that could have beat us with Anthony.
“But we’ll never know how that series would have played out. I think what they did after that series, going all the way to the Finals, and then what they’ve come back and done this year, being the best team in the NBA by a long stretch — I think they’re eight games better than the second-best team in the NBA — it just shows how good they are,” Vogel continued. “I don’t think it’s fair to make any assumptions that we would have definitely won that series if Anthony stayed healthy.”
If Vogel chose diplomacy in his answer, Davis chose to be a little less filtered in his response pregame.
Anthony Davis, asked if his groin injury is the main reason the Lakers didn’t beat the Suns in the playoffs last year, says: “It was … We know that. They know that … They got away with one”— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) March 13, 2022
Predictably, that response did not go over well with the Suns. After laying another beat down on the Lakers — an eighth-straight victory including postseason and preseason — Devin Booker pushed back on that idea in equally unfiltered terms.
“It’s just all the ifs,” Booker said. “If ifs was a fifth we’d all be drunk. If my auntie had something between her legs, she’d be my uncle. There’s a lot of ifs in this game and look at history along the lines, there’s something that comes up for every team every season. Instead of taking the high road and going, you have to make a comment like that, it’s kind of funny.”
If Booker’s response was at least somewhat reserved, the response of those online was very much not, as Davis was criticized for having the audacity to think his team would have won a series they were leading before his injury. It was a lose-lose proposition for Davis, who you would hope as a competitor would have the confidence he showed in his answer. If he answers truthfully, he’s criticized by NBA fans. If he doesn’t answer truthfully, he’s criticized by Lakers fans, who already love nothing more than to criticize Davis this season.
Hell, the Suns themselves have had no problem bringing up their own injuries during their playoff run and why that may have led to them coming up short of the title. Suns head coach Monty Williams cited injuries to Booker and Chris Paul in the Finals that potentially held them back, and Paul himself has mentioned he could barely use his shooting arm at times. Even if they didn’t as explicitly say they would win if healthy like Davis did, the implication is the same even if the wording was different. And if they didn’t care to take the aforementioned high road then, why would they expect Davis to do as much now?
History isn’t kind to the losers. Nobody remembers how close the 2009 Finals were for the Lakers, and how a missed Courtney Lee layup or a Jameer Nelson defensive faux pas changed how that series is looked back upon.
With the Lakers, history won’t remember that the purple and gold led in the first round against the Suns in 2021. Only Laker fans will have those what-ifs to ponder upon when the nights are long.
But Lady Luck wasn’t on the Lakers’ side, and instead favored the Suns. It doesn’t diminish what Phoenix did then and has done since. But it’s dishonest to pretend luck wasn’t part of the equation, even if it doesn’t help the Lakers deal with the frustration of having lost a series they should have won, or delegitimize anything the Suns have accomplished since.