They have talent. They have veteran leadership and youthful energy. They have the No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3 player in the NBA, depending on your taste on any given night, and the one whom most coaches and rivals would choose, time running out, game on the line, as their "closer.'' Their coach is the tactician for whom the league's elite players say they'd most like to play and a man who has a record 10 championships on the bench.
By beating Orlando in the NBA Finals, the Lakers snagged their fourth title in a decade that began in 2000 with the first of three in a row. No other team can match that, Exhibit Z in a compelling case that they are, and have been, exceptionally good. Another case can be made, though, that this year's edition of the Lakers was remarkably fortunate. As in, if it's better to be lucky than good, the Lakers showed that it's best to be lucky and good.
This is offered without malice or snark, with nary a suggestion that Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson, Pau Gasol and the rest haven't earned their lofty and enviable position. Luck, after all, is the residue of design, as baseball's Branch Rickey said. Still, as another noted quotemeister, Larry King, once said, those who have succeeded at anything and don't mention luck are kidding themselves. A number of things fell into place for the Lakers, not just lately but stretching back a few seasons, to help bring them the 15th title in franchise history.
The Lakers got lucky with:
• The Jazz not just talking the talk of family values but walking that walk.
Two years ago, Derek Fisher asked Utah management to release him from the three years remaining on his contract so that he could seek specialized care in a bigger city for his daughter, Tatum, then 11 months old and diagnosed with cancer in her left eye. The Jazz honored his request, and two weeks later, Fisher signed a three-year, $14 million deal to return to the Lakers.
Incidentally, the Jazz didn't just lose Fisher; they lost to him, as he helped L.A. eliminate Utah in each of the last two postseasons. Given the veteran guard's decisive role in Game 4 at Orlando (after his earlier struggles in the playoffs), it might be time to ask: Now that Bryant has proved he could win a title without Shaquille O'Neal, will his next order of business be to prove someday that he could win one without Fisher?
• Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace's "donation'' of Gasol 16 months ago to the Lakers' cause.
Three weeks before the trading deadline in February 2008, Wallace served up the Grizzlies' skilled 7-footer for a parcel of players and picks that was roundly criticized as insufficient for a contributor of the Spaniard's ilk and expected impact on the Western Conference heavyweights. Gasol immediately boosted the Lakers, filling in last season for injured center Andrew Bynum and teaming with Bryant to lead L.A. to the Finals. He was even better this season, making it to his second All-Star Game and earning third-team All-NBA honors, and better still in the playoffs, averaging 18.3 points and 10.8 rebounds and shooting 58 percent.
• Trevor Ariza's availability, not just once but twice.
By all rights, Ariza should still be playing in New York -- the Knicks' misguided 2006 trade for Steve Francis, into which Ariza got lumped, was a mistake several times over, not the least for shipping out the lanky, defensively valuable Ariza. Or he at least should still be in Orlando, since the players for whom Ariza was traded to L.A. in November 2007 (Brian Cook and Maurice Evans) already are gone from the Magic's roster. OK, Cook gave them the asset they needed to deal for Rafer Alston at a dire time, but Ariza is a perfect fit with the Lakers, having stared back at the Magic at a most inopportune time.
• Yao Ming's fractured foot.
The Houston center broke a bone in his left foot, ending his postseason, in Game 3 of the conference semifinals against the Lakers last month. The Rockets managed to push L.A. to seven games, presumably fueled by equal parts Houston adrenaline and Lakers casualness. But I'd have liked the fifth seed's chances better with Yao than without him against the then-inconsistent No. 1.
• Kevin Garnett's strained knee.
There are lots of people, not all of them from Boston, who believe the Celtics could have repeated as East and NBA champions if not for the injuries that cut short Garnett's and Leon Powe's seasons. Dwight Howard would have met with more resistance inside in Round 2, Boston could have overcome LeBron James as the Magic did in the conference finals, and the Celtics might have pushed L.A. harder in the Finals or thwarted them entirely.
• Jameer Nelson's amazing recuperative powers.
Nelson wasn't expected to return from right shoulder surgery until training camp, which means he wouldn't have been available to mess up Orlando's chemistry (as in Alston's confidence) and pecking order just two days before his team's most important moment. It is not Nelson's fault, but coach Stan Van Gundy's decision to activate and use the point guard after he missed the second half of the season and the first three rounds of the playoffs is eminently second-guessable. And that was the case even before Nelson backed up to give Fisher all the space he needed for that series-altering three-pointer in Game 4.
• Mitch Kupchak's refusal to panic.
Two summers ago, the Lakers' inscrutable GM was under fire after Bryant vented his frustration with the team and front office on sports-talk radio and in an amateur video. The Lakers' superstar was making noise about getting out, or at least getting more immediate help than young center Bynum could give. Kupchak somehow weathered Bryant's big wind, added Fisher that offseason and Ariza and Gasol during the 2007-08 season, and stayed the course on Bynum. That was good enough for a Finals appearance in 2008 and a championship this season.
By the way, Kupchak's doing it without Shaq now, too.