Luck has a lot to do with who wins and who loses—even in the NBA, which allocates its championship to the best team more efficiently than any other major American sports league.
"We had a lot of luck on our side this year, and our guys took advantage of it and they were fantastic," Golden State coach Steve Kerr said following Game 6's 105-97 win over the Cavalers. His Warriors rode their good fortune to the franchise's first championship in 40 years.
As for the Cavaliers, luck was hardly a reliable companion. While the Warriors came into the sport's ultimate series with their entire roster intact, the Cavaliers arrived with Kevin Love's shoulder in a sling, saw Kyrie Irving succumb to a busted knee cap in Game 1 and watched as Iman Shumpert battled through a bum shoulder of his own.
Not to mention the fatigue that dragged down LeBron James along with the few able bodies who remained among his supporting cast.
"You've got to be healthy," James said following the game. "You've got to be playing great at the right time. You've got to have a little luck. And we were playing great, but we had no luck and we weren't healthy."
But this isn't to excuse the Cavaliers' shortfall (against the league's best team from wire to wire, no less) so much as to lend hope to those legions of forlorn fans currently languishing on the banks of Lake Erie thinking their 51-year championship drought may be over soon.
"It's tough to lose. Tougher to be over," Cavs head coach David Blatt said after Game 6. "Not every story has a happy ending. Doesn't mean it was a bad story."
On the contrary, Cleveland's story was arguably the most compelling from the whirlwind that was the 2014-15 season. It began with James announcing to the world that he was coming home—and bringing Kevin Love (and Mike Miller, James Jones and Shawn Marion) with him. It continued through a troubling 19-20 start and a 34-9 flurry of a finish, spurred on by James' two-week sabbatical and general manager David Griffin's decision to cash in most of his remaining trade chips for Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert.
And it ended with the franchise's second Eastern Conference crown, its first Finals win and its first home win in the NBA's ultimate series. A year ago, the biggest cheers around Quicken Loans Arena came from those basking in the Cavaliers' third No. 1 pick in four years. Now, they're raining down in support of a squad whose bright future was shown to be even brighter amid its misfortunes.
Without Love and sometimes Irving, Cleveland scrapped its way through the East and to two wins on the sport's biggest stage, courtesy of James' brilliances.
Before the Finals began, James claimed that his game had reached a new high. "If you put everything together as far as my mind, my body, my game—if you put everything in one bottle—this is probably the best I've been," James said.
James backed that up—and then some—in these Finals. His averages (35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, 8.8 assists) speak for themselves. It's the extent to which James dictated the flow of the action for much of the series that truly set him apart.
When the Cavs needed to slow down the Warriors' torrid attack, James was there, operating methodically against Golden State's stifling defense and setting up his teammates with quality looks. When most of those looks went wanting, James was there to pick up his supporting cast in every way possible. When Cleveland had no choice but to ask James to play darn near every minute, he did just that.
It's no wonder, then, that James garnered such strong consideration for Finals MVP, despite winding up on the losing side:
But James being brilliant between the lines, even to this degree, isn't all that surprising. Like he said himself after Game 5, he is the best player in the world. Nobody gets to that point, nobody takes his team to five straight Finals, without at least the potential for transcendence.
The greater lessons here show what the rest of the Cavs are capable of. For one, Blatt—poked, prodded and criticized all season for his shortcomings, real and imagined—proved that he belongs in the NBA. He and his staff found ways to hang with the Warriors for six games, despite being shorthanded and faced with such a daunting foe.
"He did a fantastic job," Kerr said. "You think about all the injuries they had, to get where they are, they did an amazing job."
Rarely has a team ever shifted its identity so thoroughly as a means of survival and gotten so far as a result. When Love went down, Tristan Thompson joined forces up front with Mozgov to give the Cavs a physicality and a ferocity on the boards that nobody could match. Those two played a huge part in Cleveland taking control of the rebounding column in Game 6, 56-39.
When Irving went down—in the second round, in the conference finals and in the Finals—Matthew Dellavedova stepped in, left it all on the floor and gave Cleveland a fighting chance.
The Cavs won't need quite that same degree of grit and tenacity to hang on once Irving and Love (presumably) return, but they can take heart in knowing they're capable of digging so deep, of coming together as a group when the circumstances point to eventual, inevitable submission.
"I don't know any other team that made the Finals without two All-Stars," James said. "We had three playmakers in suits."
That doesn't figure to be the case next season, if the Cavs sort out the wrinkles in their roster this summer.
Irving's return is as close to a certainty as Cleveland can count on, but he's coming off a major knee injury. Next season will be the first for Irving under the five-year, $90 million extension he signed last summer. The only other Cavaliers who are currently locked into contracts for next season are Joe Harris, a rookie, and Anderson Varejao, who will be looking to bounce back from an Achilles injury—and make good on a three-year, $30 million extension of his own.
Picking up the $4.95 million option on Mozgov's contract is a no-brainer for the Cavs, given his contributions over the course of this season and all the praise with which James has showered him.
James and Love can both opt out this summer if they so choose, but each figures to stay for his own reasons. James would be hard-pressed to ditch his home state twice, and Love has said time and again in recent months that he wants to give it another go in Rock City.
Smith and Miller have options of their own to exercise, as well. The former figures to find a weak market for his services if he leaves, and the latter seems more likely to retire than leave James' side at this point.
The future of the roster figures to get tricky when Griffin has to decide what to do about Thompson, Shumpert and Dellavedova, all restricted free agents. James has lobbied hard on behalf of Thompson, with whom he shares an agent (Rich Paul). Thompson's performance throughout the postseason, particularly after assuming Love's spot at power forward, probably pushed his payday closer to max territory than had previously been anticipated.
Shumpert won't come cheaply, either, though his take won't likely have team owner Dan Gilbert sweating through his sheets. And you can bet Dellavedova's representatives will do everything they can to highlight their client's most memorable moments while downplaying his problems at point guard once he ran out of gas.
As Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote, keeping the band together could launch Cleveland's player expenses into orbit:
If they max out Love, retain Thompson at something close to the max, use Brendan Haywood’s nonguaranteed deal to land a key piece, and re-sign Shumpert and Dellavedova at reasonable numbers, they could set an all-time record for salary and tax payments next season with a bill north of $200 million. Blowing past the tax carries roster-building restrictions that make it harder to find supplementary players.
Then again, the Cavs don't need a whole lot more than what they have—and what they'd have if they ran it back—to compete for a championship in 2016 and beyond. They came within two wins of lifting the Larry O'Brien Trophy with a group that didn't come together until January and fell apart physically as the playoffs wore on. They don't have to search far and wide for the necessary reinforcements or for the requisite motivation to push for a return trip to the Finals, regardless of James' reservations.
And if there's anything more Cleveland could use on its roster, you can bet James will have a hand in luring the next wave of hungry veterans to northeast Ohio.
What the Cavs need more than anything is what the Warriors had in droves: luck. And if it's true that it's better to be lucky than good, and that those who are good get lucky more often, Cleveland should be poised to flip its fortunes even further—it went from 33 wins in 2014 to the brink of a championship in 2015—and soon end the sporting misery that's plagued the city for more than half a century.
"For me, it's never a success if you go out losing," James said. "But I think we put ourselves back where this franchise needs to be, being a contender. But we've still got a lot of work to do."
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.