The San Antonio Spurs have been preposterously lucky. No would argue that part of their story. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be leading off Thursday’s NBA Draft by taking the nineteen-year-old French prodigy, seven-foot-four Victor Wembanyama, the most coveted prospect since LeBron James.

James was also nineteen when the Cleveland Cavaliers made him the first pick of the 2003 draft and started him on a journey in which he made almost every team on which he played a championship contender. He won twice with the Miami Heat and once apiece with the Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers.

Wembanyama is getting some of that level of hype because he has ball-handling skills and an outside shooting touch and defensive agility and instincts in a combination that has never been seen from someone his size. He may not instantly elevate the Spurs into the championship conversation, but after four consecutive losing seasons and a precipitous drop in home attendance, Wembanyama’s arrival completely changes the franchise’s trajectory.

Because few teams have been more savvy about building rosters and finding talent in places other teams aren’t even looking, it would be a mistake to underestimate how fast the Spurs might be able to turn things around in Wembanyama’s rookie season. At the very least, the rookie will bring buzz back to a franchise that has been among the NBA’s most successful and respected for the past four decades. And oh yeah, behind all that success and respect, there’s that incredible luck.

The Spurs, Houston Rockets, and Detroit Pistons each had a 14 percent chance of landing the number one pick in this year’s draft. Beforehand, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich swatted away suggestions that San Antonio could land Wembanyama. “We deserve no more luck ever in the history of NBA basketball,” he told reporters before last month’s lottery. That’s because San Antonio had already won the draft lottery twice, in 1987 and 1997. They had a 14.29 percent chance of winning in ’87 and a 21.6 percent chance in ’97. That year, San Antonio Express-News columnist Buck Harvey wrote that the Spurs’ chances of winning a second lottery were roughly “Vernon Maxwell’s odds of hitting an open jumper when he played point guard for the Spurs.”

Winning the lottery is one thing. The Cleveland Cavaliers have won it five times, the Orlando Magic have won four, and the Los Angeles Clippers have won three. Only the Cavs—thank you, LeBron—turned those lucky Ping-Pong balls into a championship. The Spurs? For the better part of forty years, they’ve been one of the NBA gold standards for winning. San Antonio’s true luck hasn’t just been in winning the NBA draft lottery, but in which players were available each time the Spurs nabbed the top pick.  

In 1987, it was future Hall of Famer David Robinson. In 1997, after a back injury kept Robinson off the court for all but six games of the previous season and sent the Spurs plummeting to a 20–62 record, Tim Duncan was the number one pick. Also, in that lost season, the Spurs promoted a relatively unknown assistant coach named Gregg Popovich to head coach. Over the subsequent 27 seasons, Popovich has steered the team to five NBA championships and established himself as the best of his generation.

Finally, this season. The Spurs were 22–60 and tied with the Rockets—who could desperately use some good luck—for the NBA’s second-worst record, worse than every other team except 17–65 Detroit. The Spurs won that lottery, too, and San Antonio is now on the cusp of welcoming a third franchise player to an organization that has just endured four straight losing seasons for the first time ever. 

If you’re trying to calculate the odds of winning the lottery three times in years when franchise-changing talents were available, good luck. Besides, plenty of teams have screwed up a good thing. The Spurs have built contender after contender, not just with Robinson and Duncan, but with shrewd moves to build championship-level teams around their Hall of Fame big men. As a result, between Robinson’s arrival in 1989 (the U.S. Naval Academy required two years of active duty before he joined the league) and Duncan’s retirement in 2016, the Spurs made the playoffs 27 times in 28 seasons and won five NBA titles.

There was no luck in a front office, led by team president R. C. Buford, finding guard Tony Parker late in the first round of the 2001 draft. The French American guard was a six-time All-Star and four-time NBA Champion in seventeen seasons with the Spurs. That same front office saw something no one else did in Manu Ginóbili and got him in the second round of the 1999 draft. He was also part of four championship teams, and like Robinson and Duncan, is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Nor was luck a factor when Popovich and Buford swung a draft-day trade for Kawhi Leonard in 2011. The defensive-minded forward improved his outside shot and midrange game with the help of the Spurs’ player development staff, most notably the team’s former shooting guru, Chip Engelland, and became one of the best players of his generation. The Spurs’ success may start with NBA Draft luck, but that’s when the franchise starts making more of their own luck.

Wembanyama arrives at a time when average attendance at the AT&T Center has ranked in the bottom six of the NBA in back-to-back seasons. Because San Antonio is the country’s thirty-first-largest television market, the franchise’s stability has been an on-again, off-again storyline through the years. When Spurs management received permission to play two games a season in Austin beginning this fall, it stirred some familiar paranoia among fans of a certain age.

If not for winning the lottery twice, especially the David Robinson draft in ’87, the franchise might have hightailed it out of the Alamo City years ago. Former NBA commissioner David Stern once whispered as much to the late Red McCombs, who was instrumental in relocating the American Basketball Association franchise from Dallas to San Antonio and then buying it (again) in 1986 when the Spurs seemed to be on life support. McCombs, who died in February at the age of 95, once told me in no uncertain terms that David Robinson’s arrival kept the Spurs in San Antonio.

“He saved the franchise, period,” he said. Robinson has long discounted his role in such things. “I think I’ve probably been given more credit than I deserve for that,” he told me years ago. “I feel I had some role, but I’m not sure what it was. I don’t take that kind of talk seriously.” Robinson was a gamble on two levels. First, he was eligible for the 1987 draft after finishing his college basketball career in Annapolis, but he couldn’t join the Spurs until 1989. Because NBA rules allowed players who sit out their first two seasons to become unrestricted free agents, Robinson could have played anywhere he chose. “What we had to do was convince him San Antonio was the place for him,” McCombs said.

McCombs began that process by signing Robinson to an at-the-time head-spinning ten-year contract worth between $24 million and $30 million. “Let’s be honest,” McCombs said. “We had no leverage. The most significant thing was not the contract. It was David agreeing to come to San Antonio.” Robinson, and later Duncan, quickly fell in love with San Antonio and never played for any other franchise. 

The Spurs are hoping Wembanyama takes a similar path. The incoming rookie has already gotten a taste of Texas life through his work last summer with Dallas-based skills trainer Tim Martin, whose other NBA clients include Rudy Gobert, Trae Young, and Tyrese Maxey. Martin told the Washington Post that he focused on preparing young players for the mental and emotional strain of NBA life in addition to helping them perfect their footwork and conditioning. ”I think these kids, it’s important for them to control their emotions and know how to navigate them,” Martin told the Post. “I firmly believe that how you do one thing is how you do everything. So I think developing them off the court is just as, if not more, important.”

Since last month’s lottery, Popovich has thought about the opportunity to coach a third franchise player capable of elevating the Spurs to championship contention. “I just know I’ve been the beneficiary of serendipity to a max degree,” he said. “And that goes from ownership on down. Our owners have been amazing, R. C. [Buford] and I have been together forever, and all the players we’ve had, and all the great coaches I’ve had—I’m not sure anybody’s had it better than I’ve had it in all those respects.”

Here’s to a third chapter.