Before going any further, I want say reaching the NBA Finals is hard. Really, really hard. Any team that makes it this far deserves a lot of credit.
But sometimes it’s easier win a conference than other times.
There are a couple objective ways to measure the difficulty of the path a team takes to the Finals. One is the seeding of opponents in the first three rounds, and another is the record of opponents in the first three rounds.
By the first, the Spurs had the easiest path the Finals in 24 years. By the second, the Heat had the easiest path in 25 years.
By opponents’ seeds
The Spurs beat a No. 7 seed (Lakers), No. 6 seed (Warriors) and No. 5 seed (Grizzlies) to win the Western Conference. The seeds of San Antonio’s three opponents total 18. No team team has reached the Finals with its opponents’ seeds totaling that large a number since 1989.
Since the NBA instituted its current four-round format in 1984, only four Finals teams have such a high number in this stat:
1. 1987 Lakers, 20
2. 1989 Pistons, 19
3. 1984 Lakers, 18
3. 2013 Spurs, 18
Two of those three teams preceding San Antonio – the 1987 Lakers and 1989 Pistons – won the Finals. This might be somewhat random, but it also makes sense. A team that enters the playoffs as a high seed is more likely to win a championship, and that team is also guaranteed one series against a low seed. Also, by possessing a high seed itself, that’s one fewer possible high seed the Finals-bound team can play.
By opponents’ records
The Heat beat the 38-44 Bucks, 45-37 Bulls and 49-32 Pacers – opponents with a combined winning percentage of .539. The last Finals team with three opponents that had such a low winning percentage was the 1988 Lakers.
Since 1984, just five Finals teams have faced opponents with a worse combined record:
1. 1987 Lakers, .480
2. 1984 Lakers, .496
3. 1985 Lakers, .528
4. 1988 Lakers, .533
5. 1984 Celtics, .537
6. 2013 Heat, .539
Miami’s opponent winning percentage is pretty remarkable, considering expansion has raised the bar for the lower seeds. Now with 30 teams, assuming conference parity, a median team is a No. 8 seed. In 1988, when there were just 23 teams, a median team was a No. 6 team, meaning below-median teams filled the bottom two seeds.
Four of the five teams that reached the Finals with worse opponents winning percentages than the Heat won the title, and the Lakers lost in 1984 only when facing a team also on the list, the Celtics.
Again, this could be random, but it also makes sense. Teams with good records get more series against teams with worse records. Also, every game a team wins – a sign that the team is good – is a game a potential playoff opponent doesn’t win.
So, an easy path to the Finals might actually bode well for teams once they get there. If that holds true for the Spurs and Heat, we should be in for a heck of a series.
Also, in case you’re wondering, the most difficult path to the finals, by either measure goes to the 1995 Rockets. Entering the playoffs as the No. 6 seed, Houston beat the No. 3 Jazz (60-22), No. 2 Suns (59-23) and No. 1 Spurs (62-20) to reach the Finals, where it defended its title by beating the Magic.