Heat' James goes in for a dunk during the first half of Game 4 of his NBA first round playoff series against the Bucks in Milwaukee

Heat, Spurs took (relatively) easy paths to NBA Finals

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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.

Corey Brewer: “James (Harden) is going to play defense this year”

HOUSTON, TX - MARCH 18:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets walks across the court during their game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Toyota Center on March 18, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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James Harden‘s defense is not as bad as its reputation.

Well, at least it wasn’t two seasons ago — his near MVP season he was in good enough shape that he could put in a respectable effort on that end and still handle his massive offensive load. There were still some mental lapses, but his focus was better and his improvement lifted the team defense. Last season, he regressed back to youtube “highlight” defense Harden — his conditioning was not where it needed to be, he didn’t expend as much effort on that end, and it showed.

Harden got a massive contract extension this summer, and Dwight Howard is Atlanta’s problem — now Harden has to lead the Rockets. By example. Corey Brewer told ESPN you’re going to see that on defense.

“I think this year he’s going to play better defense, We’re going to let the past be in the past. It’s the future of the Rockets, man. James is going to play defense this year.”

We’re all Missourians on this one: Show me.

Remember that the Rockets will be out and running — Mike D’Antoni is the coach now, and Daryl Morey is going to get the up tempo ball he wants (which Kevin McHale had them doing, but Harden didn’t like him so…). D’Antoni’s teams in Phoenix played better defense than their reputation — points per possession they were middle of the pack — but that has never been his focus.

Will Harden be able to run like he needs to on offense and still defend at a reasonable level?

If he can, it’s a big step toward the Rockets being a dangerous team in the West because if he does it others will follow. Otherwise, every Rockets game will be a shootout, which is entertaining but not going to get a team deep into the playoffs.

 

Watch Drake hit a half court shot while doing a situp

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 26:  Singer Drake celebrates after Terrance Ross #31 of the Toronto Raptors sinks a 3-pointer in the second half of Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Indiana Pacers during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on April 26, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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I can see the questions on Twitter/in the comments already so let me save you some time.

Because it’s summer.

Because it’s Drake (he’s a celebrity and an NBA hanger-on with some quasi-official position with the Raptors).

Because Stephen Curry did it, too.

Because what other hoops are you watching on a late August afternoon?

And besides, you clicked on it. You know you want to see it.

So here it is, Drake, hitting a halfcourt shot while doing a sit up. Enjoy.

FOR THE KIA!!!!! @highlighthub @bleacherreport

A video posted by champagnepapi (@champagnepapi) on

Mario Chalmers says he’s cleared to play

Memphis Grizzlies guard Mario Chalmers moves the ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2015, in Washington. Chalmers was ejected in the first half. The Wizards won 100-91. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
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Mario Chalmers was thriving with the Grizzlies after a midseason trade from the Heat when a torn Achilles ended his season.

Not the way Chalmers wanted to enter free agency.

Still unsigned, he says he’s progressing.

Chalmers:

Can he go 100%, though? If not, when?

A few teams could use another point guard. If Chalmers shows his health, he belongs in someone’s rotation. But that might require taking a low-paying deal and working his way up from the third point guard spot – or even just onto the regular-season roster.

Report: John Wall ‘rankled’ by James Harden’s high-paying Rockets contract

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 29: John Wall #2 of the Washington Wizards is defended by James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets in the second half at Verizon Center on March 29, 2015 in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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Bradley Beal isn’t the only player bothering John Wall.

James Harden – who’s earning a lot of money from the Rockets and adidas – is drawing the ire of the Wizards point guard.

Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer:

One league source familiar with Wall’s state of mind simply put it this way: “Wall’s got jealousy issues. He’s always upset with someone who makes more money than him.”

A front office executive tells The Ringer that Wall was “rankled” after Harden signed a four-year, $118 million extension with the Rockets.

O’Connor also pointed out this line from Nick DePaula of Yahoo Sports on Wall rejected adidas’ offer:

“He wanted Harden money,” a source told The Vertical.

I wonder how Wall feels about Beal’s max contract, which pays much more than Wall’s deal. Wall didn’t like Reggie Jackson, another lesser player, earning the same amount as him.

The union rejecting cap smoothing in light of the new national TV contracts has certainly adversely affected Wall, who locked in long-term just before the salary cap explosion became known. As other players sign huge contracts, he’s stuck on his old-money deal.

Washington could’ve renegotiated and extended Wall’s contract, but it would have been more complicated than Harden’s arrangement. Wall has three years remaining to what was previously two for Harden. How much extra money would the Wizards have paid Wall over the next three years just to get him committed for one more year? Instead, they signed Ian Mahinmi, Andrew Nicholson and Jason Smith.

I’m also unsure Wall would’ve accepted an extension. He doesn’t seem overly happy in Washington, and a raise via renegotiation was coming only if Wall provided something in return – an additional year of team control added to his contract.

And don’t lose track of this: Harden is better than Wall.

I don’t mind Wall monitoring other players’ contracts. That jealousy or whatever you want to call it has driven Wall to become a star NBA player. Whatever motivation works.

But demanding Harden’s deal is unrealistic. The Wizards also ought to be mindful of how Beal’s new contract affects chemistry, but that’s their problem.

Wall’s issue – as a player, not endorser – is primarily theoretical. He’s tied to his current contract, and lesser players will earn more than him due simply to timing. He must find a way to make peace with that.