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


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.

Report: Pistons claim Beno Udrich off Miami’s waivers

MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 26: A portrait of Beno Udrih #9 of the Miami Heat on September 26, 2016 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
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Miami felt set at point guard with Goran Dragic starting and the up-and-coming Tyler Johnson as his backup. They decided veteran Beno Udrih wasn’t part of the future and waived him.

Detroit, looking for some help at the one until Reggie Jackson returns, saw a dependable veteran guard on the market. So they snapped him up, reports Shams Charnaria of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

At age 34 we are seeing Ulrich’s game start to slip. Still, he has valuable NBA skills as a point guard: he doesn’t turn the ball over, can run an offense, and if you ignore him coming off a pick he will bury the shot.

Jackson is expected to be out at least another six weeks after getting PRP therapy to deal with knee tendonitis (he hopes to be back sooner). That leaves Ish Smith as the starting point guard in the short term; Udrih will help provide solid depth at the position.

The Pistons need to keep their heads above water until Jackson can return.

NBA’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement could run to 2024

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The first 12 years of the NBA’s salary-cap era went without a lockout. The league again avoided a lockout for a dozen straight years between 1999 to 2011.

Now, with a new Collective Bargaining Agreement coming soon, the NBA is setting itself up for another 12 years of labor peace.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

The NBA and National Basketball Players Association are working on a seven-year extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, with a mutual opt-out in six years, league sources told The Vertical.

The seven-year deal could potentially deliver the NBA labor peace through the 2023-24 season, unless the opt-outs are exercised in 2022, league sources told The Vertical.

The new CBA will begin with the 2017-18 season.

Expect an opt out after six years. By then, there’s usually something to renegotiate.

Hope for another quick resolution, like we’re getting now.

And if neither the owners nor players opt out, be pleasantly surprised at an unprecedented 13th straight year without a lockout in this era.

Rockets waive Gary Payton II and reportedly Tyler Ennis

TARRYTOWN, NEW YORK - AUGUST 07:  Gary Payton II #0 of the Houston Rockets poses for a portrait during the 2016 NBA Rookie Photoshoot at Madison Square Garden Training Center on August 7, 2016 in Tarrytown, New York. 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
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The Rockets entered the day with five point guards with guaranteed salaries: James Harden, Patrick Beverley, Pablo Prigioni, Tyler Ennis and Gary Payton II.

That seemed like too many, but Houston had just 15 players – the regular-season roster limit – with guaranteed salaries. There didn’t seem to be urgency to drop a player with a guaranteed deal.

Yet, the Rockets will drop two.

Rockets release:

Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey announced today that the team has waived guard/forward P.J. Hairston, forward Le’Bryan Nash, and guard Gary Payton II.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

Barring another move, this opens the door for Houston to keep Bobby Brown (whose biggest impact in the preseason was causing an international incident) and Kyle Wiltjer, a stretch big who went undrafted out of Gonzaga.

The Rockets come out behind in their trade for Ennis. They have could have just waived the player they dealt, a lower-paid Michael Beasley, and saved a little money.

Payton, undrafted out of Oregon State, is an intriguing project. But Brown is probably more capable of helping now, a bigger factor for that roster spot with Beverley injured.

Thunder waive Ronnie Price and Mitch McGary, keep Semaj Christon

2014 Oklahoma City Thunder Media Day
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The Thunder waived a former No. 21 pick who still had two years left on his rookie-scale contract and a 33-year-old journeyman.

The latter was the surprise.

Thunder release:

The Oklahoma City Thunder waived forwards Mitch McGary and Chris Wright along with guard Ronnie Price and center Kaleb Tarczewski, it was announced today by Executive Vice President and General Manager Sam Presti.

At this point, Oklahoma City waiving Mitch McGary was completely expected. Facing 15 games of drug suspension with no proven track record of NBA sustainability, McGary was an easy cut on a team with a roster crunch.

Price signed a fully guaranteed two-year contract worth nearly $5 million this offseason, and teams don’t generally waive players so soon after guaranteeing them multiple seasons (even if guaranteeing them multiple seasons was questionable in the first place). This opens the door not only for Semaj Christon to make the regular-season roster, but to serve as Russell Westbrook‘s primary backup at point guard with Cameron Payne injured.

Christon, the No. 55 pick in the 2014 draft, also signed this summer (with just a $200,000 guarantee). After leaving Xavier, he spent a year on the Thunder’s D-League affiliate then a year overseas. Perhaps, he’s ready for a regular role without the safety net of a veteran like Price behind him, but this sure seems like another case of Oklahoma City overrating its developmental system. See previously: Josh Huestis.