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Cavaliers waive DeAndre Liggins, reportedly considering signing Anderson Varejao

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The Cleveland Cavaliers announced on Sunday that they had waived guard DeAndre Liggins. The Cavaliers informed Liggins of their decision after he had made the trip with the team to Atlanta for Sunday’s matchup.

News of Liggins’ release has sparked speculation around both motive for the move and who might be next to fill the Cavaliers’ open roster spot.

Via Twitter:

Cleveland is apparently considering signing former Cavalier Anderson Varejao. Starting center Tristan Thompson has been out with a sprained thumb, but the Cavaliers have not played veteran big man Larry Sanders meaningful minutes since he was added in March.

You can never have enough redundancy in the playoffs, but Cleveland might not be too hot on Varejao. The 34-year-old didn’t look brilliant in his time with the Golden State Warriors this past season.

Still, there’s slim pickings for the Cavaliers at this time. They can’t sign any player who was waived after March 1 if they want them to be eligible for the playoffs, and they have to sign someone soon before the regular season ends and the playoff rosters are set.

Lakers have historically easy path to championship*

Lakers star LeBron James
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By the 2018 NBA Finals, LeBron James was feeling the stress of facing the mighty Warriors again. LeBron and the Cavaliers toppled a 73-win Golden State in 2016… only for the Warriors to add Kevin Durant. Golden State beat Cleveland in the 2017 Finals and was on the way to repeating. The too-often overlooked aspect of LeBron’s 3-6 NBA Finals record: His competition on that level has been EXCELLENT.

Not so much this year.

At least on paper.

The fifth-seeded Heat are among the lowest lowest seeds ever to reach the NBA Finals. Miami (44-29) outscored opponents by just 2.9 points per game in regular-season/seeding games. That’s the lowest margin for a Finals team in the last 20 years outside the 2018 Cavs (+0.9).

And it’s not as if that’s just an East-West issue. The Lakers’ road through the Western Conference looked remarkably similar to LeBron’s challenge while he dominated the East for eight years – i.e., not that imposing.

Los Angeles’ postseason opponents’ margins per game during the regular season/seeding games:

  • Trail Blazers: -1.1
  • Rockets: +3.0
  • Nuggets: +2.1
  • Heat: +2.9

Not including themselves, the Lakers avoided the top five teams! The Bucks (+10.1), Celtics (+6.4), Clippers (+6.4), Raptors (+6.3) and Mavericks (+4.9) all had better margins per game than Houston.

Still, at the very minimum, the Lakers must win four series to win a title. In the NBA’s early days, that was just two.

The 1957 Celtics won the championship by beating the Syracuse Nationals (-1.4) and St. Louis Hawks (-0.1). That’s all it took!

Even for dominant teams, each additional series is an opportunity for something to go wrong. So, the Lakers have it tougher than many prior champions. It’s difficult to compare across eras, anyway.

But since the NBA adopted a 16-team postseason in 1984, this is an incredibly soft-looking run.

The Lakers’ playoff opponents have an average margin of +1.7, which would be second-lowest for a championship team in this format. The 1987 Lakers’ opponents had an average margin of just +1.0.

Simply averaging opponents’ margins probably isn’t the best method, though. What does it matter whether a championship team faces a team barely over .500 or a team with a losing record in the first round? An eventual champion usually easily dispatches either. The more significant differences in opponent quality come in later rounds.

So, I created Postseason Strength of Schedule Score (PSSS) for title teams since 1984.

For each championship team, I multiplied the margin of their top opponent by four, the margin of their second-best opponent by three, the margin of their third-best opponent by two and the margin of their worst opponent by one then added the totals. (There is room to quibble with the ratios. I chose this for simplicity.)

The higher the PSSS, the more difficult the schedule.

The 2020 Lakers would have the lowest PSSS (23.7), narrowly behind the 1987 Lakers (23.9) but way below everyone else:

For what it’s worth, the Heat would have the highest PSSS (72.8), topping the 1995 Rockets (68.9):

The big asterisk over this entire discussion: It’s impossible to assess a team’s overall level at the exact time of a playoff series. True in a normal year, it’s especially difficult this year with a long layoff and bubble weirdness.

Yes, the Heat outscored opponents by just 2.9 points per game in the regular season/seeding games. How much does that have to do with Miami’s current ability, though? The Heat have looked awesome in the playoffs.

Maybe they’re particularly resilient in a way that helps in the bubble. Maybe young players like Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro have developed far beyond where they were in the regular season, which ended more than half a year ago. Maybe in-season acquisitions Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala lifted Miami after the Heat built most of their regular-season record.

There are infinite reasons Miami might not be the team suggested by its regular-season/seeding-game record.

Ditto Portland (which got back Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins and developed momentum while winning the play-in), Houston (which looked gassed when the regular season was halted) and Denver (which, honestly, might have gotten worse with Will Barton hurt and so many players recovering from coronavirus).

That said, regular-season success tends to be a strong predictor of postseason success. There’s still something to the Lakers’ playoff competition.

The Lakers would’ve been lauded for beating the Clippers and Bucks. So, shouldn’t the Lakers get more credit for beating the teams that beat the Clippers (Nuggets) and Bucks (Heat)?

There’s certainly an argument to be had. But it’s also plausible that, even though Denver and Miami won each series, the Clippers and Bucks were still better teams overall. Milwaukee had matchup issues with the Heat that wouldn’t have necessarily manifested against the Lakers. Though the Nuggets deserve credit for winning, if the teams played again fresh – even knowing the results of the series that happened – the Clippers would be favored. The Clippers definitely had a higher ceiling, and maybe they would’ve come together during a longer playoff run.

Or maybe they would’ve gotten even sicker of each other.

It’s impossible to know. All we can say: The Lakers beat the teams in front of them. That’s a great accomplishment. They have prevailed where other favorites have faltered. Every NBA title is hard to win.

Some are harder than others, though.

For low seed, Heat dominated their way into NBA Finals

Heat star Bam Adebayo dunks
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Would the Heat have still made the NBA Finals if the season finished normally?

The answer is unknowable.

But evaluating the question is essential for determining how much recognition Miami deserves for this run and assessing the Heat’s chances against the Lakers.

No. 5 seed Miami is one of just four teams seeded so low to advance this far. The Knicks made the 1999 NBA Finals as a No. 8 seed. The Rockets made the Finals in 1981 and 1995, even winning in 1995, as No. 6 seeds.

The Heat didn’t just sneak through the Eastern Conference, though. They swept the Pacers, smoked the Bucks in five games and topped the Celtics in six games.

Miami’s 12-3 record en route to the NBA Finals was the best record by any of the four lowest-seeded teams to get this far.

Heck, Miami’s 12-3 record is better than any No. 4 seeds had en route to the Finals.

Really, only one No. 3 seed has ever topped the Heat. The 1980 76ers went 10-2 in the Eastern Conference playoffs. But Philadelphia (59-23) was the third-best regular-season team in the whole NBA, barely behind the Celtics (61-21) and Lakers (60-22). The 76ers just finished second to Boston in the Atlantic Division and therefore took the No. 3 seed behind the Central Division-champion Hawks, who finished nine games behind Philadelphia.

Miami, 44-29 in the regular season/seeding games, didn’t appear to be this type of force entering the playoffs.

So, what changed?

Reasons to believe the Heat would’ve done this in a normal year:

  • The Heat are good. Even before the season went on hiatus, I considered them a championship contender. In the very bottom tier of championship contention. But a championship contender, nonetheless.
  • Miami was always a versatile team with ability to play different styles offensively and defensively. That’s so useful in a deep postseason run against multiple opponents.
  • The Heat always appeared to match up well with the Bucks, the Eastern Conference’s top regular-season team by a mile. Miami had a defense that could give Giannis Antetokounmpo difficulty getting to the rim and 3-point shooters to take advantage of Milwaukee’s biggest defensive vulnerability.
  • Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala lifted the Heat’s level more than the team’s overall record after being acquired during the season.

Reasons to believe the Heat wouldn’t have done this in a normal year:

  • A lower seed in all its playoff series, Miami played each game on a neutral court rather than being without home-court advantage.
  • The bubble has had fluky-looking results.
  • The Heat are mentally strong and focused in ways that help them flourish in this difficult environment. Those are useful skills in normal times, but they seem especially important now.
  • The Bucks never hit their groove in the bubble. For whatever reason(s).
  • Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro took leaps. Extending the seasons gave the young players more time to develop.
  • Goran Dragic looks rejuvenated after the long layoff. The 34-year-old was already having a bounce-back season, but this is above and beyond.

Whatever would’ve happened with a normal finish to the season, it didn’t. The Heat absolutely deserve credit for conquering the challenge in front of them. The Lakers will be the biggest obstacle yet, but Miami can overcome that one, too.

Would the Heat have fared as well in normal times? We can only wonder.

But they’re built for this.

Report: Doc Rivers meeting with 76ers

76ers star Joel Embiid and coach Doc Rivers
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From the moment the Clippers ousted him, Doc Rivers became the hottest name on the coaching market. The 76ers, Pelicans and Rockets have reportedly expressed interest.

But does the 58-year-old Rivers want to keep coaching after 21 straight years on the sideline with the Magic, Celtics and Clippers and coming off what looked like a trying season?

He’ll apparently at least meet with Philadelphia.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Rivers would be a good fit with the 76ers, who are trying to take the next step in the playoffs.

Of course, the same thing appeared true with the Clippers, and Rivers failed to deliver the desired postseason success in L.A.

But Rivers still holds plenty of credibility. Whatever their differences, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons could unite behind a coach who demands such respect. Rivers also holds experience coaching teams with big lineups, which could suit Philadelphia’s roster. There are still adjustments to be made as the game evolves, but Rivers wouldn’t absolutely require a massive overhaul.

It’d also be neat for Glenn Rivers to join the 76ers considering he got his nickname by wearing a Julius Erving shirt to a Marquette basketball camp.

Whether it’s Lakers or Heat, Kentucky is big winner

Anthony Davis
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The Los Angeles Lakers primarily wear purple and gold. The main Miami Heat colors are red and black.

And these NBA Finals seem tinged in blue – Kentucky blue, to be precise.

No matter what happens in this title series, Kentucky’s list of NBA champions is sure to grow. Anthony Davis, Rajon Rondo and coach Frank Vogel have Kentucky ties from the Los Angeles Lakers’ side; Miami Heat players Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro played at Kentucky, as did Heat President Pat Riley.

“When I look at all these guys and how they’re playing, I’m not surprised that guys would be able to stand up to this,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said Tuesday. “The environment here, everything about it is preparing them for the NBA. It’s an NBA environment, how we practice, the competitiveness in practice, the games. Every shot matters here. … These kids, it’s kind of like their rookie year is here.”

Calipari coached Davis, Adebayo and Herro at Kentucky. He tried to coach Rondo, saying Tuesday that he nearly lured him onto the Dominican Republic’s national team – coached by Calipari – with hopes of qualifying for the Olympics.

Vogel was a manager and then video coordinator at Kentucky in the mid-1990s. Riley played at Kentucky for Adolph Rupp in the mid-1960s.

Kentucky is the fifth school to have four former players in a single NBA Finals, joining La Salle in 1956, UCLA in 1980, North Carolina in 1991 and Arizona in 2017. The top two scorers in the playoffs are almost certain to be former Kentucky standouts; Denver’s Jamal Murray currently holds the top spot with 504, and Davis is third with 432 — just five points behind Boston’s Jayson Tatum, a Duke product.

“Obviously, he coached in the league, so he knows what it takes to get there,” Davis said of Calipari. “I think that’s an advantage for all players who go to Kentucky. He’s able to get you ready in one, two years.”

It’s not lost on Heat coach Erik Spoelstra that the finals are going to be a Kentucky recruiting tool, and he also said that Riley isn’t shy about enjoying having players from his alma mater on the roster.

“We love Kentucky players because you’re there to get better, to be pushed, to understand what it means to play for a team, play a role and to train to become a pro at this level,” Spoelstra said. “You’re going to face good competition in practice. You’re going to be expected to work. It’s an environment that, as much as it possibly can, prepares you for the pros, even though it’s at the collegiate level.”

Miami’s Herro is likely to be the first player born in the 2000s to play in an NBA Finals game; he’s usually one of the first subs that the Heat use, so some first-quarter minutes for him on Wednesday night seem probable.

The 20-year-old is not the youngest player in the series, however.

Lakers rookie Talen Horton-Tucker doesn’t turn 20 until Nov. 25. He appeared in two games during the Western Conference semifinals but has been inactive for 12 of his team’s 15 postseason contests.