The NBA Finals Burst the Analytics Bubble

With the Miami Heat taking on the Los Angeles Lakers in the finals starting Wednesday night (9 p.m. ET on ABC), a new NBA champion will be crowned this year. Well, sort of. LeBron James is embarking on his 10th trip to the mountaintop, Andre Iguodala is in his sixth straight finals (the past five with the Golden State Warriors), and Pat Riley is a platinum member of the rings club. Will LeBron win his fourth ring and move closer to His Airness? Will Jimmy Butler pull off the greatest ‘I told you so’ we’ve ever seen? Will J.R. Smith, well, J.R. Smith? So many questions, so little time.

How they got here

Tall Ball. While analytics will preach that you must shoot the three and post-up moves are virtually extinct from today’s game, the Lakers have gotten back to the finals doing the exact opposite. Right now Rajon Rondo is their best shooter, and among Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee, you have bulk in the middle as if you were building a championship squad in the ’80s. Yet somehow it’s worked. Partly because their length is their advantage. While the Lakers ranked 21st from long distance during the regular season, they ranked among the top 10 in rebounding. This means second-chance points and extra possessions; it also means good interior defense. This makes teams live or die by the three. Just ask Houston how that went.

Switch Everything. While the Lakers got to the finals by stuffing the paint, the Heat got there with some of the most stringent defense in the league. Consider all their perimeter players: Butler (6-foot-7), Iguodola (6-6), Jae Crowder (6-6), Tyler Herro (6-5), Derrick Jones Jr. (6-6). There is no “favorable switch” when they have these types of players on the floor. Think you can overpower the 6-9 Bam Adebayo in the post? Ask Jayson Tatum how that goes. Because of the Heat’s versatility — they flummoxed Boston with a shifting zone defense — and because they’re the best conditioned team in the league, they can adapt to whatever offense comes their way. 

Clips Implode. Doc Rivers was fired Monday as head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, after their expected waltz to the championship went up in smoke. The Clippers were a hot pick after acquiring last year’s finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and giving away just about all their future draft picks for Paul George. But they blew a 3-1 series lead over Denver in the second round, making the Lakers’ road that much easier.

Giannis Goes Ghost. Although Giannis Antetokounmpo became just the third player in league history to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season, joining Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon, the fact remains that he fell short against Miami. Although the Greek Freak looked great in the box score, he had an abysmal true shooting percentage and uncharacteristically poor efficiency. Read about Antetokounmpo’s influence in Greece on OZY.

Key Storylines 

Jimmy’s Last Laugh. Locker room cancer, disrupter, bad teammate, not worth the drama — that’s how Butler has been described during stints with Chicago, Minnesota and Philadelphia. He kept getting traded, his numbers weren’t all too flashy, he seemed like a diva … funny how winning can change all of that. These playoffs have already been a redemption tour for him. Can you imagine if Butler wins his first ring?

Return of the King. LeBron had reached the finals so many times that when he missed them last year we counted it against him. Think about that for a moment: LeBron has a chip on his shoulder for simply missing the finals for a single season. Now he’s seeking his fourth ring, inching closer to Michael Jordan’s six — which, no matter how much he downplays it, is a hill he’s still trying to surmount. Not to mention that he was instrumental in getting the bubble season restarted in the first place. When is the last time LeBron was both this motivated and stacked?

Burke’s Breakthrough. Doris Burke is making history by becoming the first woman to call NBA Finals games for ESPN Radio. Already having broken barriers to become the first full-time network NBA analyst in 2017 and the first woman to call an NBA Conference Finals game just a couple of weeks ago, she’s established herself as one of the top hoops experts in the game — male or female. Not to mention she has become a cultural icon with Drake swooning over her.

Tanking Doesn’t Work. After the Heat’s “Big Three” of LeBron, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade broke up following the 2014 season, the team didn’t go into the tank for a top draft pick. Instead they fought in the middle of the league’s pack before catching fire this year. Same goes for last year’s NBA champ, Toronto, and this year’s emerging contender, Denver. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Philly. Perhaps trying to win builds a winning culture after all?

X Factors 

Nunn to Forget. It seems that everyone has forgotten about Miami’s Kendrick Nunn, who was putting together quite an impressive rookie campaign before the season was suspended, putting up more than 15 points per game despite going undrafted out of college. But ahead of the season restart, Nunn missed the first two weeks of training camp after testing positive for the coronavirus, and then left the bubble a few weeks later for personal reasons, resulting in his being replaced by Goran Dragic in the starting lineup. Nunn hasn’t cracked double figures in the playoffs yet, but if he regains his early season form while giving Dragic some rest, it would be a major boost for the Heat. 

Playoff Rondo. Not that regular season Rondo is a slouch (four-time NBA All-Star and led the league in assists per game three times), but playoff Rondo is a different animal. Let’s not forget he was the starting point guard on the 2008 Celtics championship team. More recently, he led the Bulls to a 2-0 first-round playoff series lead over his old Celtics in 2017 before being sidelined with a broken right thumb. Rondo led the 2018 playoffs in assists per game with the Pelicans, including a 17-assist game. These playoffs with the Lakers he has the second-best offensive rating on the team behind Danny Green and is hitting 45 percent of his three-pointers. 

Riley’s Revenge. Remember when everyone thought it was amazing when Phil Jackson won his 10th ring in 2009, moving him past Boston’s Red Auerbach for the most all-time? “The Zen master has done it again,” they all said. Well, Miami team president Pat Riley is up for his 10th and with a team that no one thought could make the playoffs. And if you’re wondering about his motivations at age 75, remember we’re only six years removed from LeBron ditching Miami to return to Cleveland, dismantling the burgeoning South Beach dynasty. Riley admittedly took it personally. Well, now they’re back in the finals together.

Our Pick 

A Case for the Heat. If you’re a betting woman or man, go with the Heat. Trust us. Why take the underdog? Aside from the fact that it’s more fun, it’s because of their bench and their three-point shooting prowess at 37.9 percent for the regular season, second best in the league. Once Davis and LeBron sit down, the Lakers are vulnerable and that’s exactly when the Heat will strike. They also have superior team chemistry, with Butler wearing Herro’s high school jersey after big games and teammates dishing out compliments to an obnoxious degree. Lastly, they want it more. You can see it in the dives on the ground, the exhaustion, the grind.

A Case for the Lakers. LeBron, pure and simple. It may seem like a cop-out, but we’ve never seen a LeBron this locked in — except perhaps in one of the years he went home with a trophy. Add in Davis, arguably the most talented teammate LeBron has ever had, and it’s almost unfair. The Lakers have seen all types of defenses thrown at them and nothing has worked. If the Lakers control the glass and get out and run in transition — which they are the best at — you can hand the King another crown.

OZY’s Verdict: The Heat in six.