The Miami Heat are headed to their fourth straight NBA Finals, a feat only two other franchises in the long history of the Association have matched.
"I'm blessed. Very blessed. Very humbled," LeBron James said after the game, per The Associated Press (h/t New York Daily News). "And we won't take this opportunity for granted. ... We're going to four straight Finals and we will never take this for granted."
This is an incredible accomplishment, sure, but to crib an old real estate line, Miami's success is largely about location, location, location. At risk of diminishing a historic achievement, if LeBron and Co. played out of, say, Sacramento, rather than South Beach, they almost certainly wouldn't have joined the Boston Celtics and the Showtime Los Angeles Lakers this weekend as the only championship round four-peaters.
This isn't a dig at the Heat as much as an acknowledgement that the Western Conference has been a bear these last four seasons—while Miami's home conference is more a lazy cub with a belly full of honey.
Here was the take of USA Today's Sam Amick and Jeff Zillgitt in December, before the East proceeded to be awful for a full five more months:
The NBA's Eastern Conference stinks.
Not you, Indiana Pacers or Miami Heat. You're OK.
But the rest of the conference? Malodorous.
About that stench: There is an almost literal world of difference between the East and the West at the moment. (You couldn't fit Jupiter between them, but maybe Mercury.) The gap is chasmic. The conference the Heat are fortunate not to play in has an enormous advantage in both depth and the quality of the teams at the top of the standings.
Take a moment to mull this over:
- Seven Western Conference teams won 50 or more games in 2013-14. Two managed the trick out East.
- The West won 63.2 percent of its games against the East this season. To translate, that equates to roughly a 52-30 record. That would have been good for the No. 3 seed in the East in 2013-14.
- Four of the seven Western Conference teams that missed the playoffs this season had winning records against the inferior conference. They were the Phoenix Suns, Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets and 34-48 New Orleans Pelicans—the latter of whom managed a 19-11 record against the East. Meanwhile, the East’s eight playoff teams, in aggregate, had a losing record against the West.
- The Brooklyn Nets, who won 60 percent of their out-of-conference games, are the only team in the East that had a better winning percentage against the stronger conference than it did against its own.
- The Heat, at 20-10, had the best out-of-conference record in the East. Nine teams in the West matched or exceeded that winning percentage.
- While the West was historically dominant in 2013-14, the preceding few seasons were more of the same. According to Neil Paine of Sports-Reference, the West took 53, 52.1 and 52.9 percent of its contests against the East in 2012-13, 2011-12 and 2010-11, respectively. That’s a shellacking.
- On the level of the individual player, the wild, wild West’s dominance is even more pronounced. In 2013-14, according to Basketball-Reference, six of the top seven producers of win shares played out West. Last season, that number was seven of eight. In 2011-12, a down year, the West claimed five of the top seven.
This is hard to overlook. It would stretch credulity to say this screaming disparity between the conferences didn't have a significant impact on the Heat's playoff success the last four seasons. Put simply: A team's odds of winning a series go up as the level of the competition goes down.
And while the Heat have had a fairly easy go of it with respect to the quality of the teams they've faced en route to the last four Finals, they've had more than a few very close series. Take the two seasons that ended with Miami in possession of the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
During the 2012 playoffs, the Heat stared down a 2-1 deficit against the Indiana Pacers in the conference semis and a 3-2 hole against the Boston Celtics in the ECF before advancing. Those opponents combined for a 81-51 record that regular season. For a conference finalist and semifinalist, those aren't exactly dominating.
The 2013 postseason was more of the same, as a 49-win Pacers squad took the Heat to seven games.
If the Heat were up against stronger competition in one of these close series, the outcome could clearly have been very different. When the margins are that close, a slightly better opponent—a defensive stop here, a three-point shot there—can tip the scales. Out West, Miami plainly would have faced such competition.
All told, Miami has had to face only two 50-win teams in the last three seasons of Eastern Conference postseason play—the 2011-12 and 2013-14 Pacers. (The lockout truncated the 2011-12 campaign, but the Pacers projected to finish with more than 50 wins based on their winning percentage.)
But while it's clear that playing in the East has improved Miami's chances of getting to the Finals, what isn't clear is what, if any, effect the conference's relative weakness has had on Miami once it reached the championship round. Or, to answer a more urgent question, the effect it will have when they square off in a rematch against the San Antonio Spurs starting Thursday.
FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver did some interesting analysis earlier this month that suggested a team's odds of winning in the semis are diminished if they have a trying round one—teams that win in seven games are less likely to advance than teams that win in six, etc—but he emphasized this effect was limited to those two rounds. What happens in the semis seems to have little impact on the conference finals, and outcomes in the conference finals have similarly small predictive ability with respect to the Finals.
This season though, it seems like the easier road may have helped Miami. For starters, their understanding of the weakness of the East allowed the team to coast to an extent during the regular season. Secure in the knowledge that they were effectively guaranteed a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, the Heat were able to spend the entire regular season merely prepping for the playoffs; resting Dwyane Wade, for example, and ratcheting down their characteristic defensive intensity a few notches.
Though it might not be enough against a San Antonio team that has been nothing short of dominant this spring, now Wade, and the Heat, are both energized at a time when they need it the most.
The Miami Heat are four victories away from putting an emphatic capstone on one of the greatest runs NBA fans have ever witnessed. They deserve the accolades they've been showered with, and the more that may be to come. But it's possible none of this would have happened were it not for the conference they play in.
The Heat likely would have won a ring, but playing out of the West it's difficult to imagine they'd have collected more. LeBron has earned a royal nickname, but when it comes to the factors that determine NBA champions, context is king.