For the first time in NBA history, the league’s championship series is being contested between two teams that did not make the playoffs the previous season. The 2018-19 Lakers sputtered to a 37-45 finish amid various ailments, including the first long-term injury of LeBron James’s career and Brandon Ingram’s bout with deep vein thrombosis. The 2018-19 Heat didn’t fare much better, finishing 39-43 in large part because of their near-complete inability to generate efficient offense.
Given those poor performances, it wasn’t surprising when each team dramatically reshaped its roster during the 2019 offseason.
With James heading into the second season of his four-year contract and the Lakers having already burned one chance at contention, it made sense that they would try to “microwave” a title contender, going from out of the picture to inner-circle contender in just one offseason. It made even more sense that the Lakers’ plan to do so involved remaking their team in the image of previous LeBron-led Finals squads, trading for Anthony Davis and surrounding their superstar duo with a cavalcade of three-and-D guys and veteran, rim-rolling, basket-protecting centers.
The Heat, meanwhile, made even more drastic changes to their roster. They agreed to ship former starting center Hassan Whiteside to Portland in exchange for Meyers Leonard and Mo Harkless, but that was just the first domino to fall in a series of transactions that were eventually cobbled together into a four-team trade that landed Jimmy Butler in Miami.1
Despite carrying a 34-16 record in early February, Miami wasn’t content. Sensing an opening in the Eastern Conference and looking to microwave a true contender of their own, the Heat shook up the roster yet again — this time with a major trade with Memphis for Andre Iguodala and, crucially, Jae Crowder.2
Clearly, each team’s moves worked exactly as intended. The Lakers steamrolled through most of the regular season and, despite a drop-off in the seeding games, comfortably landed the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference before coolly dispatching each of their Western Conference playoff opponents in five games. The Heat went just 7-8 in the 15 pre-hiatus contests after the Iguodala-Crowder trade and 3-5 in the seeding games, but coach Erik Spoelstra’s decision to rework the starting lineup by swapping out rookie point guard Kendrick Nunn and forward Kelly Olynyk for Dragić and Crowder transformed Miami into a championship-caliber team. The Heat outscored their three Eastern Conference playoff opponents by 4.5 points per 100 possessions, a figure nearly 2 full points better than their mark from the regular season.
After all that moving and shaking, the Lakers and Heat are duking it out in the Finals, where L.A. holds a 1-0 lead. Indeed, it’s quite easy to make the argument that it’s precisely because of said moving and shaking that they’re here in the first place.
The Lakers almost certainly would not be in the NBA Finals were it not for Davis, but he’s not the only 2019-20 acquisition playing a significant role. During their run through the West, the Lakers gave 1,564 of their 3,600 total minutes to players who were not on the team last season. That’s 43.4 percent of all possible pre-Finals minutes. Among the 20 NBA Finals teams in the past decade (i.e., during the so-called Player Empowerment Era), the 2020 Lakers gave the fifth-highest share of their minutes to these “microwave” players.
Of course, they’re not alone. The 2020 Heat actually gave an even greater share of playoff minutes to microwave players in their run through the East, with Butler, Crowder, Iguodala, Nunn, Leonard, Solomon Hill and rookie Tyler Herro combining to play 1,939 of Miami’s 3,650 total playoff minutes. That 53.1 percent rate is second-highest among the aforementioned 20 NBA finalists since 2010-11, checking in behind only James’s 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers (64.4 percent).
Combined, the two teams handed out 48.3 percent of all pre-Finals playoff minutes to microwave players, easily the highest share for the two Finals teams at any point during the player empowerment decade.
These NBA Finals are straight from the microwave
Share of “microwave” minutes, or minutes from players not on the team the previous season, through the conference finals by Finals teams since 2011
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The only two previous times the two Finals teams exceeded a 30 percent combined share were in 2015, when LeBron’s Cavaliers (in his first year back in Cleveland) took on a Warriors squad that gave just 15.9 percent of its minutes to microwave players; and in 2011, when a LeBron-fronted Heat side gave 51.1 percent of its pre-Finals minutes to players who, like LeBron, were not on the team the prior season.
Before this season, the 2015 Cavs and 2011 Heat were two of only four teams this decade to hand out at least 40 percent of their playoff minutes to microwave players and make it to the NBA Finals. The only such team to actually win the title, though, was last season’s Toronto Raptors, who did so while giving players like Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Marc Gasol 44.4 percent of their pre-Finals playoff minutes.
LeBron has played on many microwave teams
NBA Finals teams since 2011 with at least 40 percent of postseason minutes through the conference finals played by “microwave” players, or those not on the team the previous season
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Prior to the Raptors, the decade’s previous champions gave an average of only 17.2 percent of pre-Finals playoff minutes to microwave players, with the high-water mark coming from the 2016-17 Warriors team that famously signed Kevin Durant after losing to the Cavaliers in the prior year’s Finals. Before that, no other 2010’s champion exceeded the 2011 Mavericks’ 22.5 percent mark.
This year’s winner will be near the top of the microwave list
NBA champions since 2011 by share of “microwave” minutes, from players not on the team in the previous season, through the conference finals
|Minutes through Conf. finals|
Should the Heat win this series, they’ll officially be the microwave-iest champions of the player empowerment decade. If the Lakers are victorious, they will rank second in the same category. Either way, the most recent two title winners will sit atop the list. That’s an interesting development, but as the previous eight seasons show, it’s extremely difficult to turn over that much of the roster and still come away with the season’s ultimate prize.
Neil Paine contributed research.
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