All-Star Weekend is over, the final trimester of the NBA season his officially begun, and all over the country, NBA franchises and their fans are looking towards the future. For about half the teams that future is short-term, as they gear up for some sort of post-season run. But for the others, that future is unfortunately long-term, as they resign to two months of playing the young guys, attempting to find some sort of team chemistry, and/or outright tanking in the hopes of landing a high draft pick. Regardless of which category your team falls in, by now, the teams have a pretty good idea of where they are — in the immortal words of Chicago indie rockers Baby Teeth, you’re either on the swim team or you’re not.
But if your team does belong to that unfortunate second category, there’s no need to fret. In this glorious era of polyamorous NBA fandom, one need not be solely indebted to one’s own team at this time of the season. There are plenty of teams out there who deserve your temporary focus, who even without the benefit of some long-lasting geographical or personal connection, play a brand of basketball worth an emotional investment. So while you keep one eye on your team as they begin plotting their rebuilding effort, you can also remind yourself of the feeling of rooting for postseason basketball (and the non-futile pursuit thereof) so as to avoid going completely off the rails. It’s a good thing.
What, then, to look for in a bandwagon team? Well, it’s a tough mix to pin down. You want a team that at least has a chance of going deep in the playoffs, but not one that’s dominant to the point of being unchallenging. You want some new blood for excitement’s sake, but some familiar faces for comfort’s sake. You want a team with a good deal of buzz around them for that second-hand rush, but not so much that the bandwagon feels too crowded for one more member. No one team may fit the mold perfectly, but they all have an argument to be made. And here, I plan on ranking those arguments, in reverse order of how convincing they are.
Of course, I’ll only be discussing the cases of those teams with a fairly reasonable chance of making the post-season — defined by me as the current top nine teams in each conference, minus the Lakers and Heat because I can never think rationally about Kobe or LeBron and chances are you’ve already made up your mind about those teams a long time ago anyway. My apologies to the Suns: You may have a decent shot at catching the eight seed in the West, but you’d be screwing up the symmetry of the rankings, and due to your largely-depressing lineup I wouldn’t have ranked you that highly anyway. As for the Bucks, Pistons, Warriors and Rockets, it’s not that I don’t believe in you, it’s just that I don’t believe in you.
So here we go, 16 to 1. And be sure to tell me all the reasons why I should fuck off in the comments section.
16. Utah Jazz. Bad, bad juju for a bandwagon. Jerry Sloan’s gone, Al Jefferson’s a disappointment, Gordon Hayward’s invisible and Deron Williams is already putting ads up on Craigslist. They’ve lost four games in a row, and an incredible 13 of their last 17, as they’ve slid their way down to just percentage points above the Grizzlies for the eighth spot in the West. Even though the Jazz always seem to surge around this time of the year, and I wouldn’t put it past them doing it once more for old time’s sake, it seems pretty clear that this core’s best days are behind them, and even in their best days they could never get past the Lakers. Pass.
15. Orlando Magic. There was a little bit of That Old Feeling with the Magic with the nine-game winning streak they started two months ago, as Hedo Turkoglu seemed revitalized by his return to Orlando, youngbloods Brandon Bass and Ryan Anderson began to step up into their bigger roles, and Gilbert Arenas … well, at least he wasn’t out-and-out killing the team with his poor shooting. But now Orlando can’t seem to beat a team above .500 (1-8 since that winning streak), Arenas is about two more 1-7 shooting nights away from getting banned from the Amway Center, and Dwight Howard seems to be yelling “Is anybody alive out there??” as he continues to put up monster stat lines in team losses. The Dwight-to-LA rumors have already started, and though the Magic may luck into a first-round series against the woefully poorly-matched Hawks, it’s unlikely they’ll do enough in the post-season to silence that talk. It could be a very, very ugly 2012 for Magic fans.
14. Atlanta Hawks. Speaking of which. The Joe Johnson contract may have doomed the Hawks to the lower stretches of this list for the next foreseeable future, enabling them to consistently reach the playoffs and forever ensuring them a ceiling of They Are Who They Are. Of course, if they even want to make the second round for the third straight year, they might be well-advised to avoid playing the Magic (who swept them by an average of about 25 points in the playoffs last year), even if that means quasi-tanking for the sixth seed. Only the still-exciting play of Josh Smith and Al Horford — and the faintest of memories of that awesome seven-game first-round series against the Celtics in ’08 — keep them above the Magic here.
13. New Orleans Hornets. The ultimate Jekyll-and-Hyde team of this NBA season, it’s hard to imagine that the team won’t be more Hyde when it comes post-season time. (Or is it Jekyll? Which one’s the one you don’t want to be in sports-metaphor terms?) It’s possible that a recovered Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza will give the team enough pep for a respectable post-season run before David West opts out of his deal and Chris Paul starts wondering if the association with John Starks and Stephon Marbury means he should choose a different number on the Knicks (and what consequences that would have for his nickname), but generally speaking, the bad times with this team are worse than the good times are good, and they’re not getting better after this. Besides, it never feels good to spend too many minutes rooting for Emeka Okafor.
12. Charlotte Bobcats. Now that we’re done with the “Best Days Behind Them” bunch, we can move on to the “Best Days Not Nearly Close Enough” teams. The Bobcats have become imminently more watchable since disposing of Larry Brown’s plodding half-court methodology in favor of Paul Silas’s run-heavy attack, liberating DJ Augustin and (before he got injured) Tyrus Thomas in the process. But they’re still a stretch for a playoff team, and their ceiling doesn’t get much higher than the eighth or seventh seed anytime soon, with old, bloated contracts mucking up the works (whose call was it to give DeSagana Diop a 12-year, $180 million dollar contract, anyway?), too many stopgaps playing big minutes (hellooooo Nazr) and not enough draft picks or young talent down the pipeline to give hope for much improvement. Plus the uniforms are still drab and the team name is still ridiculous. C’mon, MJ. Act like you own the place.
11. Philadelphia 76ers. My home team, and though I’d like to sell on you their hot play of late (12-6 in their last 18 games) being indicative of them being a tough first-round out, chances are that the team just doesn’t have enough talent to hang with the best teams in the East in a seven-game series — even the most optimistic of Sixers fans have them going down to the Bulls in six. Besides, while the gutsy, team-focused, defense-first style that new coach Doug Collins has them playing is far more enjoyable to watch as a fan than last year’s Eddie Jordan-led Motion Offense Madness, it doesn’t exactly make for the most scintillating of watches to a casual observer. And as long as the team refuses to at least attempt to dispose of the over-inflated contracts for Elton Brand and Andre Iguodala (both highly productive this year, but no one’s idea of an elite core at this point) and rebuild around the young guys (Jrue Holiday, Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner — the latter of whom hasn’t been nearly as bad this year as you might think), getting past the first round is still a ways away. Somewhere on the horizon, I hope. Someday.
10. Indiana Pacers. Largely in the same boat as the Bobcats and Sixers, but a bit more of an intrigue. They have a core in place with Darren Collison, Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert that if not exactly championship material, has the chance to be at least a little bit frisky in a seven-game series. New coach Frank Vogel (who the team is 8-3 under, albeit against mostly subpar competition) had some quote about how no team was going to want to face them in the first round, and though every coach to ever lead an eighth-seeded team has probably uttered a similar sound byte at one point or another, you can’t help but feeling that with this high-scoring, unpredictable bunch, it’s probably somewhat true. (And it’s definitely true for the Heat, who already lost to them once and just narrowly escaped doing so two other times). They’ve got enough bench characters (Tyler Hansbrough, Dahntay Jones, rookie Paul George) to make any series with them enjoyable, and they have enough cap space coming their way that future improvement is a distinct possibility. As far as the likely one-and-done teams go, you could do a lot worse than giving the Pacers an extended look-see.
9. Portland Trailblazers. The next two teams on this list are distinct cases unto themselves. As recently as a few weeks ago, I would have pegged the Blazers to surely be at the bottom of this list, with the latest developments in the soul-crushing Brandon Roy and Greg Oden sagas seemingly dooming the franchise to a much earlier-than-expected rebuilding mode. But not only has the team stayed afloat, they’re pushing for the five seed in the West, and it’s primarily due to one factor — LaMarcus Aldridge. If you had asked me what was more likely at the beginning of the season, Aldridge developing into the West’s most unstoppable power forward, or LeBron signing with the Clippers, I probably would’ve gone Bron/Clips (hey, it’s still LA, sort of). But sure enough, Portland has won six straight, and Aldridge has been practically MVP-worthy for the streak, averaging nearly 32 points a game in possibly the greatest Post-All-Star-Snub-Fuck-You stretch in league history.
It can’t last — I’m pretty sure it can’t last — it probably won’t last. But on the 10 percent chance that the hot streak is for real, and that what we are watching is indeed the blossoming of one of the league’s next great superstars, it’s worth keeping tabs on Portland as the post-season nears. Let’s just hope the wayyyyyyyyyyy-ahead-of-schedule return of Brandon Roy doesn’t screw things up with this team before we even have a chance to find out for sure.
8. Denver Nuggets. OK, so you’d be forgiven for being a little confused here, since you may have heard that head Nugs Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups were recently traded to a team still to come on this list, and such a franchise-obliterating, post-season-chance-ruining trade would surely relegate Denver to the “Best Days Behind Them” portion of our program. And indeed, it probably should. But here’s the thing: I’m not entirely sure that the Nuggets are going to miss the playoffs this year. Yeah, they’re already on the cusp, just barely keeping their head above water in the West, and yeah, they’re not likely to explode out of the gate post-ASW after trading away their top two scorers. But I can’t help feeling that a Lawson-Afflalo-Gallinari-Martin-Nene lineup, with a Chandler-Harrington-JR-Mozgov-Felton/whoever Felton gets traded for bench … that just might be a playoff team in the West this year. After all, Utah and New Orleans are basically in free fall, Memphis is down their best scorer for a month and runs hot-and-cold to begin with, and you never know when things are gonna go south again for Portland. The conference might be a little more open than in years past.
And meanwhile, if there was even a chance of the Nuggets making the playoffs … wouldn’t that instantly become THE feel-good story of the 2011 NBA season? If this scrappy, star-less team somehow came together in the wake of their franchise player casting them asunder, and made a push for the post-season regardless? You’d have to be pretty fucking heartless (and/or from New York) not to root for that, wouldn’t you? Maybe I’m just a sucker for a good redemption storyline — I thought the Cavs had a chance to make the playoffs in the East this year, and, well, yeah — but I think the possibility is worth keeping your heart open to, and if last night’s shorthanded beatdown of the Grizzlies was any indication, it might not even be that remote a possibility. Even if the best-case scenario still likely ends in a first-round slaughter by the Spurs or Mavs.
7. San Antonio Spurs. A few years ago, you never could have convinced me that I would rank a Spurs team maintaining the Ginobili-Parker-Duncan core in the top ten of a list like this. But I’ve noticed a funny thing happening with the Spurs within the NBA fan community in the time since — they’ve become surprisingly wistful, almost nostalgic for a team that as recently as 2008 seemed like the Evil Empire of the NBA. I guess there is something charmingly refreshing about the Spurs these days — an unassuming, small-market team that goes ten-deep with its key contributors in this era of ostentatious, star-clustered teams gathered in media hot spots. The fact that they haven’t won in four years gives them at least a whiff of underdogedness, and with a supporting cast of lovable young’ns ike Gary Neal, George Hill and DeJuan Blair and always-welcome vets like Antonio McDyess and Matt Bonner, they’re much cuddlier than they have been in ages. I still can’t see bringing myself to root for them too much in the playoffs, but for the first time in recent memory, it’s not inconceivable — especially if they face the Heat in the Finals.
6. Boston Celtics. It seemed that in the final minute of the Celtics’ insta-classic matchup with the Spurs in Boston last January that every single NBA fan had the same thought — hey, this would actually be a pretty cool Finals. Not the sexiest matchup, natch — I remember Tony Kornheiser on PTI the next day shamelessly pining for Heat-Lakers instead — but just an intricate, tight, well-coached contest between two veteran squads that know how to get it done. If you hate the Celtics to begin with, you probably REALLY hate the Celtics this year, with Shaq setting new records hamming it up for the Boston media, KG constantly dancing over the borderline between “Wow, What a Competitor” and “Wow, What a Dickface” and Ray Allen giving Reggie Miller an excuse to hem and haw about the dying breed of the three-point shooter for the better part of a month. But if you view the Celtics as an impartial observer, it’s more fitting to see them as something of a tribute to the past fifteen years of NBA history, and how we should continue to appreciate all these guys and how much they’ve brought to the game while they’re still playing at a high level. I certainly wouldn’t begrudge them one more championship run. I’d probably root for them over the Spurs, too.
5. Memphis Grizzlies. Maybe a little bit of wishful thinking here, but after briefly abating early in the season, my crush on this team (developed amidst their post-Iverson surge last season) is back in full effect. They’re still just barely inside the playoff bubble, and with Rudy Gay now sidelined for nearly a month, it’s hardly going to be a cakewalk to the postseason — where, unfortunately for them, they’ll probably be playing a contending team in the first round that isn’t the Los Angeles Lakers. But damned if they aren’t still two tons of fun to watch — the league’s wackiest frontcourt duo in Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, the people’s champ Grievis Vazquez splitting time at the backup point with White Chocolate, Tony Allen turning every fast break into a Choose Your Own Adventure story, and the Rude Boy hitting crowd-incensing game-winners and taking his game to that all-around next level we always hoped he was capable of. (Intermittently, anyway.)
And you know what? I’m thinking maybe Gay’s injury isn’t the worst thing for this team. Here’s the perfect chance for Grizz ne’er-do-well OJ Mayo to get himself back in the graces of the Memphis Faithful, picking up the scoring load in the absence of their other wing dynamo, and proving why they shouldn’t ship him to Chicago for twenty cents on the dollar just because he doesn’t take losing at cards well and can’t be bothered to read the labels of his over-the-counter meds. If Mayo’s back in the fold and playing well, and Rudy comes back at full force, and the team continues to play defense like they have been the past month or so — and Wallace and Heisley don’t break up the team with rebuilding trades in the next 24 hours — no Western conference team is safe from them in the first round. At the very least, they should be able to win a post-season game for the first time in franchise history. Ten years in Memphis seems long enough to wait.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder. A prohibitive pre-season favorite for #1 on this list, something about the Thunder this season — well, it feels a little lacking, doesn’t it? Durant’s been great (if not quite as all-world transcendent as we may have hoped), and Westbrook taking the leap was obviously one of the biggest and best stories of the early NBA season, and Ibaka probably should’ve gotten a little more love at the Slam Dunk Contest and all … but doesn’t it just feel like there should be more there? The team doesn’t seem like it’s in that much different a place than it was last year (36-19 after 55 games where they were 33-22 at this point in ’10), and even though they’re headed for a significantly higher seed and likely home court advantage in the first round this time, that says more about how some of the perennial West powers have struggled than about how much the Thunder have improved. Maybe it’s our fault for expecting too much too soon, but we wanted them to be ready, and it really doesn’t seem like they’re ready yet.
Not that I want to come off as too much of a hater here — the Thunder are still a blast to watch, and remain one of the most likable teams in the league, a team that should be (and is) the envy of nearly every other fanbase in the league. And there’s always the chance that they’ll surge post-All-Star Break, or that they’ll make the trade in the next 24 hours that helps put them over the top (though deals made for players with the last name “Thabeet” do not qualify for this status). But as for being the league’s #1 bandwagon team? Still at least one year away.
3. Dallas Mavericks. Is it too late for Dirk? Does he have one more chance at getting a ring before he and his graying supporting cast find themselves squarely on the down slope of their careers? Our NBA instincts tell us that he probably doesn’t — we’ve been down this road too many times before with the Mavs, and adding Tyson Chandler just isn’t enough of a difference from last year’s squad of first-round losers to turn them into a championship-caliber club. Yet we look at their record with Dirk in the lineup — an incredible 38-9, including an eye-popping 6-0 combined mark against the Heat, Celtics, Lakers and Spurs — and we see the impact Chandler is having on the team’s defense, and the surge in energy the team is getting from J.J. Barea and the recently-returned Rodrigue Beaubois, and we think maybe, just maybe, the Big German has still got another crack at this thing left in him.
Is it all a mirage? Is Dirk destined to the title-less fate of so many of the greatest power forwards before him? Will it all end as it seems to have so many times for the Mavs, with Dirk shooting the lights out and no one around him stepping up to help get him over the top? Wish I knew, but in the meantime, it might be worth suspending our disbelief for another season as Dallas goes for the gold one more time. For over a decade of some of the most dazzling, inimitable play in the NBA, we owe Dirk that much.
2. New York Knicks. Don’t act like you’re not gonna watch. Maybe you think the Knicks made a huge mistake in dealing half their team for Carmelo and Chauncey. Maybe you think they should have waited and tried to get him in the off-season. Maybe you think ‘Melo was overrated to begin with, and not nearly worth all the fuss. Maybe you think that ‘Melo and Amar’e can’t play well together, that they both need the ball in their hands and will just take turns running plays for themselves. Maybe you think that the team’s going to be a defensive mess now, that all the scoring in the world between them isn’t going to matter if they can never get stops. Maybe you think the Knicks’ presumed plans to get a third superstar in a few years is foolhardy, that with the new CBA and limited trade assets, there’s no way that they’ll be able to get Chris Paul or Deron Williams in the summer of 2012. Maybe you think that this deal was the sole pet project of Isiah Thomas, and that it represents a fracture behind the scenes at MSG that will eventually lead to a complete front-office meltdown. Maybe you think that Timofey Mozgov is the next Bill Russell, and that including him in this deal is a move that will haunt the Knicks for decades to come.
But don’t. Even pretend. To consider. Acting like you’re not gonna watch.
From here on out, the Knicks are THE story of the 2011 regular season. Any time they are on television will be must-watch TV, and you will find yourself reading more articles blowing up their wins and losses to nauseatingly grandiose proportions than you did even about the Heat in the first two months of the season. Every stat line will be pored over for revelatory significance, every post-game quote will be hyper-analyzed within an inch of its life. And throughout it all, you will have the Madison Square Garden crowd, so over-enthused at the idea of being relevant to the discussion for non-entirely-embarrassing reasons for the first time in over a decade, that their roars will indicate neither approval nor discontent, but merely gratitude of acknowledgment. And once they do get to the post-season, the spotlight will just become that much brighter, the microscope that much finer, the crowds that much louder. It’s going to be basketball the likes of which we’ve not yet seen in the 21st century.
For better or worse, and probably both, the Knicks are indeed back. And starting tonight, dammit, we’re all going to be watching.
1. Chicago Bulls. As compelling a story, one way or the other, as the Knicks are going to be, it’s still going to be a story that in all likelihood will end in the first round. To be a true No. 1 bandwagon team, you need to at least have a shot at contending, and if there was any doubt left that the Bulls were a contending team, it was likely erased by their convincing pre-All-Star Break victory over the Spurs in Chicago — led by a career-high 42 points by my current favorite player in the league to watch, Derrick Rose. Best point guard in the game, potential MVP, throw whatever accolades you want at the guy, but all that matters as far as I’m concerned is that there is nothing else in the NBA right now to compare with what Rose can do (and does, regularly) around the basket. Throw in the improved defense, the added three-point stroke, and the career-high assist rate, but it’s those short-range buckets — with all the lightning-quick movements, brilliantly-devised angles, and impossible body contortions that go into them — that make Derrick Rose a cut above. He’s just a joy to behold.
Not that the rest of the team’s too shabby, either. Joakim Noah has more than proven his playoff mettle as both a player and an antagonist over the last two post-seasons, Luol Deng has been an absolute rock on the wing and the lockdown defender any contending team needs, and Carlos Boozer has turned out to be, minus a few defensive lapses here and there, exactly what the Bulls (and Rose specifically) needed as a complementary low-post threat. And as one of the teams that supposedly “lost” in last summer’s free agency bonanza, the Bulls have played with a kind of underdog edge that’s going to make any series they have against the Celtics and/or Heat an absolute bloodbath. (By, uh, greatly-sanitized 2011 standards.) The unexpected third-party alternative in what seemed like a boring two-party system in the East this year, the Bulls are likely to be in the mix for a long time to come, and though it’s not exactly probable, it’s not unthinkable that they could win it all this year.
All in all, it’s the near-perfect mix for a great bandwagon team. And I can’t wait to crank up the “Sirius” and root ‘em on in this year’s post-season. Once the Sixers are out of the picture, anyway.