So, because I’m incapable of generating new column ideas these days, I was looking back at my old Bandwagon Team rankings from February — back when the playoffs were still over a month down the road — where I tried to conclude which teams then in the playoff picture would be the most enjoyable to follow down their respective stretch runs into the postseason. Seeing as how activity at the trade deadline (which next year I will almost definitely wait to pass before writing this column the first time) ended up changing everything, and then virtually nothing this postseason ended up going how we thought it would, I figured it was time to revisit those original rankings. Who has been unexpectedly fun to watch in these first two rounds? What teams turned out to be something of a drag? Who, if anyone, should we still be rooting for in the rounds remaining?
Here are my conclusions, with the teams ranked again from worst to best, and their ranking on my previous installment listed alongside. Of the 16 teams I listed last time (which didn’t count the Lakers and Heat, because for various reasons, I can never think objectively about either Kobe or LeBron), I lopped off the two that didn’t make the playoffs (better luck next year four or five years from now, Utah and Charlotte), and I added a new wild card entry (which is almost definitely stupid, but which I feel must be included in the discussion anyway), so now we’re going 15 to 1. Teams that have advanced past the first round obviously have something of an unfair advantage, but I still tried to weigh the way the teams’ seasons ended, and how exciting they were and how well they fought in the post-season, so a couple teams that bowed out early still fared very well. Anyway, you’ll see. Without further adieu.
15. Orlando Magic (Previous Ranking: 15)
Only the Utah Jazz were lower on the first edition of my list, and even they would’ve ranked a bit higher had I written it after the trade deadline, by virtue of the Deron Williams trade at least mixing things up for them some. The Magic were depressing at the time and only got worse from there, as prized acquisitions Gilbert Arenas and Hedo Turkoglu proceeded to decompose in front of our very eyes, exciting young talents Ryan Anderson and Brandon Bass turned out to not be that exciting (and probably never that young to begin with), and Dwight Howard started needing to throw up 30-20 type performances nightly just so their team would have a chance.
I figured a matchup against the once-miserable Atlanta Hawks would at least handicap them to the second round, but even that proved unmanageable, as the team lost in six games and sent every internet hoops prognosticator to the ESPN Trade Machine to see how D-12 to the Lakers or Celtics would work. Cleveland and Toronto, you might never know just how you good you guys had it.
14. San Antonio Spurs (Previous Ranking: 7)
The late season swoon (4-8 in their last 12 games) was probably easily explained away by factors like injuries, complacency and the Spurs doing this at the end of the every season, and it seemed like once the playoffs started, we’d see the same old San Antonio team that looked like finals contenders for most of the year.
But once the Grizzlies took game one in Texas, and then both of their games at home, the Spurs started looking real old real quick. No one more so than Tim Duncan, who most of us assumed was saving himself for the playoffs through most of a statistically underwhelming regular season, but in reality probably just doesn’t have that extra gear anymore, as he was exposed by the younger, more physical Marc Gasol throughout their first round matchup.
They still had their moments, and it certainly made for some memorable contests against Memphis, but there are few things sadder in the NBA than a one-time perennial contender that just doesn’t have a knockout punch anymore.
13. New Orleans Hornets (Previous Ranking: 13)
Credit where due: The Hornets were surprisingly fun in their first-round series against the two-time defending champs, and in a year with less exciting young teams, they very easily could’ve squeaked into this year’s top ten. Mostly, it was awesome to see Chris Paul prove that he can still be as much of a weapon as anyone in this league, stealing two games from the Lakers virtually all by his lonesome and making scrubs like Aaron Grey, Jason Smith and Willie Green seem like legitimate rotation guys (and really, the second-most fun thing about this Hornets team was getting to make fun of Aaron Grey, Jason Smith and Willie Green for six games).
Still, it never seemed like they actually had a real chance in the series, and once the Lakers actually got their act together in game five, it was only a matter of time. Good crowd, good times, but it’s not going to be long before the team’s lack of direction re-emerges and the CP3 drama starts up again.
12. New York Knicks (Previous Ranking: 2)
This whole thing got pretty deflating. As fun as the post-trade Knicks were for the first couple of weeks, the nine losses in 10 games, countless bad PR moments and general lack of cohesion for a team that had started out as one of the feel-good stories of the season took so much of the shine off the squad that my friends and I started to wonder how long it would be until NY brass were forced to take the Carmelo Anthony poster down from in front of MSG.
The seven-game winning streak near season’s end helped, and ‘Melo’s absolutely incredible 42-point/17-rebound game against the Celtics in Game 2 of the first round still gets my vote for the best single-player performance of these playoffs, but the fact that the team couldn’t steal one game from the Celtics — including two bad losses at the Garden in front of a crowd that deserved a W more than any other home crowd this postseason — is really just a bummer. Here’s hoping they can get back near the top of the list for next year. When the Knicks are more interesting, the NBA is more interesting. Just sayin’.
11. Boston Celtics (Previous Ranking: 6)
They looked like their old selves for the first time in months as they were destroyign the Knicks in Games 3 and 4 of the first round, and they showed decent heart in this Miami series, but the Celtics were dead men walking for the entire post-trade deadline regular season, as they lent a disturbing amount of credence to all that nonsense spouted by old-school NBA analysts about the importance of things like “swagger,” “locker-room chemistry” and “having another option at center in case Shaquille O’Neal somehow proves unreliable.” Why the C’s felt the need to inherit OKC’s biggest headache at the price of one of their defensive anchors is a matter that will likely be debated in Beantown for years to come, but for this year at least, it turned what should have been a triumphant last hurrah into the NBA equivalent of the last day of overnight camp, where everyone is dazed and emotionally exhausted and really just wants their parents to come pick them up already. Shame.
10. Portland Trailblazers (Previous Ranking: 9)
I have a weird relationship with this Portland team, because even though I never feel anything but bad for them, I still always end up rooting against them. They were a frisky bunch, no doubt, and Brandon Roy’s Game 4 against Dallas will be part of Blazer lore for all-time. But the excitement never seems to match the results with these guys, and now we have to take a good hard look at this one-time NBA team-of-the-future and realize that not only have they never made it out of the first round in three tries, but they don’t seem particularly likely to do so anytime soon moving forward, either.
Maybe that’s it — all I can ever think about watching these guys is to picture what could have been, and even though they’re still left with one of the better, more enjoyable teams in the league, it’s just never as good as it should be. Not fair, and they do deserve a good deal of props for how they’ve stayed afloat, but I’m never going to particularly relish watching a team that makes me feel bad about the universe.
9. Philadelphia 76ers (Previous Ranking: 11)
Boy, was I proud of my guys this postseason. It’d be unfair to say that they really pushed the Heat — though they were technically in Games 1 and 3, it was only 4 and 5 where it seemed like they really had a shot at winning — but they never rolled over for them either, and they showed tremendous heart and hustle and all that bullshit. The win they pulled off in Game 4 seriously felt like the Sixers winning the Super Bowl, and the fact that they hung in till the bitter end of Game 5 was almost as impressive.
Most importantly, Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner –the presumptive future of the team, though we’re really only sure about one of ‘em being good — showed up in a big way, lending hope that if the team could clear cap space, draft well and make smart long-term decisions, the 76ers might actually be kind of interesting for the future. Maybe not, but it did feel like by the end of that series, the nation had a respect and fondness for the Liberty Ballers that they didn’t have for any of the previous post-Iverson Sixers teams. No small feat.
8. Indiana Pacers (Previous Ranking: 10)
Like the Sixers, but with the light at the end of the tunnel significantly closer. The Pacers also pushed a much better team to five games, all but the last of which it seemed like they probably could have won, with big contributions from the young’ns (Roy Hibbert, Darren Collison, Tyler Hansbrough) that arguably bode well for the future.
But not only do the Pacers play a little more bandwagon-friendly a style, they’re also poised, with their surfeit of incoming cap space, to improve significantly in the not-too-distant future, without Elton Brand and Andre Iguodala-sized deals weighing them down. They’re maybe another scorer/creator away from being that kind of middle-of-the-pack Eastern Conference playoff team that might not ever actually beat the Bulls or Heat, but could play them real tough in some seriously memorable second-round playoff series. The NBA needs a middle class, you know.
7. Atlanta Hawks (Previous Ranking: 14)
Who could have guessed? The team that seemed absolutely guaranteed to not be responsible for a single noteworthy subplot of this post-season has instead given us several, between the hilariously dominant (on one side of the ball, anyway) center tandem of Zaza Pachulia and Jason Collins, the oh-God-please-no jump-shooting tendencies of Josh Smith, and the impossible-to-predict emergence of backup point guard Jeff Teague as possibly a legitimate starter in this league.
They still lose points for their home building serenading Derrick Rose with MVP chants, and for the fact that every statement trying to express hope for their future has to be started with the qualifier “Well, if they hadn’t signed Joe Johnson to that ridiculous contract.” But indeed, the Highlight Factory has been buzzing this postseason, and the Hawks are once again a fun, interesting team to watch.
6. Denver Nuggets (Previous Ranking: 8)
It was fun while it lasted. I thought I was insane for putting the Nuggets as high as I did last time around — what bubble team has a chance at making the playoffs after trading away its two signature players at the deadline? — but of course, to everyone’s surprise, the Nugs were better after making their trade, and my original ranking seemed conservative if anything. We figured Thunder-Nuggets would be a first round series for the ages, but the talent disparity (and a couple seriously bum ref calls) eventually got the better of Denver, who squeaked out just one win for the series.
Still, it’s hard to begrudge the team any for their playoff burnout, considering that they should really never have been there in the first place, and that made the end of the regular-season so much more fun. And like no other team on this list, I have no clue where this team will possibly rank in bandwagon listings of years to come.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder (Previous Ranking: 4)
Though Durant appears to have fully snapped out of his early-season funk and is ready once more to inherit the mantle of The Next One, OKC still feels a little off this postseason. And yeah, it’s mostly because of Russell Westbrook. He’s been great, intermittently at least, but the weird sort of edge he’s playing with — not that “Wow, what a competitor!” edge, but more of the “Woah, what’s with that dude?” edge — is making the Thunder a little less lovable than previous, when they seemed like the NBA’s unquestioned Good Guys.
Maybe it’s a tension they need to make the next step, and if so perhaps it’ll be best for their bandwagonability long term, but right now, there’s an uneasiness surrounding the team and its entire hierarchy and structure that’s killing them a little bit. Maybe they just need a healthy NateRob to lighten things up a little.
4. Chicago Bulls (Previous Ranking: 1)
Still so much fun when they’re clicking, but jeez, sometimes do they live or die on Derrick Rose. In the playoffs, as in the regular season, no one is the league is more exciting than our MVP, but when the offense breaks down late and it becomes clear that Derrick is gonna get the ball with the chance to either win or lose the game essentially by his lonesome, the Bulls come to be kind of a drag. Maybe a healthier Carlos Boozer would be the difference, or maybe the team should have made the investment in finding a legit shooting guard at the deadline this season, but it’s sort of hard to see them coming out of the East with only one reliable late-game scoring option, and it’s also hard to see exactly how that situation is to improve in the immediate future.
3. Anyone But the Heat (Previous Ranking: N/A)
Super-lame, I know, but it has to be mentioned. How many people have you talked to this postseason who don’t seem to have a rooting interest beyond praying that the Heat don’t get to go all the away this year? What other teams are remaining in the post-season right now, where upon hearing the news that they’d won the championship, you wouldn’t say “Well … at least it wasn’t the Heat.” These guys are the most hated sports team in America since the 2007 Patriots, and the bandwagon haters this year are probably way more fervent than most of the bandwagon fans of the other teams.
And as Bill Simmons mentioned on a recent podcast, if they do win this year, not only does it seem to disprove all the old-school truisms about playing basketball the right way, but it pretty much paves the way for them absolutely owning the next decade in pro basketball. We may prefer the top two teams on this list to be the ones to do it, but as long as someone beats the Heat, we’ll all be relatively sated.
2. Dallas Mavericks (Previous Ranking: 3)
Ah yes, the no-ring All-Stars, with Peja Stojakovic just the latest addition to a long list of veteran players who might be chasing their last for-real opportunity at a championship this year. You still gotta love these guys, and now that they’ve swept L.A., they’re something close to America’s darlings, with “Anyone but the Lakers” probably ranking closely behind “Anyone but the Heat” as the take of many casual sports fans at the beginning of the NBA postseason.
It all comes back to Dirk, of course, one of the league’s most beloved and unique veteran players, and one whose stellar all-around play has been one of the biggest stories of this post-season, with memories of ’06 and ’07 playoff meltdowns now officially off the books for the Big German. And if they face the Heat again in the finals … the possibilities are just mind-boggling. Hey, remember when everyone thought Portland was gonna beat these guys in the first round?
1. Memphis Grizzlies (Previous Ranking: 5)
Like there was any doubt. Even if they don’t win another game this postseason — and after last night’s immolation, they very well might not — these guys have proven themsevles the best NBA bandwagon team since the ’07 Warriors, half responsible for at least three of the greatest playoff games in the 21st century, and with one of the greatest pro hoops casts of characters ever assembled.
We’ll be telling our grandkids about Tony Allen’s loose-ball dives into the stands, about Zach Randolph’s post-dagger dancing, about Mike Conley’s and Greivis Vasquez’s unconscionable threes to tie Game 4 against OKC and send the game into additional overtimes. It’s hard to say where the team goes from here, with Rudy Gay’s return next year imminent and Marc Gasol’s departure in the off-season plausible, but for what they’ve given us already this post-season, they’re first-ballot bandwagon Hall of Famers, no question.