Hey, you guys know that the playoffs start tomorrow? Just kidding — they actually start a week from tomorrow (no, just kidding they actually start really soon but not soon enough that we can understand it in relation to tomorrow yet). Point is, this short-ass regular season is almost over and even though it probably feels like you just came to terms with your team tanking for the rest of the year, it’s time to start doing some figgering on who to root for down this stretch run, and more importantly, who to root for come playoff time.
Thus, the Playoff Bandwagon Rankings. TBJ devotees may remember this column from around this time (fractionally if not chronologically) last year, but just in case you’re new to the PBRs (heh), this is my rankings of the 16 to 18 teams currently in the playoff race, in order of how worthy they are of your bandwagon affections over these climactic
months weeks of the NBA season. As always, this list does not include the Lakers or Heat, simply because I either can’t or straight-up refuse to think rationally about Kobe Bryant or LeBron James. (You probably already know what you think of those guys and their respective squads anyway. They’re big and people talk about them a lot.)
Teams are ranked based on a variety of factors in highly unequal percentages. These factors include, but are not limited to: How likely the team is to make the playoffs (optimally: very likely), how likely the team is to make a deep run (optimally: likely, but not so likely that they’re a foregone conclusion), how interesting the team is compared to past years, how many intriguing subplots surround the team, and how good a mixture they have of familiar, possibly friendly faces and fresher, newer names in the mix. General unpredictability is a huge boon in the PBRs, and straight-through staleness is a sure kiss of death.
So here are the 17 teams you’re most likely to meet in the postseason, ranked from least to most bandwagonable. Apologies to the Wolves and Blazers, who arguably have a punters’ chance still of making the playoffs, but who I don’t see as credible enough a threat to the Top 16 to include here. Don’t worry, we’ll see them later this week in the Lottery Bandwagon Rankings. (Seriously.)
17. Orlando Magic (Last Year’s Ranking: 15)
No contest here. The Magic would likely have ranked higher had Dwight Howard not made the silly decision (from a League Pass standpoint) to waive his early termination option, thus allowing us to pretend like the Magic’s postseason performance could have impact on whether or not Dwight would re-sign in the off-season. Now, what’s the compelling story here, exactly? How much is Dwight gonna kick himself when the Magic crap out in the first or second round? I guess you could make an argument for Glen “Big Baby” Davis being a ticking postseason timebomb of questionable decision-making, but unless he’s gonna hit another game-winner and knock over a kid celebrating, I’m cool reading about it on the blogs the next day.
And for people who argue that this team could make a 2009-like Finals run … I don’t see it. That ’09 team was a lot better than this one, and the ’09 Cavs and Celtics (minus KG) weren’t as good as this year’s Heat and Bulls. Not impossible, but not likely enough to affect their ranking here.
16. Atlanta Hawks (Last Year: 14)
I feel a little bad ranking the Hawks this low, since they’ve performed way better than I think most of us expected them to this season, especially since losing Al Horford early on. Josh Smith has taken that step from Frustrating Talent to Frustrating But All-Star-Caliber Anyway Talent, and Joe Johnson has had an impressive stretch of Fuck You I’m Not Dead shot-making this last month. Still, predictability is the mortal enemy of the PBRs, and it’s hard to believe that this Hawks movie will have any kind of alternate ending to the one than we’ve seen the last three years — a first-round series win with zero close games, followed by a decisive loss in the second round with somehow even fewer close games. Rewards repeat viewings, it does not.
At least it’ll be nice to see Al Horford back and playing in meaningful games again, hopefully. And who knows? Maybe they’ll make it interesting by losing in the first round this year instead.
15. Houston Rockets (Last Year: N/A)
Kudos to the Rock Boys for elbowing their way into this conversation at all, and really, there are some fun things to be had with this team. The Lowry/Dragic point combo, the Tall, Stiff and Moderately Handsome Camby/Dalembert two-fer at the pivot, the guys like Courtney Lee and Chandler Parsons who you forget are on the team until you see them playing big minutes in crunch time. It’s a cute little bunch, no doubt. But the problem is as it’s always been with Morey’s bunch post-Yao and T-Mac — lack of star power. There’s no one super-compelling figure to get behind while rooting for Houston, and they’re not quite good enough (or high-ceilinged) a squad to make up for that. They’re all but sure to get bounced in the first round, and then where are you?
For what it’s worth, as little as I approved of that trade getting vetoed, I’m not sure how much Pau Gasol helps with this, either. H-Town still has a long way to go.
14. Philadelphia 76ers (Last Year: 11)
Much as I and my fellow Philly fans (they’re out there, I think) wanted to believe something was different with the Liberty Ballers this year after they started the season 20-9 and looked like the third-best team in the East — WE HAD FAITH IN YOU HOLLINGER — it looks like it’s the same old Sixers after all, likely bound for a hard-fought but ultimately fruitless first round playoff exit that keeps the team planted firmly in the NBA’s middle class. The first round matchup will make all the difference, as Philly could provide an inordinately entertaining (and possibly legitimately competitive) opponent against a team like the Pacers or Hawks — but if they stay in the seventh seed and have to play the Heat again … well, you’ll see a preview tonight of how boringly that should go.
The one X Factor in this team’s PBR potential: Evan Turner. I don’t expect most TBJ readers to live and die with his every jumper as I have for his two NBA seasons, but this guy officially upgraded his NBA status from likely draft bust to intriguing young talent with a stretch of play in early March that had him looking like a present-and-future All-Star — which lasted about a week, then vanished just as quickly as it emerged. I wouldn’t bet on him doing it again in the postseason, but it’s a possibility, and if he does, he could very possibly be the breakout star of the NBA playoffs. Worth keeping an eye on, trust me.
13. Denver Nuggets (Last Year: 8)
The post-Melo No Sticky Hands Nuggets started off the season looking like Finals contenders, only to pass the trade deadline in something closer to rebuilding mode, calling a mulligan on their offseason Nene splurge, and just barely clinging onto a postseason spot they seemed all but guaranteed a month or so earlier. It’s still a fun team to watch when things are going well — rookie Kenneth Faried, if nothing else — but it’s just not the same as it was at this time last year, when there was a sense of liberation and release with this team that has since faded due to injuries, statistical regression, and perhaps unreasonably high expectations. Maybe the PBR pendulum will swing back their way in time for the postseason next year.
And yes, I know this might be our first chance to see JaVale McGee in the postseason, and yes, I know that the tremendous Internet potential of that fact can and should not be denied. 13 still seems a reasonable ranking to me.
12. Utah Jazz (Last Year: 16)
Sort of the same deal here as the Rockets. Lots of intriguing pieces, no undeniably compelling stars, though they rank a little higher due to their future being somewhat brighter. Also, I can’t remember the last potential playoff team whose roster was this height-heavy. How many NBA squads in history could say that not just two best players, but also their two best long-term prospects were all big guys? (Not to mention that they maybe have one guy in their entire backcourt that could be considered league-average-caliber.) It’s remarkable that the team has let the situation go on this long without making a trade, and you have to think that this team won’t be in quite the same structure in postseasons future, but for the time being, it’s pretty interesting.
Also, Gordon Hayward! I love that guy. Jazz fans probably feel the same way about him that I do about Evan Turner, except maybe a little less so. Hope so for their sake.
11. Phoenix Suns (Last Year: N/A)
In my League Pass Rankings at the beginning of the year, I pegged the Suns at No. 26, in firm belief that the Seven Seconds or Less era was officially OVAH. I’d say that I’ll never underestimate the Steve Nash-led Suns again, but in all likelihood, I won’t even have the chance to, as all signs point to this being Nash’s last season in Phoenix. For that reason, in a year of playoff last stands, I’m OK with rooting for a team whose third-best player might be Jared Dudley if it means I get to see No. 13 repping for the Suns in one last sure-to-be-short-lived playoff run. He probably won’t even get to do that much, but the fact that it’s even a discussion is a top-line item in one of the 21st century’s most impressive NBA resumes.
10. Indiana Pacers (Last Year: 10)
Like the Nuggets and Sixers, the bloom is off the rose a bit for the Pacers. But if any of these guys had a chance at making an unexpectedly deep playoff run (or at least an unexpectedly exciting one), it’s probably the Pacers, who are about as good as a truly starless team can be in today’s NBA. Plus, with so many of the team’s players being still-improving young guys — you can all take your Paul George, I’m still more intrigued by why Roy Hibbert hasn’t decided to just straight up own the league just yet — and plenty of cap space to grow, you feel like this is the team that has the best shot of staying legitimate competitive for the next half-decade or so. They’ll be America’s Bandwagon Team soon enough.
9. Milwaukee Bucks (Last Year: N/A)
And if I thought they were actually gonna make the playoffs, there’s really no telling how high I’d rank the Deer here. The Bogut/Ellis trade may or may not have been a solid move for Milwaukee by NBA standards, but by League Pass standards, it was an absolute coup, turning an already oddly compelling Bucks into must-watch TV just about every night. A Monta Ellis/Brandon Jennings backcourt is just about all we can ask for as NBA fans, and you throw in box-score-befuddling seasons from Drew Gooden, Ersan Ilyasova and Mike Dunleavy Jr., and the Bucks are about as giddily unpredictable a team as you’re gonna find out there in the NBA wild this year. (Well, save one, but we’ll get to them later.)
Shame they probably won’t be around for a potential first-round playoff classic. If you had to bet on a lower-seeded team to give the Bulls, Heat, Spurs or Thunder the 7-game series of their lives, a la Bulls/Celtics in ’09, it’d have to be these guys, wouldn’t it?
8. Chicago Bulls (Last Year: 1)
7. Oklahoma City Thunder (Last Year: 4)
Pretty sure we know what we’re getting from these guys — until they face the Heat, that is. Do the Bulls have enough weapons to beat Miami? Does OKC have enough maturity and experience? Hard to say, but with neither team doing much to overhaul their rosters in the offseason or at the trade deadline — I’ll believe that Rip Hamilton is a difference-maker when I see it — it’s tough to get too emotionally invested in their postseasons until one or both squares off against Miami. Both teams are fun to watch, and each will likely give us some memorable moments as they saw their way through the first round or two of competition, but really, neither can do anything but disappoint until they meet and beat the Big Three. And then we will certainly be watching.
The Thunder are rated higher than the Bulls for two reasons. One is that the presence of Derek Fisher on the Thunder sets up the possibility of a Fisher vs. L.A. matchup, and it seems all but certain at that point that Fish would hit at least one game-winning shot to slay the unappreciative Lake Show. The other is that with every successive game he misses, the possibility gets realer and scarier that we might have a hobbled or perhaps altogether absent Derrick Rose this postseason, an absolutely devastating proposition even for non-Bulls fans, but one we’d be naive to dismiss altogether.
6. Dallas Mavericks (Last Year: 6)
Hey, remember how this team won the championship last year? Memories are certainly fading fast, as the Mavericks’ title defense looks bound for a fate similar to that of the 2006 Heat team that beat them in the Finals five years earlier, where they might be fortunate to even get out of the first round. It’s more defensible in the Mavs’ case due to the incredible turnover in the roster since last year’s championship run, and the lockout-shortened season making everything a little screwy, though it’s still a little disappointing given how thrilling and satisfying it was to watch them go all the way last year.
Of course, lest we forget, most people had all but counted the Mavs out of postseason contention at the beginning of last year’s playoffs, too. I’d love to see Dirk and company embark upon a respectable title defense, and I’ll probably root for ‘em until they lose, but the postscript on the Mavs’ 2012 season seems bound to be Next Year With Deron.
5. San Antonio Spurs (Last Year: 8)
Every year, I get more sentimental about this team. Once my most hated squad in the league, the Spurs have won me over with just how friggin’ impressive it is that they continue to get it done, ceaselessly and inexplicably, through age and injury and all sorts of other factors considered by most to be at least mildly dissuasive. It’s downright comical to me how this team’s players almost don’t seem to matter. How it seems like any one or two of them could be injured for any given stretch of games, and Pop’ll just plug some undrafted D-Leaguer, undervalued vet or forgotten college star in like it ain’t no thing, and they’ll rattle off an 8-game winning streak just to prove how little they care. It’s absolutely remarkable.
I don’t think they’ll beat the Thunder, and they could lose in the first round again, but if they somehow did end up winning the 2012 NBA Championship, I think it would actually bring a smile to my face. For all I know, they could be even higher on this list next year.
4. Boston Celtics (Last Year: 7)
Though they were probably just a healthy player or two away from being potential Finals contenders last season, it doesn’t seem like the Celtics have much chance of making the Finals in 2012. Hell, some probably think they still might miss the playoffs altogether. But Sunday’s game against the Heat proved that even a team as old and injury-depleted as the Celtics can’t be totally overlooked, not when they have a couple future Hall of Famers, a strong defensive identity and a player like Rajon Rondo who is as capable of big-game heroics as just about any one in the postseason. If Anyone But the Heat is still the ultimate objective — and for me, once the Sixers get eliminated, it basically is — the C’s may have the best chance of anyone in the East, besides Chicago, of taking out Miami.
More importantly, as Skeets and Tas talked about in yesterday’s Fix, it’s hard to not root for these guys a little, considering how unlike the Spurs, who seem like they could do this until Duncan reaches AARP eligiblity, this really does look like the Last Dance for the Big Three-era Celtics. Danny Ainge seems all but certain to hit the reset button next year, and Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen might find new homes in the offseason. The one title from 2008 doesn’t do justice to how great this team has been over the last five years, and if this is the last chance we get to watch the Celtics as we’ve known them this half-decade, we should probably enjoy it, whatever the postseason potential.
3. Los Angeles Clippers (Last Year: N/A)
It’s still not quite what we expected of Lob City, but with the team’s current 6-game winning streak, at least the Clippers aren’t nearly as depressing to watch anymore as they were for most of March. The postseason will be our best chance to see what we really have with the Chris Paul and Blake Griffin combo. Results have been solid but oddly unspectacular for most of the regular season, but the chance for some real photo album-worthy memories is certainly there with these guys come playoff time. And with silly tough guys like Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin coming off the bench, some good skirmish-y drama is definitely a possibility as well.
Really, though, all that matters is this: It’s the Clippers in the playoffs. You have to appreciate it while you can, because it could be 76 years before it happens again. And a potential Clippers/Lakers series? Oh lord, the ESPN graphics. And the Jack Nicholson/Billy Crystal shots!
2. New York Knicks (Last Year: #2)
This fucking team. When I say that the Knicks have been like a TV show this season, I don’t just mean that there’s been a lot of drama, though there’s damn sure been plenty of that as well. I mean that it really feels like every week is a new episode, with a different plot line (Wow, a 7-game winning streak! Now a 7-game losing streak! Boy, is Carmelo struggling! Jeremy Lin for MVP!), some new minor characters (Oh hey, it’s our cousin J.R. Smith who’s been in China until now! And Steve Novak shooting threes off the bench, where did you come from??) and stunning plot twists (So long Mike D’Antoni! See you in the playoffs maybe Jeremy Lin! Uh-oh, freeze frame that shot of the Knicks bench — is that Isiah Thomas sitting next to Herb Williams??)
It’s impossible to tell where to even begin with the 2011-2012 New York Knicks. I would venture that no squad in NBA history has ever been less consistent from week to week in terms of this one. The only thing that’s been consistent is the compelling characters and the general watchability. And if this Knicks TV show does get picked up for the playoffs, there’s really no telling what could happen in the first round or two. The Alan Sepinwall recaps will undoubtedly be dynamite.
1. Memphis Grizzlies (Last Year: #5)
If this feels like a little underwhelming a choice at No. 1, I understand. This really shouldn’t have been the Grizzlies’ spot. It should have been the Timberwolves’, only they lost Ricky Rubio to injury and no longer have a real shot at the postseason. It should have been the Knicks’, only Linsanity dried up and now we might not even get Jeremy or Amar’e in the playoffs this year. It should have been the Lob City Clippers’, only they haven’t been half as much fun to watch as we all expected them to be before the season. Fact is, this really isn’t the best year for Bandwagon Teams. It’s a deep class, with even the 12-15 teams being worth keeping track of, but one that’s a little weak at the top.
Now, we look around and the best candidate is simply the one that ended up being the most exciting to follow in the playoffs last year: the Memphis Grizzlies. They upset the Spurs in the first round as an eight seed last year, and this year they seem just as likely to pull off another such upset, hopefully this time with both Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph active and healthy. Really, we should all be rooting against the Grizz a bit in the weeks to come, so that they’re assured a No. 7 or 8 seed and a first round matchup against the Spurs or Thunder — matchups that last year showed to be some of the greatest, tightest and hardest-fought ball that the Western Conference has to offer. (Plus, this time there’s Gilbert Arenas. He sucks now, true, but a team with Gil is always going to be a little more entertaining than one without.)
It’s a little bit of yesterday’s news with this Memphis team, but like the Mavs when it comes to actual basketball, until somebody comes along to knock them off, they’re still officially the champs. And I wouldn’t want to face them in the first round, would you?