With the notable exception of one high-profile team out west, there’s not a ton of drama to the playoff races as we come down the stretch of the 2012-13 season. Barring some act of God and/or Spencer Hawes, the eight teams in the East are as good as set, and though Portland and Dallas are still technically in the late time zone hunt, the chances aren’t great they’ll actually be a factor (and the guys have already locked that in on the pod, so that’s all I really need). Therefore, while we keep one eye on the progress of the Lakers, seeing whether their supposedly championship-contending roster can sneak their way into the eighth spot, the other eye can start to peer around the corner to see what teams will be worth following in the postseason.
Thus, for a third straight season now, the Playoff Bandwagon Rankings (PBRs). In case you’re new to the column, I’ll explain (and by explain I mean copy and paste from last year’s column, changing the necessary slang words to avoid potential anachronisms): This is my rankings of the 16 teams currently in the playoff race, in order of how worthy they are of your bandwagon affections over these climactic months of the NBA season. As in the last two years, this list does not include the Lakers or Heat, simply because I can not, will not think rationally about teams involving one or both of Kobe Bryant or LeBron James. (One of the many good reasons why I did not do an Olympic Bandwagon Rankings column last summer.)
Teams are ranked based on a variety of factors in highly unequal and imprecise 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’ incarnations, 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. And this year especially, you’d also like them to at least have a puncher’s chance — or whatever the basketball equivalent is — of beating the Miami Heat.
So, before we get underway with an April that should mark the most interesting postseason since last year’s (at least!), let’s make an informed decision of who we’re all going to be rooting for, home/chosen team allegiances aside, ranked from least to most-bandwagonable. And for fans of the truly downtrodden franchises unrepresented here, fret not — the lottery bandwagon rankings are again just around the corner.
16. Washington Wizards (Last Year: N/A). OK, so obviously, this is a big ol’ red herring to start us off. The Wizards are 21 games under .500, 11 games out of the eighth seed, and have just about a 100 percent chance of counting ping-pong balls this summer. Still, every year there’s one team that makes you wish the season could be about 20 games longer, because they clearly seem like one of the eight best teams in their conference, but it just took a little too long for them to hit their groove. Obviously, the Wizards are such a team this year — I’ve already written about their League Pass bonafides at length, and with Bradley Beal playing like a Rookie of the Year candidate, the Wiz now have a potent Wall/Beal/Nene core that would make them a tough, entertaining out in the first round this year.
Who would you rather see the Heat crush in the first round this year: Milwaukee or Washington? We’ll touch on that a bit more at length later in the countdown, but regardless, it’s a real shame there’s no chance of seeing this team playing meaningful basketball this April. Here’s hoping they’re just a year away.
15. Brooklyn Nets (Last Year: N/A). Hands up if you actually look forward to watching Brooklyn Nets basketball, like, ever? Even with all they have going for them as a franchise — the newness, the awesome location and stadium, the cool-by-association with Prokhorov and the Jiggaman — there’s just something so patently uninspiring about this team of personality-less borderline All-Stars (not you Reg, you’re still cool) that always seems like they should be a little bit better, a little bit more exciting than they are. There’s room for improvement here if either Deron Williams figures out how to be a star again (I still haven’t forgotten how electric that guy can be when he’s really on) or if they end up facing the Knicks in the first round, which they would if the playoffs ended today. Even then, though … how could you not root for the Knicks?
14. Atlanta Hawks (Last Year: 16) To quote Charles Barkley, “maaaaaan I hate this ‘lanta Hawks team.” Nothing wrong with them per se, but they’re so low-ceiling and unexciting at this point that it’s impossible to see them doing anything of even remote interest or surprise in these playoffs. I’m not sure if not having Joe Johnson this time makes them more or less bandwagonable — probably a little bit more — but when you’re replacing him with Devin Harris, DeShawn Stevenson and Kyle Korver, it’s hard to really interpret that as progress for their watchability. Do like a little of that Josh Smith/Al Horford two-man game, though.
13. Utah Jazz (Last Year: 12). I can’t tell you how disappointed I was the Jazz didn’t trade one of their big guys at the deadline. The basketball reasons are arguable, but the PBR consequences are dire. The Millsap/Jefferson frontcourt combo has always made for surprisingly plodding, inert viewing, and at least the chances for entertainment with one of their young bigs getting those big minutes – for reasons both basketball and (for Enes Kanter especially) non-basketball-related — would have been pretty high. And who knows what perimeter guys they could have gotten in return to inject a little life into this team? Now, all we have to work here is pretty much the same group that got bounced in four games last playoffs, with Randy Foye and Mo Williams (probably) as the big new supporting characters. Pass.
12. Milwaukee Bucks (Last Year: 9). The J.J. Redick acquisition isn’t doing that much for me here, and as exciting as the Brandon Jennings/Monta Ellis backcourt combo was for the final half of last season, I’ve found myself quickly exhausted by it. You gotta love getting Larry Sanders and Ersan Ilyasova into the playoffs, obviously, and the Bucks can still play as entertaining a game as anyone on a given night, but there’s no real chance of them challenging the Heat, and there’s no real chance of them climbing out of the eighth seed. Hard to get too attached here.
11. Chicago Bulls (Last Year: 8). Two big ol’ asterisks to note here, and you can probably guess what at least one of them is: Of course, if Derrick Rose returns, that would give their team a higher ceiling for both making it far in the playoffs and providing some watchable basketball in the process, and his return from ACL surgery would instantly become one of the biggest stories of the postseason. But perhaps just as importantly, the Bulls are hanging right around the four seed, with the Celtics just a couple games behind. If they managed to match up as a 4/5 in the first round — a rematch of their classic ’09 series, potentially with both franchises down their All-Pro point guards — just giving us a reason to crack open the memories from that impossibly beautiful seven-gamer from four years ago would be enough to make it essential hoops.
10. Golden State Warriors (Last Year: N/A). Would love to rank these guys higher, but I just don’t see how they win a postseason series against anyone they might face in the West. In fact, if I was a Golden State fan, I’d be very worried about missing the postseason entirely at this point with the way they’ve been playing the last month. But they still hold home games at Oracle, and they still have Stephen Curry, who has proven fairly conclusively that when he’s playing on a big stage, you’re a darned fool not to tune in. For those reasons alone, gotta at least have the Warriors top ten here.
9. Memphis Grizzlies (Last Year: 1). I still love ya, Grizz, but there’s no doubt that as compelling as you may be as a cast of characters, you play some ugly f—ing basketball at times. Not like Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo were electricity personified, but when you get rid of those guys and replace them most prominently with Jerryd Bayless and Tayshaun Prince, that’s not gonna be good for PBR business. They can still win a playoff series, maybe even two, and you never want anything but the best for Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol (among others), but the rate of watchable games the Grizz play this postseason could be an exceptionally low one. You’d be well-advised to stay uncommitted there.
8. Los Angeles Clippers (Last Year: 8). Don’t know what it is about this Clippers team, but I just can’t ever get fully on board with them. Too much Jamal Crawford, perhaps, and certainly no one is more deathly to a team’s watchability than Chauncey Billups, and maybe I still miss Eric Gordon and Baron Davis a little for reasons I don’t even really understand and couldn’t possibly explain or justify. Regardless of the reason, my enthusiasm for the Clippers remains forever tempered. The team should be a bandwagon slam dunk on paper, but I can’t shake the feeling there’s something lacking there. At least they still have Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, meaning they can’t ever slip much lower than this.
7. Boston Celtics (Last Year: 4). The real damaging loss to the C’s PBR standings here wasn’t Rajon Rondo, it was Jared Sullinger. They became instantly about three times as compelling and watchable as a team this year when Rondo went down — and I still say the Miami home game after his injury was the best watch of the year — and suddenly had something of an identity as a young, high-intensity, almost-exciting (if you really like defense, anyway) basketball team, despite the team’s two best players still being in their mid-30s. The Sullinger injury took away not only one of their the team’s few remaining competent bigs, but one of their most likeable, most representative players, really devastating the C’s from a bandwagon standpoint.
Lucky for them, they’re scrappy enough even without Rondo and Sully that they’re still a threat in the postseason, and a compelling watch — I’m totally fascinated by Jeff Green, and his seemingly endless potential despite his often pedestrian production, if nothing else. And again, if they end up facing Chicago in the first round, all bets are off.
6. Indiana Pacers (Last Year: 10). I would not have guessed in November that these Pacers would play even slightly compelling ball by playoff time, when they were playing some of the most deathly, ugly hoops in the entire NBA. But somewhere along the line, “deathly, ugly” kinda just became their identity, and though you’d never call their brand of hoops “exciting,” per se, there’s a certain and cool style to it now. With Paul George and Lance Stephenson breaking out this year, and Danny Granger coming off the bench, they just kinda makes sense as a tough, grind-it-out, late ’90s sort of basketball team, and it was fitting that they were involved in the year’s most noteworthy inter-team skirmish. It’s a less extreme, slightly slicker version of what the Grizzlies have going out West, and it could make for a very interesting six or seven-game series against Miami sometime this spring.
5. Houston Rockets (Last Year: 15). Just about the ultimate wild card in the playoffs this year with their high-octane offensive attack, because I’m not sure there’s a team in the NBA they couldn’t beat in a seven-game series if they were hitting on their threes and a couple things broke their way. Of course, they could also be eliminated in four or five games, but James Harden, like Stephen Curry, is one of those guys you don’t want ever want to flip too far away from in a big spot, and with the scoring numbers they put up (and give up) as a team, they’re guaranteed to play in at least one 120-118 type classic in the postseason. And if they end up playing OKC in the first round … man, can you imagine the intensity?
Speaking of which:
4. Oklahoma City Thunder (Last Year: 7). There’s no denying that this team is a little less fun with Kevin Martin instead of James Harden — occasionally a lot less, as the team reminded us during their super-cold stretch against the Clippers in the second half yesterday. But a main qualification for any team you want to seriously follow in these playoffs is, of course, “Can they beat the Heat?” and while I’m not sure by any means that the Thunder can, they’ll at least make for the most compelling Finals matchup against Miami, having faced them once already last year, and Durant being the closest thing LeBron has to a natural rival at this point. (Sorry, Kobe.) Plus, don’t you want to see a whole lot of Hasheem Thabeet in the playoffs this year? I know I do.
3. San Antonio Spurs (Last Year: 5). As I wrote last year, every year I get more sentimental about this team. After the third, maybe fourth straight season of the Spurs being largely counted out as a potential championship contender, they again prove that they’re still one of the most dominant regular season teams out there. But there’s a drama of sorts now with the Spurs, as the last two playoff chokes — losing in the first round against Memphis, getting walloped in four consecutive by the Thunder in the West finals — now leave them with the stigma of being a “regular season team” that doesn’t have the extra gear to get it done in the playoffs anymore. I’m not convinced that’s true, and much to the surprise of 2008 Me, I’d love to see them prove it by making it to the Finals. If I was the Heat, I’d be rooting against it, anyway.
2. Denver Nuggets (Last Year: 13). Can the Nuggets really be a threat in this postseason? Hard to tell, though getting to play three games in high elevation at the Pepsi Center means they’ll probably at least have a shot, and in the meantime, they’re kind of like a more reliable Houston Rockets, similarly guaranteed to result in high final score totals, but less likely to let down in a big way in the win column. History may be against them — did you know that the Nuggets have lost in the first round in eight of the last nine post-seasons, with the only exception being the first Billups season where they made the West finals? — and they probably won’t make it all the way to the Finals, but if there’s a team likely to put a real wrench in the staid hoops hierarchy settling in across the league, it’s probably the Nugs.
1. New York Knicks (Last Year: 2). The Knicks have never been lower than No. 2 in the three years I’ve done these rankings, and while that might be geographical bias on my part, I do think it’s more because the Knicks have been the most perpetually dramatic team in the NBA over that time span. There’s always something going on with this team — some collapse, some breakout, some historic run, some unforgettable performance against, some injury, some return from injury, some intra-team feud, some patching up of old wounds — you are never, ever hurting for storylines with the New York Knicks, and that would be the case even if they were playing in Charlotte (though I’m personally very grateful they’re not).
But this is also the first year they’ve topped the PBRs, and that’s probably because this is the first year since their return to playoff relevance that they’ve actually played basketball well enough to be considered a serious contender. That status is getting increasingly arguable, as the team has tapered off significantly after their super-hot start, but I still think they can give the Heat a real scare — possibly even a legitimate challenge — in a seven-gamer, and at the very least, they’re a good bet to win their first playoff series since 2000. You wanna be there when it happens, don’t you? Someone’s gotta be around to chest-bump with Rasheed Wallace in celebration.