By Chris Hallenbrook
The NBA playoffs are upon us, and for 15 franchises the question on the tip of everyone’s tongue is “how far can we go?” (With all due respect to the Bucks, I have a better chance of sprouting wings and flying than they do of beating the Heat.) For the other 14 teams, it is that dread time of year when all you have to look forward to is seeing which former player they dust off and send to Secaucus New Jersey to try to woo the ping pong balls. (The lowest point of every Boston fan’s Celtic fandom was sending Tommy Heihnson and his lucky tie in the hopes of getting Kevin Durant.) This guide is for those fans who want a distraction between now and the lottery, a handy guide on who you can feel good about rooting for while hoping the ping pong balls reward your favorite team’s ineptitude. We’ll proceed by conference and seed.
1. Miami Heat. You can’t deny the talent; LeBron is one of the greatest there ever was. However, after that, let’s be honest, there is little reason to root for these guys unless you are a contrarian, a shameless front runner or were actually born and raised in South Beach. It is the ultimate mercenary team built around an amazingly talented player with the ego and prima donna nature to match. Not one, not two, not three…need I say more?
You must cheer for them if: you hate Cleveland or can’t get enough of Ray Allen in He Got Game.
You must root against them if: you are from Cleveland or suffered through “The Decision.”
2. New York Knickerbockers. The Knicks have been riding the top notch performance of the oft injured Melo and the steady hand of JR Smith to near the top of the Junior Varsity Eastern Conference. This is a Big Money team built for the Big Apple that has survived despite Big Injuries to its Big Names.
You must cheer for them if: you are an Orange fan and still love Melo for winning that national title.
You must root against them if: you hate all things New York.
3. Indiana Pacers. They’re young, their athletic and you probably don’t recognize a single name on their roster. In and of itself that means you can feel good about rooting for them. Of course, young teams go through growing pains, so don’t get too attached to them just yet. Also, remember that Larry Bird is no longer their team president, so your memories of the 1980s Celtics need not color your decision.
You must cheer for them if: you live in a flyover state.
You must root against them if: you know that their name comes from the Indy 500 pace car and hate yourself for knowing that.
4. Brooklyn Nets. In their first season in the House that Jay-Z built, the Nets have brought the swagger back to this sports starved borough. Behind the scoring touch of Brook Lopez and Deron Williams’ “I’m at my best when the games matter most” routine, they have sent a message to the boys in Manhattan that they can’t take Big Apple supremacy for granted.
You must cheer for them if: you still curse Walter O’Malley’s name
You must root against them if: you’re a Kardashian
5. Chicago Bulls. The Bulls have found a way to remain relevant despite playing the whole season without one of the most dynamic players in the game in Derrick Rose. Meanwhile, Noah has missed time on and off, yet Coach Thibodeau continues to earn his keep by milking wins out of this team. Unfortunately for the Bulls, Rose seems to have no intention of walking through that door any time soon, which is liable to make their stay in this postseason a short one.
You must cheer for them if: you still own Air Jordans or your favorite movie is Space Jam.
You must root against them if: Jordan ruined your hoops hopes and dreams (I’m looking at you Jazz fans)
6. Atlanta Hawks. The good news for this Hawks team is that will not be facing the Celtics in the first round given that if one thing is true of the KG Celtics, it is that they absolute own the Hawks. The bad news is that Josh Smith and Al Horford are both battling injuries, and that this team is from Atlanta. We all know that God hates Cleveland, but let’s face it, he doesn’t seem to be fond of Atlanta since the Braves were last seen being a perennial tease in the 1990s (one of the few teams ever to make one championship seem like an underachievement).
You must cheer for them if: you want the South to rise again.
You must root against them if: William Tecumseh Sherman is your homeboy.
7. Boston Celtics. What a strange season for the Celtics. When the news broke during a January game against the Heat that Rondo was done for the year, every Celtics fan kissed off this team’s chances. Then, they win that game against Miami in overtime. In the months since, the Celtics have lost rookie Jared Sullinger, who was leading the team in rebounds, for the season and yet have beaten such playoff bound teams as the Clippers, Lakers, Nuggets, Rockets, Warriors, Knicks, Pacers and Hawks (seriously, there seem to be three constants in life: death, taxes and that KG & Co. will always spank the Hawks). On the other hand, they have also lost to the Bobcats…twice (and one of those was with Rondo). If KG and Paul Pierce are healthy, this team can hang with anybody in the East, including Miami. But with the time they have each missed down the stretch that is a Shaq sized “if.”
You must cheer for them if: you are a Bobcats fan (really, do your wins over them look better if they are one and done or if they take Miami to the limit in the Conference Finals again? That’s what I thought).
You must root against them if: you are a fan of any of the teams who had bad blood with Bird’s Big Three…which is basically everybody in the Eastern Conference and Southern California.
8. Milwaukee Bucks. Definitely a team you can feel good about rooting for. They are a young team that hails from a smaller market, although I wouldn’t get too attached given that they finished the season six games below .500. Led by the consistent scoring of Brandon Jennings and smothering defense of the combustible Larry Sanders (he makes Kendrick Perkins look calm), they’ve scrapped their way to an “only in the Eastern Conference” playoff spot.
You must cheer for them if: you’re a Virginia Commonwealth fan (Sanders’ alma mater)
You must root against them if: you can’t stand the idea of a team with a losing record making a playoff run
1. Oklahoma City Thunder. After a run to the finals last year, this likable team seemed poised to compete for years to come. Then they traded James Harden to Houston in a move that made us all wonder if this ownership group is committed to winning. Well, the joke’s on us as the Thunder are right at the top of the pack again, with Durant ready to lead the team deep into the playoffs yet again. Still, you can’t help but think that the loss of Harden will come back to haunt this team when it matters most.
You must cheer for them if: you’re a Rodgers and Hammerstein fan
You must root against them if: you live in Seattle or are a Kings fan (just think how much harder it would be for the Maloofs to move the team if the Sonics still existed).
2. San Antonio Spurs. This team may not make headlines, other than for resting their starters en masse against the Heat, but they are still the Popovich-Duncan Spurs. This may be the first team in NBA history to “quietly” win 58 games. Health has been a concern at times, but Duncan seems to be relatively healthy, and that makes this team one that I would advise not betting against.
You must cheer for them if: you love a no drama team that just gets it done
You must root against them if: you’re a Mavericks fan
3. Denver Nuggets. Their motto really should be “No Melo, No Problem.” Despite a triple overtime loss to a depleted Celtics team right before the All-Star Break, the Nuggets posted the most wins by a Denver team since their old ABA days. A prolific offense (106 points per game) has covered up for a porous defense (101 points per game), which is never a good sign given that the cliché is true in any major North American sport: defense wins championships. They may make a run, but if they do it will be by winning barn-burners.
You must cheer for them if: you miss the red, white and blue ball of the ABA, or just want to spite Melo
You must root against them if: you have convinced yourself that Denver International Airport is the headquarters of the Illuminati/New World Order
4. LA Clippers. Ah the Clips, LA’s “other” team. Well, it took a little help from David Stern sticking it to the Lakers, overseeing a bag job of a trade, guiding Chris Paul to the franchise, but with the duo of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin leading the way, this team is the real deal. CP3 has been much of the reason as he has been the leader of this team on and off the court. All and all, it just goes to show that in today’s NBA you are never more than two or three players away from going from laughing stock to legitimate contender.
You must cheer for them if: like Paul you got stuck planning your high school reunions
You must root against them if: you hate acronym nicknames.
5. Memphis Grizzles. The only major pro team in Memphis has given a city better known for its barbeque plenty of reason to be a basketball town this year, winning 56 games in a campaign that would have been good for the two seed if they only played in the East. Marc Gasol has quietly lead the way for this team, being a steady presence in the middle and having a midrange game that just isn’t fair in a seven footer. Add to his the shooting touch of Rudy Gay and the post play of Zach Randolph (11 boards a game) and you have a team that could make some noise this spring.
You must cheer for them if: you can’t enough Tennessee barbeque
You must root against them if: you’re a Jazz fan or are still bitter about the Pau Gasol “trade”
6. Golden State Warriors. Raise your hands if you this coming. Okay, now put your hands down you liars. Stephen Curry and David Lee have make basketball relevant again in the Bay Area just one year after fans mercilessly booed team owner Joe Lacob during the ceremony to retire Chris Mullins’ number. This turnaround provides hope of all small market teams, because if after decades of front office stupidity the Warriors can turn this around, anyone can. Also, that Jacob can finally get something right proves yet again that the Maloofs are about as bad as it gets.
You must cheer for them if: want to see Oakland win a title before its best hope crosses the bay to San Francisco
You must root against them if: you think it’s foolish to call your team the “Golden State” anythings when there are three other pro teams in your sport in the same state
7. LA Lakers. Well this is how the Busses drew it up in the offseason, right? Acquire two elite talents in Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, battle old age and injuries all season and clinch the seven seed (with help from a tie break) on the last night of the season? Okay, probably not, but all of that sure made for some great schadenfreude for all the Laker haters. While the Lakers certainly turned it on down the stretch, Kobe’s Achilles injury means he won’t be back no matter how deep they make it into the playoffs, so this is going to be a seriously uphill fight for a franchise unaccustomed to being the second best team in LA.
You must cheer for them if: you are related to someone on the roster, and even then, if Bill Walton can tell Luke, “you’re my son, but the Celtics are my team,” there’s no reason why you can’t take sides against the family too.
You must root against them if: you’re a Kings fan and, like my colleague Kevin Wolfman, you will never forgive Dick Bavetta
8. Houston Rockets. This team is a stats junkie’s dream. GM Daryl Morey has a degree in computer programming, an MBA from MIT and started in the Sabermetrics side of the house for the Celtics before taking over in Houston. He also once humored all of us by claiming that playing fantasy sports isn’t all that different from being a real GM. He is however sensible enough to take advantage of GMs who are too afraid to ante up, snatching up James Harden when the aforementioned Thunder decided avoiding the luxury tax was more important than going all out for a championship. This team is leading the league in scoring, but gives up points at an even more rapid pace than the Nuggets, which raises red flags going into the playoffs.
You must cheer for them if: you want Linsanity to take center stage again
You must root against them if: you count their leaving town among the long list of San Diego sports miseries
And there it is. Now you are ready to sit down and watch the NBA playoffs. There will be plenty of time to worry about bad breaks from the ping pong balls later.