Power Rankings: NBA Bandwagon Teams Going into the Post-Season
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on March 1, 2010
So we’re about two-thirds into the NBA season, and already for many of us (especially those of us in the Tri-State Area), there’s nothing really left to root for with our home teams until the lottery comes. However, in the age of enlightenment (and NBA League Pass), while we grit our teeth and remain supportive to our flailing franchises, we can also let our eye start to wander a little, in search of a team worth hitching our wagons to come post-season time. So as the playoff races tighten and shit starts to get real, the question arises: Who’s worth getting in the bunker with?
The qualities one looks for in a good bandwagon team are many. You want a team that’s familiar enough that you feel like you can kind of naturally slip into their fandom, but not one that’s not so stale that you feel that they can’t surprise you. You want a team that’s maybe a little up-and-coming so you can kind of grow with them, but not one that’s so raw that they don’t have a chance to even make a dent in the first round. You want a team that maybe offers a league vet or two a long-delayed shot at true glory, but definitely not one with so many has-beens that it starts to get depressing.
With all that in mind, I’ve taken the 18 teams remaining with a shot at making the playoffs (defined as within five games of the conference eighth seed for the sake of this article) and ranked them based on their potential for a rewarding bandwagon experience from this point forward. I’ve disqualified the Lakers and Cavaliers due to their being the overwhelming favorites to make the finals, since I can’t really endorse such shallow front-running (And because for wildly differing reasons, I find it utterly impossible to remain objective about either LeBron James or Kobe Bryant). But don’t worry–there’s still plenty of teams to choose from. Here they are, from 18 to 1–and be sure to let me know who you’re watching for these days as well:
18. Miami Heat. Pretty much a no-brainer here. This team’s own fans don’t really want them, and unless you happen to be a gigantic Dwyane Wade fan (and I’m not even sure what that would say about you as a human being) you’d have to be pretty nuts to watch their games voluntarily. There’s just nothing else here–Michael Beasley has been a little bit nicer of late,vaguely resembling a #2 draft pick for the first time, but besides that, you’d be rooting for a team giving quality minutes to such world-class scrubs as Joel Anthony, Dorell Wright and Carlos Arroyo. There’s no chance of the team making it past the second round, barely any chance of them winning in the first round, and even Wade himself just seems to be kind of biding his time until he can either got some top-tier assistance or bolt for a franchise that actually appreciates having one of the three best players in the NBA on their team. Jump at your own peril.
17. Boston Celtics. Sad, but true. The Celtics were a very nice story two seasons ago, and I certainly don’t begrudge them their championship, but it’s become clear that age, injuries and signing the fattest, least-motivated player this side of Eddy Curry as a prize free agent have cemented the C’s on a team firmly on the decline. The trade deadline acquisition of Nate Robinson has some comedy potential, certainly, but really it’s just kind of a bummer to watch this recent superpower (and its three marquee stars, who already suffered through about a lifetime’s worth of losing before joining up) slowly-but-surely running out of ammo. Their own #1 fan doesn’t even seem to enjoy watching them anymore, so what chance do you have, really? One possible caveat: If the Celtics and Bulls end up meeting in the first round again, as they are currently on track to do, the rematch would absolutely be a must-watch. I’d probably rather root for the Bulls, though.
16. San Antonio Spurs. Another Best-Years-Behind-Them team, though I’m not sure it’s as much due to age as people think–Tim Duncan, the oldest of the team’s bedrock players, is having another quietly dominant season, about as impressive as ever. Moreso, it’s about Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili’s numbers dropping precipitously, the latter especially never looking the same since being injured late in the ’08 season, and about the disappointing contributions of newcomer Richard Jefferson, who just hasn’t been the impact player the team thought they were getting when they took on his mammoth contract in the off-season. The one saving grace for this team is in promising young’ns George Hill and DeJuan Blair, with rebounding-machine Blair particularly proving to be one of the league’s most fun players to watch in just his rookie season. Still, even at their best, the Spurs were never a particularly scintillating team to watch, and now they’ve got Keith Bogans in their starting lineup. Pass.
15. Utah Jazz. Nothing against the Jazz themselves, really–I love Deron Williams, Andrei Kirilenko’s new haircut is phenomenal, and I have fond memories of the Stormin’ Not-Mormon Kyle Korver from his Sixers days. But really, isn’t this pretty much the exact seam team that lost to the Spurs in the West finals three seasons ago? I mean, the supporting parts have changed, but the Williams-Boozer-Okur-Kirilenko core is basically the same as it ever was. After making the conference finals in ’07, the Jazz lost in the second round in ’08, and then in the first round last year. Clearly, this is a team that needs a boost to get over the hump, yet all the front office has done the last year is shed payroll, paying the Thunder with ’09 first-round pick Eric Maynor to take Matt Harpring’s contract off their hands, and shipping Ronnie Brewer off to Memphis for a future first-rounder. At this point, it’s just not gonna happen for the Jazz in their current incarnation, and their brand of basketball is a little too vanilla to make them exciting even as inevitable losers. Plus, that rattle sound they make after each made basket at Energy Solutions Arena is mad annoying.
14. Houston Rockets*. The No-Star All-Stars probably should be a little more fun to watch than they probably are, but as much as I like some of their individual pieces (especially ’09 post-season hero Trevor Ariza and stat-geek poster-boy Shane Battier), and as much as I respect GM Darryl Morey, the actual product put on the court is none too enthralling. The asterisk here is because I’ve yet to watch them play with recent acquisition Kevin Martin, the Kings’ oddly-stroked scoring dynamo, who could add untold dimension to their somewhat staid offense. It’s been slow out of the gate for the Rocks and K-Mart thusfar (1-3 in four games together), but they need him to emerge as the team’s focal point to have any shot of making the playoffs, much less making any kind of run. We’ll have to wait and see with this one a little.
13. Milwaukee Bucks. There’s a lot to like here, actually. Brandon Jennings was the story of the first couple months, obviously, and he’s still electric when he’s on, but a 37% shooting percentage means that he’s not on terribly often these days. More exciting of late is the emergence of 2005 #1 pick Andrew Bogut as a legitimate offensive threat, a skilled post scorer in the sort of Chris Kaman / Al Jefferson mold, more personally pelasing is the unexpected return of perennial league ne’er-do-well Jerry Stackhouse off the Milwaukee bench, and more hilarious is coach Scott Skiles’ bulging bald forehead. The main problem with Milwaukee’s bandwagon strength is that there are still too many boring, almost replacement-level players (Charlie Bell, Carlos Delfino, Ersan Ilyasova) getting big minutes on the team which tend to suck the energy out of watching them, and trading the perpetually underappreciated Hakim Warrick to the Bulls for the despicable John Salmons loses them major points in my book. Once they get Michael Redd’s contract off the books in 2010, though, and perhaps actually get some above-average pros to help out Bogut and Jennings, they could be a big mover on future installments on this list.
12. New Orleans Hornets. I thought for sure that the Hornets would be borderline-unwatchable this year, as perpetual MVP candidate when healthy Chris Paul suffered through a tragically mediocre season with little help from anyone besides David West. But credit to the Hornets and interim coach John Bower–after a rough start, the Hornets have managed to stay competitive, even without their franchise player for long stretches. While some of this can be attributed to their ability to keep Peja Stojakovic’s corpse almost entirely upright, the Hornets get most of their snaps for hitting two home runs in the draft, with late 1st-round UCLA PG Darren Collison and early 2nd-round LSU change-of-pace guard Marcus Thornton. The two have stepped in in Paul’s absence and come dangerously close to covering for his missing output, resulting in the Hornets winning a number of games they should never have even been in, and making them an occasionally sneakily exciting team to watch in the process. They’ll still be lucky just to make the playoffs, but it’s a nice little story nonetheless.
11. Portland Trailblazers. Not this year. The Blazers may grow into title contention some day, and it is somewhat stunning how the team has managed to stay afloat despite missing just about every key player on the roster for some length of time. But as fun as they can be to watch–especially with the Rose Garden crowd behind them, living and dying with their every basket–you just get the feeling like this isn’t their time. Picking up Marcus Camby to depose Juwan Howard as the team’s dominant big is the main reason the team is even as high as they are, with the team shuffling through so many lineups and trying to mix and match so many ill-fitting, desperate parts that it’s almost impossible to get a read on them from game to game. With a number of key players finally returning to the fold, it’s possible they could pick up some momentum going into the playoffs and surprise people (including myself) by making a nice little run in the post-season. But for now…I’d hold off on getting too invested in them just yet.
10. Toronto Raptors. On a pure watchability scare, the Raptors surely rate high–a multi-cultural cast of characters with a near-kamikaze offensive mentality, and a now-official superstar in Chris Bosh. They even the world’s greatest hustle guy/scrapper/ built-in fan-favorite Reggie Evans coming off the bench. They might not make it too far in the playoffs, but they’re certainly an upset threat, and pretty much a shoo-in for a super-entertaining first-round contest regardless. So why so low? Well, there doesn’t seem to be much of a future here, really. Bosh is almost certainly a goner after this season, and the team’s too financially beholden in their contracts to Andrea Bargnani and Hedo Turkoglu to really restock after he goes. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the Raptors were a little bit better, but they probably don’t have a shot at making it past the second round this year, if you’re going to bandwagon with a team with slim to nil finals odds, you want to at least hope that you’re building towards something in future post-seasons. So if you can’t help but be seduced by that sweet Canadian air in the first round, understandable–just try not to get emotionally attached.
9. Chicago Bulls. Also still a year or two away, and the Bulls themselves seem to realize this, shipping off John Salmons and Tyrus Thomas in cost and head-space-clearing moves in preparation fof the LeBron & Co. bonanza (The LeBronanza?) But as we learned last year with the Bulls/Celitcs first-round classic, they’re certainly at least ready for a big-time challenge, and watching Derrick Rose take further steps towards the greatness he seems destined for is among the league’s rarer pleasures. Sucks that there’s no Thomas, Salmons or Ben Gordon this year to provide a full-fledged encore of last year’s stellar playoff performance, but they’ve got Luol Deng back now, and newbies Hakim Warrick and Flip Murray bring some explosiveness off the bench that has some definite memory-making potential. The best days for this team are undoubtedly yet to come, but you could do a lot worse than to start working on the foundation here. Besides, with the standings as they are currently, we got a pretty good shot of seeing a B’s/C’s rematch in round one, and if you’re not totally geeked at the prospect of that, then perhaps this isn’t the playoffs for you after all.
8. Orlando Magic. A month or two ago, and the Magic might have been much lower on this list–I wasn’t a huge fan on their finals run last year, I disliked how they dumped Hedo Turkoglu in the off-season, and I still can’t believe that a credible finals contender in the year 2010 still occasionally plays Jason Williams and J.J. Redick in crunch time. Recently, though, they’ve started to intrigue me a little bit mostly for two reasons. One is that Dwight Howard, long threatening to do so, finally seems to be actually taking his offensive game to that next level. Howard might be the only player in the NBA right now capable of being as dominant in a playoff series as LeBron, and thus might once again prove to be the Cavs’ main stumbling block on the way to fulfilling their very boring destiny of being the 2010 champs, if he can play something close to his offensive potential for a seven-game series. The second is Vince Carter. I assumed his struggles for the first half of the season were merely a result of old age and general erosion of skill, but flickers of Vinsanity linger, as with his insane 48-point outpouring against the Hornets last month, or his brilliant fourth-quarter takeover against the Cavaliers two Saturdays ago. To see that shine through in key spots in the playoffs–which I’m oddly optimistic about actually happening–would be a joy without peer. No matter how many big shots actually end up going to Double-J and White Chocolate.
7. Denver Nuggets. Sort of the Magic’s Western doppelganger, the team that has the best shot of unseating the Lakers–if their franchise player can take that next step. Some say Melo’s put himself on that tier this year, and games like the 40-point one he had against the Cavs last week do evidence that to some extent, but I’m still not sure that I see it in him just yet. In the meantime, they’re certainly not a team without their charms, with Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith and Chris Andersen making for one of the league’s most consistently entertaining supporting casts. I probably should put them higher, but with the minor exceptions of rookie backup point guard / rocket man Ty Lawson and newly-acquired defensive stopper Arron Aflalo, it’s basically the same bunch we saw last year, and I just can’t see any real reason to expect them to better last year’s performance. Meanwhile, on something of a personal vendetta, I’d just like to see Chauncey Billups miss the conference finals for the first time in about 25 years–the guy’s smugness (and predilection for hoisting thoughtless 28-footers in late-game situations) drives me nuts.
6. Charlotte Bobcats. This one might not be so much fun once the playoffs actually start–Simmons thinks they’re an upset threat, I’m not really convinced–but you’d have to be pretty heartless not to at least hope that they make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace have made for one of the league’s most unlikely dominant duos this season, but also one of the most compelling, a couple of legitimate NBA characters that have added much-appreciated seasoning to some great playoff teams in the past, but never been given the chance to make up a great playoff team’s core themselves. To guide the Bobcats to their first-ever post-season would be just the legacy that these two guys deserve. Besides, you gotta love the ‘Cats giving reclamation projects like Tyrus Thomas and Tyson Chandler (assuming the latter ever gets healthy again, anyway) a chance–even if it’s a little sketchy for a team with aspirations of playing through April to let DeSagana Diop or Nazr Mohammed anywhere near the lineup, much less to be giving Theo Ratliff a starting role.
5. Memphis Grizzlies. This might seem high for a team that will probably be lucky just to make the playoffs at all, but I’ve been so enraptured with this team since the beginning of the season (yes, even when they still had Iverson) that it’s something of a marvel I was able to convince myself to put them this low. Simply put, I love everyone on this team. I love Marc Gasol’s improved post game suddenly making the Lakers’ trade for his bother somehow not seem like the NBA Crime of the Century. I love Zach Randolph’s monster 25-20 games, and how after a decade of being one of the league’s ultimate malcontents, he appears to have actually become one of the league’s better locker-room guys. I love the unbelievably court-savvy O.J. Mayo throwing up alley-oop passes, and I especially love the simmeringly athletic Rudy Gay throwing them down. I even love Mike Conley’s clutch three-point shooting and his willingness to not try and do too much. I simply haven’t had more fun this NBA season than I’ve had watching these five guys on the court.
Of course, when I say I love everyone on this team, I really just mean everyone in the starting lineup, since their bench is basically non-existent. Ronnie Brewer will probably provide some nice energy once he comes back from injury, and I do believe that Sam Young can be a legit sixth man in a few years, but that’s the very limit of their depth–giving the majority of your bench minutes to guys like DeMarre Carroll, Marcus Williams, Steven Hunter and Hamed Haddadi results in a lot of games where your bench gets outscored by 25 points. As a result, the team lets a lot of early leads slip away from them, and currently can’t seem to put any distance between them and the .500 mark in the standings. Still, the starting play of that five is so good that if I was the Lakers (or any other Western superpower), I certainly wouldn’t want to face them in the first round. The upset potential is absolutely there, and if they can somehow stop Gay from jumping ship next year–which I’m praying they will–and add one or two more pieces in the meantime, the possibilities for them going forward are practically unlimited. I’d get in on the ground floor if I were you.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder. As amazing as Kevin Durant’s counting numbers have been of late–and they have been positively stunning–the most impressive thing about him is still how he and the Thunder have skipped their projected ’08 Blazers-like status of “Wow, this team is gonna be good in a couple of years” and gone straight to the ’09 Blazers-like status of “Wait a second…do we have to start actually considering this team as a contender?” I mean, c’mon–this team started the season 3-and-fucking-29 last year! They were drawing comparisons to the ’73 Sixers! This isn’t the Celtics trading for KG and Ray Allen and improving their record by 40+ games in a year. This is essentially the same cast of characters just collectively stepping up their game–and specifically, Durant evolving from “great player with stratospheric potential” to “stratospheric player with extraterrestrial potential”–enough to put a legitimate scare into just about anyone paying attention. In all likelihood, they’ve still got a ways to go before really making the Lakers wake up in cold sweats, but in the meantime, they check just about all the boxes for a good, exciting young team to build the foundation of a long-term relationship with. Besides, if they keep jumping rungs on the ladder like this, they might soon be such a prohibitive favorite that rooting for them is no fun at all. Enjoy it while you can.
3. Phoenix Suns. I know, I know. It’s a little hypocritical of me to rank some teams on this list so low either for having cost-cutting management, for being built around star players who are on their way out, or for relying on a diminishing-returns cast with no real plan or hope for the long-term future, and yet rank the Phoenix Suns as #3. But what do you want me to say? It’s still the Phoenix Suns, the most electrifying team of the first decade of the 2000s, and it’s phenomenal to see them in the hunt again, even if it might be their last year in the playoffs for so long. Steve Nash is still an unparalleled joy to watch in full effect, Grant Hill’s newfound ability to stay healthy for entire seasons at a time is one of the best stories of recent NBA years, and it’s always stunning to see the team pick up former scrap-heap players like Channing Frye and Jared Dudley and somehow mold them into long-range sharp-shooters. Meanwhile, even amidst all the trade speculation, Amar’e Stoudemire has actually steadily improved as the season has progressed. Check out his PPG and RPG by month:
October: 18.0 / 5.0
November: 20.0 / 7.1
December: 21.2 / 10.2
January: 21.9 / 7.9
February: 23.9 / 9.9
Needless to say, the numbers are moving in the right direction. Combine his gradual return to something closer to his career statistical his norm with the less-expected recent breakouts from backup PG Goran Dragic and second-year center / evil twin Robin Lopez, and the team’s quietly been one of the best in the NBA of late, sporting a 9-3 record for the month of February.
But numbers aren’t really so important. What’s important is what it felt like when the Suns and Spurs played yesterday. The Suns’ 2008 season was a truly heartbreaking one, and out of necessity for my sanity, I finally had to more-or-less quit the team altogether. I watched some of their games at the beginning of this year, but I promised I wasn’t going to get truly sucked in again–after all, the team’s best days were clearly behind them, and they weren’t even considered a likely playoff team, so why put myself through it again? But watching that Suns game yesterday against the Spurs, their biggest rival and permanent playoff stumbling block, watching Nash carve up defenses and hit off-balance threes he had no business even grazing the rim on, watching Amar’e playing the pick-and-roll to perfection and slam down dunks with more authority than I’ve seen in years, even watching Evil Twin Lopez swat away five Spur shots…it was a rush I hadn’t felt from the Suns since Tim Duncan hit that three in Game One of 2008 and effectively killed the D’Antoni era in Phoenix.
Of course, the fact that the game ended with Jason Richardson whiffing on a potentially game-tying breakout dunk and the Spurs escaping with the W likely portends a whole lot of misery for just about anyone who chooses to follow the team from here on out. But I don’t care. I’m back.
2. Atlanta Hawks. Boy, has it been fun to watch this team grow the last few years. Since shocking the NBA world by taking the eventual-champ Celtics to seven games in the first round of the ’08 playoffs, no team has been more consistently exciting than the Hawks, congealing beautifully as the perfect mixture of explosive athleticism (Josh Smith / Al Horford) and veteran scoring/leadership (Joe Johnson / Mike Bibby)–a team with the potential for a SportsCenter highlight on every play, but one that could win games the old-fashioned way too. No big stars–leading scorer Johnson’s game and personality seem custom-designed to be as blandly efficient and unmemorable as possible–but plenty of personality, and when they decide to show up, one of the most nutso home crowds in all of basketball. Since that first run, Smith and Horford have evolved into All Star-caliber players, and an infamously thin bench has been augmented by prohibitive Sixth Man of the Year candidate Jamal Crawford (one of the year’s unexpectedly nice stories, as the big-time scorer but perennial loser looks to finally make the playoffs for the first time), making the team more fun than ever to watch.
The question with the Hawks remains, though: Do they have enough to win right now? The 80s and 90s also fielded Hawks teams that were competitive and highlight-strewn, but none were ever able to quite make it to the next level, to get past the Celtics or Bulls of the world. This group might end up falling to a similar fate, as Johnson seems likely to walk for a bigger contract / market in the off-season, and though his loss might not cripple the Hawks the way Wade or LBJ leaving their respective teams would, the team’s ability to win on the same level without him is questionable. So this might have to be the year for them, and as thoroughly they’ve handled their old foes the Celtics this season, they’ve yet to demonstrate the same kind of success against Orlando and Cleveland, at least one and possibly both of which they’ll have to get through if they want to make it to the finals this season. It might end up being last call for the Hawks this season, but they’re good enough and fun enough that I’m willing to go all out on them in the playoffs and hope for the best. Besides, 42 years and not a single conference finals appearance–feel like Atlanta deserves it a little.
1. Dallas Mavericks. Was leaning this way for a little while, but the Butler / Haywood deal just cements it. It occurred to me recently that with that trade, the Mavs are now essentially an All-Star team of star 00s players from good teams that could never quite get over the hump to win a title–Nowitzki on the ’06 & ’07 Mavs, obviously, Kidd on the ’02 & ’03 Nets, Butler on the ’06 Wizards, and Marion on the ’05 & ’06 Suns. All they’re missing is Peja Stojakovic from the ’02 & ’03 Kings and, uh, Bonzi Wells from the ’00 & ’01 Blazers and they’d basically have a complete set. I mean, really, how could you possibly not root for these guys? Sure, they’re none of them spring chickens anymore, but they’re not quite stiffs yet either, and some of them are about as fun to watch as ever. Dirk’s bad-shot-making ability is still stunning in its proficiency, and Jason Kidd’s split-second-perfect timing at the point (highlighted brilliantly in this slow-motion breakdown from a recent performance against the Wizards, despite its heavy-handed narration) continues to be a natural treasure. And Caron Butler…hey, man, I love chewing on straws too.
Are they actual title contenders, though? It’s hard to say, but early post-trade returns are promising, with Big D rolling off seven straight victories since making the trade, including wins over Atlanta, Phoenix, and both of last year’s finals teams. It seems a little unlikely that the Mavs could suddenly be title contenders again after only winning one playoff series in the past three seasons, and as nice as their trade was with Washington, it’s not exactly the Lakers nabbing Pau Gasol (or even the Cavs picking up Antawn Jamison for a set of steak knives).. But then again, this is probably the deepest team Dallas has had since at least their finals run, no longer having to rely on jobbers like Antoine Wright, James Singleton or Devean George in key rotation slots. There’s no reason why they can’t at least challenge the Nuggets for the right to lose to the Lakers in the Conference finals, and hey, if a couple breaks go their way, it’s not inconceivable that they could last even further. It couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of has-beens-to-be, and I’ll be front-and-center on their bandwagon rooting ’em on.