This feels like Christmas Morning. I don’t mean that figuratively–I mean that it literally feels like December 25, 2011, when the NBA season was about to kick off with a full slate of great games on national TV. In a couple of hours, the NBA Playoffs begin when the Bulls host the Sixers.
If you’re a fan of the Timberwolves and the NBA more generally, then you’re accustomed to finding somebody else to cheer for in postseason play. I don’t think I’m unique in thinking that sporting events are more fun to watch when you’ve got a rooting interest. Which brings me to my dilemma (not really a dilemma, but go with it): I need to figure out exactly who I’m cheering for this year. In every year since 2006 my “playoffs team” has been the LA Lakers. That sounds like being a front-running douchebag, except it began with me loving the challenge of Kobe’s to win without Shaq. If you remember the 2006 Lakers, you understand that cheering for Smush Parker’s team was not front running in any proper sense of the term. Setting aside Kobe’s share of blame for Shaq’s departure (I think as more time passes, Shaq looks worse and worse as a teammate and person, but whatever–that’s another conversation) I loved watching Kobe play and I loved arguing to people that Kobe was doing some things that might have challenged Michael Jordan’s legacy. Those two things were enough to give me my “playoffs team.” When they added Pau, I was excited only because I wanted to see Kobe back in the title conversation. Plus, Pau wasn’t as incredible as Shaq was, so Kobe finally had the chance to win titles as “the guy.”
An additional layer was added to my playoffs priority list when the evil Celtics upset the Lakers in 2008. From that point forward, I had to cheer for the Lakers and cheer against the Celtics. That lasted up until “The Decision.” When LeBron took his talents to South Beach I now had the Lakers as my team to cheer for, and the Heat to cheer against, with Boston lingering as a pesky veteran squad that can’t be entirely left out of “who I need to hate” conversations. And finally, I adopted Derrick Rose as my “guy to cheer for in the playoffs once Kobe gets too old.” I loved watching Rose rip apart the 2008 March Madness and have since admired the humility he’s shown since becoming a real superstar. Yeah, he’s one of the most boring personalities in sports, but sometimes his simple comments (as in his MVP speech — see toward the end of clip) aren’t totally cliche’d and for whatever reason make him more likeable to me than some of his rivals. So liking D-Rose has meant cheering for his Bulls.
But I think it’s time to reshuffle the deck. Kobe has been thoroughly not fun to watch this year. He’s an aging ball hog who seems to lack awareness of his new shortcomings. While he has more game right now than Duncan or Garnett, he’s infinitely-less willing to accept the aging process, and I mostly mean that in a bad way. He’s always been petulant, but it didn’t bother me so much when his abilities were top-notch. I’d take some satisfaction in Kobe getting #6, but that would have more to do with old and stale arguments I’ve had than it would in-the-moment enjoyment of the basketball being played. So I don’t really care to see the Lakers win these playoffs. I also don’t expect them to but that’s not the focal point here.
Before I delve into who I will cheer for and against in the playoffs, I’ll list a few important factors to consider when making such an important decision.
- Who do you enjoy watching?
The reason that MJ, Kobe, and LeBron have so many fans is pretty simple: They are (or were) the most entertaining players in the world. When elite skills are paired with jaw-dropping athleticism, people seem to get excited. But elite wing slashers are only one type of entertaining baller. Dirk, Carmelo and Durant can get their jumper going in a way that baffles the mind of us mere mortals. There’s nothing quite like seeing a jumpshooter lose his mind for a few minutes. One of the only playoff games I’ve ever attended was this one. It wasn’t fun watching the Wolves get swept, but OH MY GOD Dirk was insanely good. He’s been doing stuff like that ever since, as Miami found out last June. How about elite passing? Steve Nash, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Ricky Rubio… they see things on the basketball floor that others don’t. Great defense can be fun to watch, but you’re treading into “uber NBA geek” territory when you can appreciate Taj Gibson’s ability to shut it down in the post. (If you’re reading, you very well might be there.) The “fun to watch” factor has consistently hurt the Spurs in their four championship pursuits. Yeah they spread the floor, run a mean high ball screen and play the most-principled defense outside of Chicago. But even when Parker or Duncan has it going, they aren’t as fun as some other great teams. Popovich interviews help give them some much-needed personality, but probably not enough to garner much fan interest outside of San Anton’.
- Who do you (think that you) like?
Which team has a player or two that you feel good cheering for? Whether they’ve got an inspiring background story, a personal struggle that warrants some fan support, or just seem like a genuinely good dude, some players are worth cheering for, for reasons unrelated to their hoop skills. KG was one of these guys when he went to Boston. People admired his work ethic and loyalty to a small market and wanted him to get that ring. Steve Nash is widely, and I think appropriately, considered a great teammate and cool person. On a smaller scale, Corey Brewer is pretty damn easy to cheer for when you see his work ethic on display and that ridiculous smile that never leaves his face. Brew’s one of the few NBA players that I’ve met and he was as nice to a random NBA geek as you’d probably expect. The “who do you like?” factor hurts Kobe, post-Decision LeBron, and Dwight Howard. It should have hurt Michael Jordan, but didn’t seem to.
- Who can prove you right?
Whether you sit in barber shops or comment on Canis Hoopus, basketball arguments are as old as the game itself. There’s an inevitable sense of satisfaction when you’ve debated one player over another and then watched your guy prevail on the big stage. It sounds stupid, but I don’t think I’m the only one who cheers this way, at least to an extent. It formed a big part of my Kobe fandom. Barely old enough to legally drink a beer, he was scoring 28 a game and winning rings. I thought it reasonable to wonder if he was doing stuff we hadn’t seen before. Others thought I was an idiot. Arguments ensued. I found myself cheering for Kobe. If you talk hoops, whether it be on blogs or in conversation, you know what I mean. This is part of the fandom equation.
With all of this in mind, let’s get to it.
I’ll start with the bottom seeds and move up:
8 – 76ers: Not good enough to matter. Evan Turner can talk as much trash as he wants, but they ain’t beating the Bulls. Though I do enjoy watching Jrue Holiday play defense.
8 – Jazz: Also not good enough, but I like the Jazz. As some of you know, I have a long and storied history of being an AL JEFFERSON APOLOGIST. I’ve felt some validation (in a pathetic, blogger sort of way) in his success with the Jazz. Always loved watching Al play post, and will cheer for him against the Spurs.
7 – Knicks: Hell yes. Both Pat and I are HUGE Melo fans — not for the “seems like a really nice guy” factor but certainly for the other two. When Melo gets it going, there isn’t a better scorer in the world. He’s ridiculously-fun to watch light it up. Also, I have argued and continued to argue that he’s one of the best in the world. Recent weeks have been fun after a more-than-rough patch under Mike D’Antoni.
7 – Mavs: Not overly interested in this year’s Mavs. I like Dirk and Jet enough, but they won it last year and haven’t seemed as invested in trying to repeat as I would’ve liked to see. Losing Chandler was huge. I suppose, whether Cuban admits it or not, they’re looking at this summer’s free agency. Cough, Deron, cough.
6 – Magic: Irrelevant without Dwight.
6 – Nuggets: They absolutely kill the “fun to watch” and “likeable” factors. Denver runs the floor, passes the ball and shoots it really well. And KENNETH FARIED. Also, George Karl is a cancer survivor who came out of the Melodrama about as well as could ever have been imagined. Barkley predicted that Denver will upset the Lakers. I might agree with him. Gallinari might go off without Artest to check him.
5 – Hawks: Yawn. I don’t care.
5 – LA Clippers: I predicted them to make the Finals without fully appreciating how bad of a coach Vinny is. But the Clips have come around in recent weeks (in part due to a Randy Foye surge) and are a fringe title contender. I’m not a CP3 guy (recognize he’s one of the greats; just don’t really like cheering for him–mostly because I do like cheering for Deron and Rose and, like I mentioned above, arguments ensue) but I could get behind the Clips if, say, they matched up with Miami or Boston in the Finals. But that isn’t saying much — I hate Miami and Boston. So I guess I’m not really cheering for the Clippers. I hope Memphis beats them in Round 1.
4 – Celtics: No. Though there is a Celtic that I do like (Avery Bradley). I like arguing that Rajon Rondo is really fucking overrated and I’ll continue to do that and enjoy any time that he loses. I respect the C’s. Most of them anyway. But I only cheer for them against Miami and I don’t expect that matchup to surface this year.
4 – Grizzlies: Love the Grizz. I like Z-Bo (as a player) and Marc Gasol, and I love how they play defense. Their coach, Lionel Hollins, seems to be one of the very best in the league. Hell, maybe THE best in the league. The Grizzlies make lots of stupid front office decisions but they’re an actual title contender. I think I want the Grizzlies to win the West.
3 – Pacers: Similar to Grizzlies. They play really hard and really physical. Paul George is becoming better than an “up and comer.” I think he’s already here. Roy Hibbert is pretty smooth in the post. Danny Granger is a chucker who sometimes is unstoppable. I don’t like the Pacers as much as the Grizzlies but certainly look forward to their matchup with Miami in Round 2.
3 – LA Lakers: As I described above, I’m mostly done with the Lakers. If they’re playing Miami or Boston in the Finals, I’ll be fully on board. Otherwise, it’s time for somebody else.
2 – Heat: I hate the Heat less than I did last year. But not much less. I don’t like what LeBron, Wade and Bosh did to the NBA landscape and I don’t want them to be rewarded for it with a championship. LeBron and Wade are two of the best playmakers in recent league history and they don’t need each other (Heat are something like 13-1 with LeBron/without Wade this year, for Christ’s sake.) I’m not a particularly-big LeBron fan in the rooting sense, but I love watching the guy play. He’s possibly the best player I’ve ever seen and he will eventually win a championship. Maybe this year. But I’d love to see that happen after the Big 3 is no longer in existence.
2 – Thunder: The Thunder are really fun to watch and seem like good guys. Durant is unlike any player I’ve ever seen in how he goes about dominating games. Westbrook is possibly the best athlete in the NBA and seems poised to break a backboard before his career is over with those ANGRY two-hand slams. James Harden has Paul Pierce skills at age 22. Serge Ibaka is a badass shot blocker. The only really bad thing about the Thunder is that Kendrick Perkins plays for them. He’s a tool. But I can get behind this team. They’re really good, really fun to watch and will probably play in the Finals. But…
1 – Bulls: Of serious contenders, this is my squad. Rose is my current favorite player (well, other than Ricky) and as long as he is healthy (big “if”) they can win this title. Chicago has an awesome coach who lives, breaths, eats and sleeps basketball. Its front line is ridiculously good on defense. Joakim Noah is an awesome guy to have on your side. Chicago’s wing players are just plain exhilarating to watch. Okay, that last one isn’t true. But I really like the Bulls and want to see Rose win a title.
1 – Spurs: I like this Spurs team more than the old title winners, probably because I’m so amazed that they’re still doing this. Tim Duncan is a basketball genius and Tony Parker is on the short list of most underrated players in the NBA. But I can’t say I’m really cheering for the Spurs. I’d rather watch OKC or Memphis lose to the Bulls in the Finals.
So that’s pretty much it. In Round 1, I’m cheering loudest for the Knicks to believe in miracles and BEAT THE HEAT. But I don’t expect that to happen. I’d be more than happy if Chicago gets that job done.
Who do you got?