The NBA’s Western and Eastern Conferences often feel like two different leagues. The West is full of tragic heroes, familiar dudes with well-worn stories cursed by the dominance of the conference they play in. The East has traditionally been the NBA’s iPod shuffle, randomly producing world champions and unwatchable moving parts, the first round of the playoffs acting as its purifying filter.
The bottom half of the Eastern bracket tends to be occupied by gruff, grind-it-out defensive juggernauts, ripe upstarts that could have used a little more time in the oven and teams that never really figured out how to tank. I won’t look for many shards of a silver lining here – my editor openly presented the East as the short straw, and this lucky lady drew it – except to say round one can also be where the origin story of future contenders is often born: The 2008-2009 Chicago Bulls, the 2010-2011 Indiana Pacers, last year’s Atlanta Hawks.
So in keeping with that spirit of positivity, here’s the Likeability Index for the playoff teams in the Eastern Conference, where everything is relative and pity-likes rule the day.
1. Milwaukee Bucks (#6 Seed)
Likeability Index: Fage with fruit
First of all, no one is more likable than the Greek Freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo. He originally won our hearts with unadulterated earnestness, and this season, his mile-wide smile is accompanied by a modus operandi that defines the young Bucks: risky, turnover-inducing defense buoyed by elite length, transition attacks and questionable shooting ability. At his best, he is frantic, able, long, young and beautiful:
Milwaukee is a marvel on defense. It often looks as though they’re encouraging good offenses to do their thing – swing the ball, drive into the lane, take threes – until they pounce, utilizing the length of players like Khris Middleton, Michael Carter-Williams and John Henson to create deflections and turnovers. Trying to lure good teams into a false sense of comfort is a risky business, as evidenced by the many times it seems like they’re about to give up a dunk until, you know, they don’t. But the Bucks aren’t just OK with risk. They key into it, making the best-run systems in the league question themselves.
2. Boston Celtics (#7 Seed)
Likeability Index: Bill de Blasio at the St. Pat’s For All Parade
The Boston Celtics are this year’s Toronto Raptors, a team that was preparing to tank after trading a disgruntled marquee veteran, but instead surged up the standings and made the postseason. At first, they seem harmless and fun; a young, upstart group with a second-year coach whose resourcefulness and offensive trickery turned a bunch of moving parts into a team.
They’re not poised to be an easy sweep, though. The perimeter defense employed by rookie Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley (of foul-the-other-point-guard-three-times-up-the-floor-with-no-call fame) and Jae Crowder is relentless. When Bostonians tune in to Game 1 and watch this team for the first time in 2015, it’ll take four minutes of Bradley picking up Kyrie Irving full court and Smart using his base to bump LeBron off of his for the entire city to embrace them. Isiah Thomas, for all his misgivings, is a playoff firecracker just waiting to be turned loose on opposing benches.
Everyone loves a plucky Cinderella, especially when they’re going up against Goliath.
3. Atlanta Hawks (#1 Seed)
Likeability Index: Big Boi’s appearance on MTV Cribs
Dubbed the Spurs of the East, the Hawks have employed ball movement, feverishly good floor spacing, the stop-and-go theatrics of Jeff Teague and sound, communication-heavy defense to climb atop the conference. They are the mythical house where everyone does their chores. They’re unproven though, and some late-season hijinks proved they’re even human, which would normally make them more likeable than San Antonio. But the Hawks have to lose points for not having their own version of Spuran Spuran.
The Spurs being self-referential about their terseness is fun, but the Hawks play a beautiful brand of basketball they’re still attempting to master, evoking a kind of consummate professionalism that hasn’t yet allowed the team to develop an identity outside of consummate professionalism. If you’re a fan of responsible people who, like, do their jobs efficiently, the Hawks are your bag. If you’re into whip-fast orchestrated perfection, they’ve got some of that too. Enough for third on this list, at least.
4. Chicago Bulls (#3 Seed)
Likeability Index: Serengeti’s “Dennehy”
The Bulls have always been the Little Engine That Could, but this iteration isn’t the defensive juggernaut that grinded games down to a pace only they could deal with. As always, injuries are a concern, and they should still be deathly terrified of LeBron. They’ve taken on a more offensive flair with the emergence of Jimmy Butler, who is not only a huge Taylor Swift fan (major points), but has one of the most inspiring trajectories in professional sports. Plus, who doesn’t want Pau Gasol’s Twitter – the most positive account in the known universe – guiding them through the playoffs? Forget all that, though: Rookie Nikola Mirotic and his beard alone are appointment viewing.
5. and 6. Toronto Raptors (#4 Seed) and Washington Wizards (#5 Seed)
Likeability Index: Drake’s Degrassi Era
The parallels between these two squads are undeniable: Unlikely rises in the second half of last season, followed by strong early season performances this year that suggested long-term success – until finally, the hinges fell off the wheels. The Wizards went 24-27 since New Year’s and Toronto managed to finish at .500. If there’s a thread that separates these two, it’s that the Wizards are squandering far more potential. Watch for each to try to revert to their 2014 selves, Toronto with the gears locking back together and Washington by overcoming the logistical stupidity of Randy Wittman’s offense with bona fide talent.
The trash-talking potential, though, is off the charts – enough to give a pretty depressing series a much-needed voltage of consequence.
“We haven’t done particularly well against Toronto, but I don’t feel they have the ‘It’ that makes you worried,” said Paul Pierce – who played for the same Brooklyn Nets that knocked Toronto out last year – on his way to throwing shade on pretty much everyone in the world not named Kevin Garnett.
Im ready…..the #DMV is ready….toronto yall dont want these problems…CANADA im sorry but ur players still dont know ur national anthem songz…unless #drake put that in a song…yall just wasting 5 mins of warmup time…im just saying we have older players..and that #bengay runs out by time the game start….#BULLS u better not drop that game tomorrow….or we frying up some bologna and yes were gonna keep the ring on it..hahahaha #trashtalking101 i need my tickets front row #MsJones
Exhibit C: “Fuck Brooklyn.”
7. Cleveland Cavaliers (#2 Seed)
Likeability Index: A long road trip with J.R. Smith
Ranked second in the conference and favored by Vegas to win it all, the Cavs are where the distinction between skill, entertainment and likeability is at its clearest. LeBron curried some popularity by coming home, of course, but ranking the Cavs’ likeability on the basis of LeBron fans alone would be like saying the Lakers are beloved because the Los Angeles County has an enormous population. If you’re a LeBron fan, you’re gonna cheer for him regardless.
To the rest of the world, though, the Cavs start at a disadvantage because of the gravitational pull (read: media coverage) LeBron holds. Fans, even though every worthy metric runs in opposition to this notion, can at least pretend they’re sick and tired of hearing about his team. All of this wouldn’t matter as much, if not for the fact that Cleveland isn’t honed in the PR strategy of “Dude, just stop talking,” sparking high-minded debate such as “Does David Blatt think Kevin Love is a max player?” and “Who is really running the Cavs offense, LeBron or Blatt?” Of course, we should have seen “Are Kevin Love and LeBron friends?” coming from a mile away.
And then, the death blow: Subtweets. Sub. Tweets.
8. Brooklyn Nets (#8 Seed)
Likeability Index: Gentrification
They’re kind of the classic eighth seed in the East in that you have to say something about them, so how about this: The Nets are a mess financially, they have no picks and they’re here because a bunch of contracts they should have traded are still on the roster. They’re what happens when you try to run the table and miss. Brooklyn’s failed approach makes their presence annoying, yes, but it doesn’t feel like anyone hates the Nets to their core. They’re just an inconvenience; the lethargic hate the world has for them defined by a locker room permeating with a kind of sluggishness that could never galvanize in a Clippers-esque “Us vs. World” attitude.
If you live outside of Brooklyn, you’re likely to cheer for the Nets if you: A) sympathized with Wall Street post-2008, or B) said something to the effect of, “If the cookie breaks the right way, the Knicks could squeeze into the playoffs” in October.