Anyone can tell you who’s going to win a given playoff matchup – even in the wildly competitive Western Conference. That’s the easy part. But who’s going to tell you who to root for? Us. That’s who.
Since statistical analysis of the Association has become practically passé, we’ve decided to take a different approach to this year’s NBA Playoffs: We’re ignoring stuff like “player efficiency” and “value added,” and going with our hearts instead. Hey, Charles Barkley would probably approve. OK, we’re still leaning on the numbers somewhat…we’re not Luddites, after all. Here’s our breakdown of the West, based entirely on the all-important likeability index – a scale that goes from Matt Barnes to beagle puppy.
1. Golden State Warriors (#1 seed)
Likeability Index: George Clooney
December 2, 2014. That was the last day the Golden State Warriors didn’t hold sole possession of the top spot in the Western Conference. That kind of sustained dominance is generally met with one of two things by non-fans of the team: outright disgust (see: Lakers, Heat) or grudging respect (see: Celtics, Bulls). But somehow, the Warriors have managed to put up one of the best regular seasons in NBA history – including a double-digit net rating (difference between points scored and allowed per 100 possessions) of 11.4 that puts them in the company of the 1996 Chicago Bulls and 2008 Boston Celtics – while still feeling like an upstart.
They run beautiful plays and play beautiful, fluid defense, made possible by a deep gaggle of largely interchangeable players at the two, three and four spots (Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala). At one end of the lineup is center Andrew Bogut, who anchors the defense (an excellent 95.0 defensive rating), and at the other is one of the most relatable NBA superstars, Steph Curry. He’s neither gigantic nor unbelievably athletic – his signature skill is a lightning-fast release and dead-eye shooting served with a helping of ankle-breaking handles and solid playmaking. His standout skill is the stuff of driveway fantasies, of counting down to the buzzer under your breath and drilling the imaginary game winner.
All of that combined with one of the most raucous and supportive home crowds (39-2 at Oracle!) make the Warriors a joy to watch and root for.
2. Portland Trail Blazers (#4 seed)
Likeability Index: Finding $20 in your winter coat the first time you pull it out of the closet
The Trail Blazers finally got past the Houston Rockets in last year’s playoffs, defeating them 4-2 after losing their last three playoff series against H-Town. The win was sealed with a buzzer beating 3-pointer from the positively assassinous Damian Lillard, and Portland returned last year’s squad mostly intact this year. They started the season hot, going 16-4 in their first 20, and making a farsighted move for Arron Afflalo at the trade deadline that paid off when starting shooting guard Wesley Matthews went down with a torn Achilles tendon. Even more important than Afflalo down the stretch, however, was the emergence of C.J. McCollum, who missed a chunk of his first year with a foot injury and happens to write some of the best, most insightful articles for the Players’ Tribune. LaMarcus Aldridge’s jumpshot continues to be a thing of classical beauty, while Lillard’s killer instinct continues to inspire sublime terror. Throw in Robin Lopez’s completely off-the-wall, Simpsons-loving, mascot-hating personality and you’ve got a team that’s equal parts well-tuned basketball and appealing personality.
3. San Antonio Spurs (#6 seed)
Likeability Index: Well-appointed minivan
The Spurs have a hard-earned likeability, and more they’re durable because of it. Years of superlative defense that slowed the game down for sturdy bank shots, though, have given way to a pace-and-space offense that meshes with a still-strong defense to produce something like a Platonic ideal of basketball: unselfish, opportunistic, professional. Add to that the way Kawhi Leonard seems to follow one breakout performance with another, and you’ve got a perennial threat to win it all that still never feels like a favorite.
But for a moment, forget about the basketball. This is the franchise that recently gave us Spuran Spuran:
The Spurs’ persistently flat affect – from Tim Duncan to Kawhi Leonard to the organization overall – makes them perfect fodder for this kind of stuff. As it is on the court, they absorb and reflect every jab with the basketball equivalent of dad humor. Are they stylish? Made compelling by their struggle? No. They don’t need you to come along for the ride, but they’ll be happy to have you. So long as you go to the bathroom before you get in the car.
4. Memphis Grizzlies (#5 seed)
Likeability Index: The Little Engine That Could
Given their recent struggles (a win last night against the Indiana Pacers brought them up to 16-13 since the All-Star Break), it’s easy to forget that the Grizzlies started the season off in blistering fashion, ripping of six straight wins and going 15-2 before losing back-to-back games. Marc Gasol – one of the canniest big men in the NBA from the high and low posts – dropped a big chunk of weight in the offseason to help him stay healthy and it has paid off for the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year. The rest of the core (Mike Conley, Zach Randolph, Courtney Lee and Tony Allen) have continued their solid work in recent years as one of the NBA’s best throwback squads, ranking second-to-last in 3-pointers attempted per game while playing at the fifth slowest pace and sporting the fourth best defensive rating in the league.
The addition of Jeff Green midway through the season was supposed to give them an injection of offense, but instead it temporarily set back their defense. Concern began to set in, but Memphis has always flown beneath the radar. This could be their year to rise, both in stock and likeability.