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.
5. New Orleans Pelicans (#8 seed)
Likeability Index: Baby pterodactyl
As disappointing as it will be to miss out on Russell Westbrook single-handedly will the Oklahoma City Thunder through the first round, the New Orleans Pelicans pushed the Thunder out of the eighth seed with their win over the San Antonio Spurs last night, and we should all be excited at the prospect of playoff Anthony Davis.
This has been, after all, the season that made Davis definitively must-watch basketball, and he hovered at the edges of the MVP conversation all season long. The tough part is that the rest of the Pelicans are not nearly so compelling. Eric Gordon doesn’t seem to enjoy anything and Tyreke Evans will go long stretches where he appears to completely forget that Davis is also on the floor, instead opting for dangerous and ill-advised forays to the rim. The player brought in from the Sixers to pair with Davis – Jrue Holiday – has only played in 40 games this season and is still getting back up to speed after a leg injury. The prospects for a deep run, especially against the world-devouring Warriors, seems unlikely for the Pelicans.
But they’re also the only new team in the playoffs this year and that’s something to be lauded. Although their path to improvement over the next several years is a little murky because of how much they’ve already given up in the way of draft picks and salary, a taste of the playoffs is likely to only drive Davis to keep coming back for more. You can expect him to be a fun-to-watch mainstay in the postseason for years. Plus, New Orleans, man. Likeable town.
6. Dallas Mavericks (#7 seed)
Likeability Index: The old guy in your office who knows how to fix the copier
In some ways, their 2011 championship was the best and worst thing to happen to the Dallas Mavericks. On the one hand, it legitimized Dirk Nowitzki as an all-time great and helped to avenge years of terrible teams prior to the arrival of Mark Cuban in Dallas. But that 2011 triumph also set expectations at a difficult level for the Mavs, who this year sought to get the band back together by returning members of that championship team Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea to the fold.
They also made other moves like getting Rajon Rondo from the Celtics and signing Amar’e Stoudemire after he was waived by the Knicks, none of which would qualify as building for the future. But neither move was exactly of the “win now” variety, either. It seems these Mavericks were built for today. At age 36 (he’ll turn 37 in June), Nowitzki is not long for the league, so every postseason appearance at this point is going to be tinged with a little bit of nostalgia. Their matchup with in-state rivals the Rockets should make for one of the better first-round series in any case, and gives us a good excuse to enjoy more playoff Nowitzki.
7. Houston Rockets (#2 seed)
Likeability Index: Vacuuming
With Dwight Howard a shell of his former self, the identity of the Houston Rockets rests securely in the beard of James Harden as he drives to the basket, baiting the defense into reaching and sending him to the line so he can continue to calmly and efficiently murder opposing teams and – some would say – basketball itself. If Russell Westbrook rages at the limits of the physical game with his own bruising physicality, Harden attacks the game by using its own rules against it. If Kevin Martin’s foul-hunting and perimeter shooting is a musket, Harden is the assault rifle the game’s founders never could have imagined. He’s taken the dimensions of the floor and the rules that govern the play upon it to their brutal extreme, and it’s as effective as it is galling to watch.
Harden’s been so good, in fact, that he’s a frontrunner for the MVP trophy largely because of the way he’s lifted a middling supporting cast into the playoffs. For much of the season, the second-best player on the Rockets has been Trevor Ariza – a concession pickup for Houston after they lost Chandler Parsons to the Dallas Mavericks. Professional defensive point-guard pest Patrick Beverley is (probably) out for the rest of the season following wrist surgery, so the fate of the Rockets in the postseason will depend even more upon Harden. So if you like free throws, you’re in luck. But if you like basketball, you may want to look elsewhere.
8. Los Angeles Clippers (#3 seed)
Likeability Index: Hot-pink Escalade parked across four parking spaces, two of them handicapped
Donald Sterling was always generally (and last season, specifically) the biggest black eye on a franchise that was historically awful on the court – creepy, racist owner or no. But Sterling’s ouster this past offseason revealed something else about Los Angeles’ other team: the Clippers have gradually been collecting the most purely unlikable collection of basketball talent known to man.
It begins with Chris Paul, the very definition of a player you love on your team and hate on any other. He’s an inveterate flopper, a cheap-shotter, a shit-talker and – fortunately for him – one of the very best human beings on the planet at basketball. The same cannot be said for the murderers’ row of annoyance following along behind him: man-shaped tub of goo Glen Davis, El Debarge knockoff Matt Barnes, everyone’s least favorite Dukie (except for Christian Laettner) J.J. Redick, patriotic lunkhead Spencer Hawes, half-dimensional 36 year old Hedo Turkoglu and, at the head of both the bench and the front office, perpetual whiner Doc Rivers, who moved a couple of wings from the wing-starved Clippers for – wait for it – his own son. DeAndre Jordan is likeable enough, so long as he’s not utterly ending someone from your team at the rim. Even Blake Griffin was nearly turning heel a few years ago before he rode a supermarket pony into our hearts.
If you live in Los Angeles and stuck by this team through the lean years (by which I mean decades) while the Lakers went HAM on the league, I’m sure you can enjoy this iteration of the Clippers, if only because they’ve been actually successful. But everyone else should be rooting against them.