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.