As we get ready for the new NBA season just a few weeks from now, we have gotten the benefit of numerous rankings from basketball experts. These experts have ranked best teams, best players, best rookies, etc. Many of those rankings rely on “tiers”. For instance, team rankings divide the teams into tiers such as Championship Contenders, Solid Playoff, Fringe Playoff, Rebuilding, and Bottom Feeders.
The one tier ranking I haven’t seen is one that ranks teams in terms of likability. Put another way, which team would you root for if Team A plays Team B? This question arises for me because I am physically and mentally incapable of watching an NBA game without rooting for one team or the other. If I watch a game that I cannot decide who I want to win, I will generally turn it off. If I don’t care who wins, why watch? (This doesn’t happen very often.)
This rooting interest theory about watching sports helps explain why the Olympics are so popular, even for sports that casual fans don’t think except once every four years. When the Olympics come around, we watch the shot put, gymnastics, wrestling and white water rafting to see how the athletes wearing red, white and blue do when matched against the rest of the world. Same thing with the Ryder Cup. While I normally root for European golfers such as Rory McElroy and Tommy Fleetwood, I don’t do so when they are part of a team competing against the USA.
I made an exception to this rule when the USA played Canada in the gold medal game of the Winter Olympics in 2010. I wanted Canada to win because a loss would have devastated a bunch of very nice Canadians, especially because Canada had home country advantage — the game was played in Vancouver, one of my favorite cities. While Canada would have been stunned if their hockey team lost, most of the US would react to a loss by the Olympic hockey squad with a shrug, thinking how nice for the guys to win a silver medal. Thankfully, Canada won, the country of Canada remained happy and the county’s people remained extraordinarily friendly. Those of us in the USA grabbed a beer and turned on a random NBA game we cared about more than a hockey game. And rooted for the team based on our own Likability Tiers.
My Likability Tiers below can be defined as follows: If a team in a higher tier plays a team in a lower tier, I will root for the higher ranked team. If teams in the same tier play each other, it will normally be — as coaches say — a “game-time decision”.
FAVORITE TEAM: This is the one team I will root for regardless of the opponent: The San Antonio Spurs. C’mon, what did you expect to be in this tier? If this isn’t your team in this tier, you may be in the wrong website.
TEAMS I REALLY LIKE: Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets, Golden State Warriors. The Heat still have most of the players who put on an admirable showing in the Bubble Playoffs not that long ago — plus newcomer Kyle Lowry, and “should have been a Spur” Duncan Robinson. The Bucks have Coach Bud and Giannis Antetokuonmpo, and Finals and Olympics revelation Jrue Holiday (second best player on both the champion Bucks and the gold medal USA squad). They are also the Eastern Conference team best equipped to contest the Nets. The Nuggets reside in the same town as super-daughter Alissa and have an apparently slimmed down Joker — will he be even better than MVP Nikola Jokic? Finally, the Warriors are several years past the Death Star Warriors and could return to being the highly entertaining gritty little Warriors, with the most entertaining player in the league (Steph Curry) still in peak form.
TEAMS I HAVE MILDLY POSITIVE FEELINGS ABOUT: Philadelphia 76ers (they have Danny Green!); Toronto Raptors (residual good feelings from the NBA championship win over the Death Star Warriors); Portland Trail Blazers (city of my birth, Dame-time for the time being); Utah Jazz (well-coached group of solid basketball players with occasional Spursian ball movement); Dallas Mavericks (Luka! and Boban!).
DECENT TEAMS I AM INDIFFERENT ABOUT: Atlanta Hawks (I can’t decide if I like Trae Young or not), Memphis Grizzlies (though Ja Morant is incredible), New Orleans Pelicans (as is Zion Williamson), Boston Celtics (has their moment passed?), Charlotte Hornets (do they still have a Plumlee brother?): Washington Wizards (has Bradley Beal lost his mind?).
LOUSY TEAMS I AM INDIFFERENT ABOUT: Oklahoma City Thunder (can’t name a player on the team other than that guard with all the hyphens), Cleveland Cavaliers (nope, nothing to add), Detroit Pistons (though I think Cade Cunningham will be good), Orlando Magic (same about Gonzaga alum Jalen Suggs), Sacramento Kings (perennial 10th place team regardless of talent).
TEAMS I DISLIKE: Los Angeles Clippers (too many bad memories of Donald Sterling, Doc Rivers and the whine-a-thon Clippers — not to mention a certain Nephew today), New York Knicks (a New York team with Tom Thibodeau looking miserable all the time), Houston Rockets (too much Harden history to forget as they fall into irrelevance), Minnesota Timberwolves (can’t respect a franchise which remains bad for this long).
LEAST FAVORITE TEAM: Brooklyn Nets: The new Death Star, with unlikable stars. When Kevin Durant is the most likable of your three best players, and your owner is a Russian oligarch, your team is just not very likable.
TEAMS IN TIER LIMBO: You may have noticed that three prominent teams have not yet been placed into one of the tiers — the Los Angeles Lakers, the Phoenix Suns, and the Chicago Bulls. Frankly, I am not sure where these teams fit.
The Lakers have brought in several knuckleheads and a bunch of minimum contract old guys to surround LeBron James and Frequently Injured Anthony Davis. How will this work? No one knows, but they might have the best chance against the Nets in the NBA Finals. The Lakers season could also turn into a Westbrook as the arsonist dumpster fire. As I said, no one knows.
The Bulls are similar, though their ceiling is much lower than the Lakers’. Do they have anyone who will play a lick of defense? How will DeMar DeRozan fit with Zack LaVine? Is their ceiling a very expensive 7th place finish in the East and a first round playoff loss?
Finally, the defending Western Conference champs — the Suns. They likely have that title only because of key injuries to opponents’ stars for each of the first three playoff rounds. The Suns have several likable players, but they also have unlikable Chris Paul. They have a very likable coach in Monty Williams, but their star guard Devin Booker “prefers not to say” if he is vaccinated — which means he is not, which also means he is putting the rest of his team, including staff and coaches, at risk. Let’s see how that shakes out before we decide which tier to assign to the Suns.
So those are my thoughts. How do your tiers differ from my mine? And please, no jokes about Tiers of a Clown.