A bandwagoner’s guide to the 2020 NBA Playoffs

It’s August 17, the NBA Playoffs are starting today, and…oh no. Your name is Will Warren, and you have spent the last fifteen years of your life alternating between pretending to like the Memphis Grizzlies and the Detroit Pistons, neither of whom are in the NBA Playoffs. You have certain players you really love, just like anyone, but you don’t have a team. Chances are that the person writing this is not the only one alive with this quandary!

If you, too, are in need of a team to love over the next two months, I’ve worked on a guide that should help answer your questions. Everyone likes something different. A lot of fans will naturally gravitate towards teams that are likely to go very far or are high-end title contenders, but others may want a briefer fling. Perhaps there’s a lower seed that’s really caught your eye. That’s fine, too, and if you’re like me, you might as well add another disappointing, short playoff run to your fandom’s long list of disappointing, short playoff runs.

Below, I’ve broken the 16-team playoff field into four tiers. We’ll start at the bottom with the least-interesting teams and work our way to the top. These rankings are mostly objective, but I did try and allow a little bit of my personal views on each team to shine through. The groups are as follows, again from worst to best:

  • The Magic and the Nets
  • Short Relationships (teams not favored in the first round with <10% odds to make a Conference Final, per 538)
  • The Swing Tier (teams with either a >10% shot at making a Conference Final, per 538, or teams favored in the first round)
  • The True Bandwagoner (title contenders)

This post is not meant to be taken too seriously; obviously, you get to make your own calls. Content time!

The Magic and the Nets

2. Orlando Magic

1. Brooklyn Nets

At the end of this post, I’ve ranked the teams 1-through-16 in terms of bandwagon friendliness. No matter how I ran my own sets of numbers, these two teams always ranked at the bottom. Orlando’s brief spurt of competency in their first two bubble games quickly turned into a six-game horror show with a myriad of errors. Their most likable and best young player is out for the season, and the other most likable young player is more of a nice story than an actual fun player to watch. Unless you like defense, there’s just not much to get behind here; the best-case scenario is them maybe stealing a game or two off of Milwaukee and getting viewers to freak out for a week.

The Brooklyn Nets, however, do offer more. In every game in the bubble since they got blown out by Orlando in the opener, they’ve played hard for all 48 minutes and very nearly ended Portland’s season before they could make the playoffs. Objectively, they have the worst roster of any team in the playoffs. It contains about 2.5 decent offensive players, no great defenders, and an interim head coach. And yet: they’ve been oddly watchable. They do rank at the bottom here, but they’re certainly more fun to watch than Orlando.

Short Relationships

5. Utah Jazz

4. Indiana Pacers

3. Portland Trail Blazers

2. Oklahoma City Thunder

1. Dallas Mavericks

We’ll cover the first two teams here in one paragraph. Both have suffered serious injuries to two of their best players; 20 PPG scorer Bojan Bogdanovic is out for the Jazz, and All-Star Domantas Sabonis is out for the Pacers. That puts a severe cap on how enjoyable they’ve been to watch offensively in the bubble. The Pacers won out simply because of TJ Warren, who was so good in the bubble that he single-handedly won a couple of games for Indiana…but they still weren’t really fun to watch. In late-game situations, both teams go to dribble-heavy guards that favor long mid-range jumpers, and I’m sorry, but even when they hit them it isn’t all that entertaining to watch. It reminds me of 2004-era basketball in a bad way.

Portland also relies on a dribble-heavy guard, but that guard was probably the best player in the seeding games. Damian Lillard has been all sorts of amazing offensively, scoring 154 points in the final three games of Portland’s regular season to drag his team into the playoffs. I think only ranking them third here is going to give readers a bit of concern as to if I actually like entertaining basketball. I do, and I think Portland provides it in spades…especially on defense. Portland provided us with the best offense and the worst defense of the bubble; every single game of theirs was a nail-biter that ended up with a final score of, like, 126-122. That’s why I think they’d be an incredibly frustrating bandwagon choice. Sure, you get Dame, but you also get Portland’s atrocious defense that provides Dame a reason to have to go for 50+ every single night. A great team to watch as a neutral viewer; a pretty awful team to watch if you’re a fan.

Oklahoma City was a fun overachiever this season, a nice redemption story for Chris Paul, and a franchise with a few young, fun players. In particular, you get the benefit of watching Paul (and SGA, and Adams, and Gallo, etc.) take on his old team, the Houston Rockets. That series has several fun storylines that you can get behind. The issue with Oklahoma City: they have the misfortune of running into the Lakers in the second round if they get past Houston. It’s likely that they don’t have the roster power to seriously challenge Los Angeles.

Dallas, meanwhile, is the Chaos Agent of these playoffs. Consider them Portland on hyperspeed: one of the ten best players in basketball, who happens to be 21 years old, scores tons of points every game. His sidekick is a 24-year-old 7’3″ guy that is a fantastic shooter from three and scored nearly 30 points per game in the bubble. They have all sorts of intriguing, weird role players that only make sense on a roster coached by Rick Carlisle. They also happen to have the second-worst defense in the bubble and alternate between going on 14-2 runs and giving up 14-2 runs. Dallas beats out Portland for two reasons: they have a better team offense and a better chance at stealing a couple of games off of their first-round title contending opponent.

The Swing Tier

4. Philadelphia 76ers

3. Miami Heat

2. Houston Rockets

1. Denver Nuggets

These are all teams that, if a few things go right, could make a surprise appearance in their conference final. Also, any of these four could easily be gone in the first round. A great tier for people who deal with stressful events successfully and calmly!

The Philadelphia 76ers, considering preseason expectations, may be the single most frustrating and disappointing watch of this entire field. In the offseason, Philadelphia heavily retooled their roster in free agency and came out of it with a team pretty much everyone agreed to be a serious Finals contender. They looked like the second-best team in the East behind Milwaukee, and given the general distrust in the playoffs of Milwaukee, it was easy to envision a scenario where Philadelphia had its best season in 20 years. Instead, what fans got was a clogged-toilet offense, a bunch of pissed-off players, and a coach everyone wants fired. I strongly advise you stay off of this bandwagon unless you enjoy being angry.

On the other hand, Miami pretty much achieved to the level most expected: a 4/5 seed bid and a good showing by new star Jimmy Butler. However, they contain one of the most fun offenses you can watch in basketball. Erik Spoelstra has designed a ton of hand-offs and off-ball screens for sudden shooting stars like Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro, Kelly Olynyk, etc. In particular, Robinson has gone from being a Division III basketball player six years ago to being one of the best shooters in the entire league. It’s a pretty easy team to get behind.

It feels strange to rank Houston above Miami. Inarguably, the Heat have the more fun offense, weren’t slightly disappointing, and have better uniforms. (Houston’s 1990s uniforms they’ve brought back out are fantastic, but I really don’t think anything is beating Miami Vice, ever.) BUT. I still think James Harden is one of the most uniquely talented offensive superstars the league has ever had. I think Houston’s experiment with the Pocket Rockets – AKA, the lineup where P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington, two small forwards, are the frontcourt – is wild and bizarre and really fun. I also simply think Houston’s got a more talented roster with a higher ceiling. No team in the entire league gets more wide open threes than Houston does; if they ever have a night where they hit a high amount of them, any game is winnable.

The Denver Nuggets have Nikola Jokic, and if you can’t get behind that, you live a sad life.

The True Bandwagoner

5. Toronto Raptors

4. Boston Celtics

3. Los Angeles Lakers

2. Los Angeles Clippers

1. Milwaukee Bucks

This was tough to rank, because I think at minimum, the first four are really close together. (Toronto is somewhat distant due to a pretty uninspring offense, though there’s very little to dislike about them.) Any of them would be great picks for a viewer that’s looking for a good and long time as a temporary fan. This is where things got a little more subjective.

Starting off: the Raptors. Undeniably, a Toronto repeat without Kawhi Leonard is one of the funniest possible outcomes. To do it with one of the…three? best players in basketball no longer on your team would be a heroic achievement; to do so while defeating at least two of the Bucks/Clippers/Lakers would be something insane. That said, the actual product offers up a lot of duds. Toronto’s offense only ranked 15th in dunksandthrees.com’s adjusted offensive efficiency ratings. Pascal Siakam’s 22.9 PPG leads the team, but he’s had a lot of streaky runs this season, having several duds at different times. They offer the second-best defense in the league, but there’s not much here that actually gets you excited to watch them play. It’s more of a polite respect.

I struggled mightily with leaving Boston at 4. The Celtics have a lot to offer: a top-five offense, several fun young players, a budding star in Jayson Tatum, and the NBA’s most online fanbase. You can rejoice or commiserate with Weird Celtics Twitter through the playoff run and have a great time. It’s a very fun team….that suffered exclusively from the misfortune of not having LeBron James or Anthony Davis on their roster. If you want to go the roster route, Boston is the more fun, strange, enjoyable team. If you prefer stars, as many people do, you’re obviously rolling with the Lakers, who need no introduction.

A lot of people would have the Lakers first in a bandwagon ranking, and no one should fault them. As mentioned, they have LeBron Freaking James, Anthony Davis, great colors, all the titles, all the history. And yet: isn’t it at least a little bit more fun seeing a team make real history? I’m 26 years old; the Lakers have won five championships in my lifetime, and I remember every single one of them. The Clippers, meanwhile, have Kawhi Leonard (my favorite player in the league), Paul George (…not my favorite player in the league, but a great one), a stacked roster full of weirdos and wonderful personalities, and a history devoid of even a single conference finals appearance. On that alone, I had to go with the other LA team. They have the best offense of these five contenders, play an enjoyable brand of basketball, and have a serious chance to do something Clippers fans likely never imagined would happen in their lifetimes. That’s simply more compelling, and more root-worthy, than another Lakers title.

As I’ve mentioned, you could rank any of these three – and possibly four – as the #1 bandwagon of choice. But who was I to argue against the regular season’s best team with a soon-to-be two-time MVP on their roster? The Bucks don’t have the best offense in the league, but they have Giannis Antetokounmpo, the full-stop Best Player in the World that is unlike any other player in basketball history. They have Khris Middleton, formerly the most underrated player in basketball, now a widely-recognized top 15 guy. They have a wide array of reliable role players. They block a ton of shots. They play faster than any other team in basketball. To top it off, they haven’t won a championship in 49 years and have made it to the conference finals just twice since 1986. You can’t go wrong with any of these top four, but it’s really hard to pass on the Bucks.

The Actual 1-through-16 Ranking

I can’t promise that it’ll make sense to you, but it makes a good amount of sense to me, and I clicked the Publish button. If you’ve got different rankings, I legitimately want to see them!

  1. Milwaukee Bucks
  2. Los Angeles Clippers
  3. Denver Nuggets
  4. Los Angeles Lakers
  5. Boston Celtics
  6. Dallas Mavericks
  7. Houston Rockets
  8. Toronto Raptors
  9. Oklahoma City Thunder
  10. Miami Heat
  11. Portland Trailblazers
  12. Philadelphia 76ers
  13. Indiana Pacers
  14. Utah Jazz
  15. Brooklyn Nets
  16. Orlando Magic

Who are you choosing to root for in this year’s playoffs? Let me know on Twitter @statsbywill.

While I’m writing this post-script on Sunday night at 7:57 PM ET, here’s the games I’m covering each day this week. The posts will be up the morning after the game:

  • Monday: Dallas vs. Los Angeles Clippers, Game 1 (9 PM ET, ESPN)
  • Tuesday: Oklahoma City vs. Houston, Game 1 (6:30 PM ET, TNT)
  • WednesdayUtah vs. Denver, Game 2 (4 PM ET, TNT)
  • Thursday: Miami vs. Indiana, Game 2 (1 PM ET, ESPN)
  • Friday: Boston vs. Philadelphia, Game 3 (6:30 PM ET, TNT)

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