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We get it: the NBA season is long, and you can't pay attention to every team. We're here to help. Which teams are worth watching, and which aren't? We answer that question and more in the second annual NBA Watchability Scale.
For a huge NBA fan like myself, the 2010-11 NBA season is one that you've been looking forward to for a long time. The great 2010 free agent derby has come and gone, and the league looks entirely different. I'm excited for every game, every team and every storyline imaginable this year.
But I realize you're not like me. When you think of the NBA, you think of it as the sport you can check into occasionally until you really have to pay attention in April. You'd rather watch football, and then, you'd rather watch college basketball as it gears up for March Madness. You won't spend hours every night flipping around NBA League Pass, trying to find interest in a midseason Timberwolves-Raptors game. Hearing the TV announcer shout: "Watch as Kevin Love and the exciting Timberwolves take on Andrea Bargnani and the high-flying Raptors!" just doesn't get your juices flowing.
And that's fine. But you also need to make sure you're checking in with the right teams. I'm not necessarily talking about teams that are well-covered or filled with manufactured storylines designed to make it seem like they're worth following. I'm talking about teams that will give you the best chance of seeing entertaining basketball games for a night or two every month.
What is "watchability?" It's tough to say. When I did these last year, I described it in pretty broad terms.
Much like pornography, you can't define it, but you know it when you see it. Winning is not necessarily the main determining factor. There are bad teams that are eminently watchable, and there are good teams that are really tough on the eyes.
You could also use fancy charts to define the term, or you could talk about in-person value (even though fewer and fewer people are attending events these days). But at its core, basketball "watchability" boils down to the following concepts, weighed however you want.
- Do they have good, talented and compelling players?
- Do they have the "wow" factor? Can they give you something you won't see in any other team?
- Do they look like they're playing hard? (Key word here is "look," because despite the misconception, NBA players play hard. It's just that some teams look like they're playing harder than others, based on their style of play).
- Does their style resemble jazz, like the game is meant to be played, or is the flow non-existent?
- Do they share the ball?
- Do they try to run, or are they content just wasting six seconds of your life slowly bringing the ball up the court no matter what?
- Do they play in front of a fun atmosphere?
Those are just a few things that go into "watchability." But of course, "watchability" is impossible to define, so the only way to really define it is to use the same terminology we used last year. You know it when you see it.
Here now is the 2010-11 edition of the NBA Watchability Scale. Since this one is being done before the season starts, we're really talking about "projected watchability," but that's just a technicality.
THE TRAIN WRECK OF TRAIN WRECKS
30. Minnesota Timberwolves (Last Year: 28)
From a storyline/big picture perspective, there's something interesting about following a train wreck. Hell, we've even found our own way to do exactly that here on SBNation.com.
But from a basketball perspective, a train wreck plays out ... like a train wreck. There's a five percent chance that the Timberwolves become intriguing, but that would require them valuing Kevin Love, rehabilitating Michael Beasley, finding a point guard who can actually push the ball, getting the most out of their zillion mediocre wing players and actually convincing Kurt Rambis to be a competent coach. Unless those things happen, this will be a bad team with bad players, bad cohesion and bad coaching, playing in front of a bad atmosphere of fans beaten down by bad teams. You tell me what's remotely entertaining about that.
THE 2007 EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALISTS
29. Cleveland Cavaliers (LY: 25)
Put it this way: the Cavaliers were 25th on this list last year ... and that was with LeBron James
28. Detroit Pistons (LY: 26)
There's really only one reason to watch the Pistons, and that's to marvel at Ben Gordon, a 6'0'' guy who can't dribble, can't pass and can't play defense, but somehow finds a way to jump through and over people while shooting jumpers, layups and pretty much anything in between. I don't know how he does it.
If he's injured again, like he was last year, then there's no reason to watch these guys. They have no great offensive players, no good passers (no, Pistons fans, a rookie Greg Monroe doesn't count, not until he works out his turnover issues) and no good defenders, unless Ben Wallace turns back the clock seven years. Their head coach is notorious for playing at a slow pace (despite saying otherwise), and their unsung hero is out for three months with a
shoulder achilles injury. Joe Dumars certainly has an interesting definition of "rebuilding," based on this roster.
THE BORING GOOD TEAMS
27. Portland Trail Blazers (LY: 21)
Every year, there's one or two good teams that are just awful on the eyes. Last year, that team was Cleveland. This year? I suspect it'll be Portland and Atlanta.
Why Portland? For the same reason that Rudy Fernandez wants to leave the NBA -- they are very s ... l ... o ... w. Not literally, of course, but they've been the slowest-paced team in the league in both of the last two years. Nate McMillan is a great coach that did wonders getting 50 wins out of this squad, but he has a style and he sticks to it. Even the half-court offense is a lot of standing around and isolation plays. It works very, very well, but it's painful to watch.
There's also the truth that this team has a bunch of odd pieces to work in. As good as Andre Miller was down the stretch, we still don't know if he can fit in with Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and all the rest of the pieces when they're all healthy. We have no clue what to expect from Greg Oden, if he plays at all. The two saving graces are Roy and dynamic small forward Nicolas Batum, but it's hard for me to believe that Roy will ever get back to his 2008-09 level after dealing with yet another knee injury. He might be good, but he's no longer the same athletically-gifted guy that burst onto the scene two years ago.
That leaves Batum and his chasedown blocks as things to enjoy. They're fun - but they don't happen often, and you can just watch highlights of them anyway.
26. Atlanta Hawks (LY: 14)
Why Atlanta? Last year, the Atlanta Hawks played at league's fourth-slowest pace, despite having Josh Smith on their team. I can't even put into words how frustrating that is. Watching them run an "offense" last year (aka "stand and let Joe Johnson or Jamal Crawford hold the ball for seven seconds") was even more frustrating. The only reason I ever watched them was because Smith had a career year, and even he can be really frustrating when he shoots 20-footers.
The good news is that new coach Larry Drew is actually opening up the offensive playbook a bit. Early returns look pretty promising, so maybe this ranking will look silly by the end of the year. Still, it's a first-time coach teaching a bunch of guys who are used to playing one way to play a different way. I'm skeptical it'll work.
25. Charlotte Bobcats (LY: 27)
The only reason they're not last is because of Gerald Wallace, who flies all over the court on both ends, grabbing rebounds, locking down defenders, blocking shots on the weakside and generally being awesome. Unfortunately, when you watch the Bobcats, you also need to watch a team that needs Stephen Jackson to create all the shots. If you've ever watched Stephen Jackson play, you'll understand why this is not particularly entertaining.
24. Philadelphia 76ers (LY: 23)
The league's most dysfunctional team this side of the Wizards last year (on the court, at least) has now added a coach that never likes his teams to run and instead insists on running a bunch of set plays. I know Eddie Jordan was an awful match with this roster, but Doug Collins isn't exactly going to up the fun quotient.
And then, there's Evan Turner. Turner was the best player in college basketball last year, but he's yet to demonstrate that he's going to be any good in the NBA. Sometimes, this happens with players. Turner was bigger and stronger than all the point guards he faced last year, and that's no longer the case anymore. He doesn't have elite athleticism, nor has he really mastered playing off the ball, since he was Ohio State's entire offense. If you expected Turner to be good enough to up the excitement and get Andre Iguodala back into a complimentary role (where he belongs), you might be expecting too much. Unless there's powder involved, of course.
23. Indiana Pacers (24)
In the past, the Pacers have been the worst kind of team: a team that likes to run and shoot threes, but can't actually make any of the shots. Maybe that changes a bit this year now that Darren Collison is running the point. Last year, Collison showed that he's shifty on the pick and roll, proficient with his shot and able to set other people up. Getting him in the fold, as well as getting Danny Granger back and healthy, bumps them up a little bit.
22. Toronto Raptors (LY: 9)
For some reason, I'm kind of intrigued. Sure, the roster is depressing, but keep in mind that they were one of the league's best offensive teams last year -- and it wasn't all Chris Bosh. Jay Triano loves an open style that leads to a lot of threes, and they'll have some athleticism if DeMar DeRozan takes a step forward. Swapping Hedo Turkoglu, a ball-stopper who didn't fit, with Leandro Barbosa, who is very Ben Gordon-like in his play when healthy, is going to make them more fun as well.
Then again, their best scorer right now is Andrea Bargnani (!), and they don't play defense. We'll stick them in the 20s for now.
21. New Jersey Nets (LY: 29)
I kind of like how the Nets didn't quit last year, even with all the awful things that happened to them. Throw in a real coach (Avery Johnson), a couple interesting wing players (Anthony Morrow, who can shoot the lights out, is one I'm watching in particular), an emerging Terrence Williams and a stronger Brook Lopez, and there's something here. I'd feel better about their entertainment value if Derrick Favors wasn't so bad in the preseason, or if they didn't play in front of no fans.
20. Memphis Grizzlies (LY: 17)
Can the Grizzlies be surprisingly entertaining for two years in a row? I figured Memphis would be one of the most frustrating teams to watch last year, but they ended up being pretty fun, especially offensively. Somehow, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph figured out how to play well off each other, which I think says more about Gasol than anything. Rudy Gay actually got out in transition sometimes, and O.J. Mayo accepted a complimentary role and did it well. They have some interesting young talent too, assuming Xavier Henry doesn't strangle Michael Heisley.
At the same time, I don't see them duplicating their watchability. Randolph is a ticking time bomb that wants and doesn't have a new contract, and Gay has little motivation to improve his shot selection now that he's making $86 million. They also don't play defense, run a ton of isolations because of their roster composition and have a point guard in Mike Conley that sometimes forgets how to dribble.
19. New Orleans Hornets (LY: 20)
There's a really big misconception about the way Chris Paul plays that persists to this day. Look, I love Paul, and he's one of my five favorite players in the league to watch, but he's not the kind of guy that runs up and down the floor with athletic teammates dunking and shooting transition threes. Instead, he's a half-court surgeon that sets the conditions of a play (usually some sort of pick and roll), then executes them better than anyone around. He's unbelievably quick, but he's not super athletic. His greatness is in his timing, execution and smarts.
The problem with that, though, is that it reduces all of Paul's teammates to mere extensions of him. That's not to say they simply stand around and watch Paul, but everything they do is set up by Paul. That means the Hornets are kind of predictable, even though they have some intriguing talent outside of Paul (Marcus Thornton is underrated, and this is a good landing spot for Trevor Ariza). If you watch them regularly, don't expect too many thrills outside of Paul. He's good enough to be worth it, but there are more balanced teams out there.
18. Golden State Warriors (LY: 12)
The Warriors are getting a little buzz recently, and I sort of see why. No Don Nelson and a new owner means there's a new vibe out there, and as we found out in 2007, they have great fans. Stephen Curry is fun if you can ignore all the purists who slobber over him, and David Lee definitely is a good fit for this team and fanbase. They're always going to score a lot of points, which makes them exciting at least.
That said, a lineup of Curry, Monta Ellis, Reggie Williams or Dorrell Wright, Lee and Andris Biedrins is not going to stop anybody. On paper, that's a good rebounding team, but rebounding is a matter of diminishing returns, so Lee and Biedrins will just steal each other's boards. I'm also not understanding why everyone thinks the promotion of Keith Smart to head coach after Don Nelson stepped down is really going to change how this team plays. Smart's well respected, and young players will develop better, but he's also been Nellie's lead assistant for a very long time. As much as he wants to pay lip service to playing a more disciplined style, I'm not holding my breath.
BECAUSE I DON'T KNOW WHERE TO PUT THEM
17. Denver Nuggets (LY: 6)
With all the Carmelo Anthony stuff, I don't know. Let's move on.
16. Houston Rockets (LY: 3)
Will it be fun to watch Yao Ming this year? It's a difficult question to answer. On the one hand, Yao's an incredibly skilled 7'6'' guy, which is more unique than anything in this league. On the other hand, he's only going to be playing 24 minutes a game, and he's going to slow down a team that played really fast (and fun) last year. It's a bit weird from a watchability perspective, much less from a team-building perspective.
15. Dallas Mavericks (LY: 8)
You know what you're getting with these guys. Pick and roll, pick and pop, some Dirk Nowitzki brilliance and a lot of half-court sets. Rinse, repeat. The only element that can spice this mix up is Rodrigue Beaubois, and he's hurt. (Plus, I don't think Rick Carlisle likes him). If anything, they might be worse to watch this year, because they'll have a full season of Caron Butler breaking plays to launch errant jumpers in hopes of getting a new contract.
14. San Antonio Spurs (LY: 18)
My issue with the Spurs has always been that their supposedly "right-way" offense was really just Tony Parker dribbling around Tim Duncan screens while three guys stood at the three-point line. That said, they have some really fun new elements this year. More playing time for DeJuan Blair will be nice, and Brazilian import Tiago Splitter was one of my favorite players to watch at the FIBA World Championships. Throw in a healthier Manu Ginobili - who we really need to start appreciating more than we do before his body gives out - and I can get behind them a bit more, even if Duncan is too slow to guard pick and roll anymore.
ONE FATAL FLAW
13. Chicago Bulls (LY: 30)
Seems kind of low, right? Chicago has Derrick Rose, who is awesome, Joakim Noah, who is also awesome, a coach in Tom Thibodeau that emphasizes defense and some intriguing secondary parts. So why 13?
Here's the thing: as brilliant as Rose is, this team is going to have its issues scoring, especially with Carlos Boozer hurt. Other than Kyle Korver, the Bulls don't have a single player in their top eight that can consistently hit a three-pointer. Everyone talks about how Boozer solves their low-post scoring issue, but low-post scoring doesn't do much when you don't have shooters who can give your post threat room to work. Same with pick and rolls, which is how Rose gets most of his points. Throw in the fact that Thibodeau is more of a defensive guy than an offensive guy, and I'm skeptical that the Bulls will improve much on their 27th ranking in offensive efficiency.
Bad offense was the main reason I ranked Chicago 30 last year, which, to be fair, was a bit harsh. If that's not much better, it's tough for me to just vault them into the top 10, even though this is probably the year Rose makes a big jump.
12. Milwaukee Bucks (LY: 11)
The best part about watching the Bucks, besides their awesome "Fear The Deer" fans, is the tempo they play at. Their half-court offense is painfully slow, but they're afraid to run and launch a lot of shots when they can, using their defense as the catalyst. Brandon Jennings also gives them a lot of flair (though he can also be really erratic), and if you can't appreciate Andrew Bogut's ability to score, rebound, block shots and play good positional defense, then you're not a basketball fan.
I just wish Corey Maggette and John Salmons weren't on their team. Instead of going with their young, overlooked guys, the Bucks have sunk over $18 million a season for the next three seasons into these two ball-stoppers. I get why they did it - they needed shot creators in the worst way, and nobody got to the free-throw line less often last year - but I hate watching both of these guys play. Salmons is the classic rental player that's great with something to prove, but sulky when he gets a little prosperity. (Bulls fans are nodding right now). Maggette, meanwhile, doesn't know the meaning of the word "pass." If you're the kind of person who has this idea that the NBA is just a bunch of guys putting their head down and getting bailed out with foul calls, then Maggette is the personification of your stereotype. That's his game, and it sucks to watch it.
That's just a buyer beware. The Bucks were really fun last year, and I can't just shake this feeling that many people are jumping on their bandwagon a year too late.
THE YOUNG GUNS
11. Los Angeles Clippers (LY: 16)
10. Washington Wizards (LY: 13)
9. Sacramento Kings (LY: 10)
These three teams feature the three big rookies to watch this year. Let's tackle them one-by-one.
Clippers: Bill Simmons' hyperbole aside, Blake Griffin has been awesome in the preseason. The guy flies all over the place, dunking everything in site, chasing after loose balls and beating bigger guys for rebounds. I think part of the reason Simmons is hyping him so much is because Griffin is so much fun to watch, and that gets mistaken for actual ability. Maybe that inspires Baron Davis, who really can be fun when he's motivated. If so, then LA vaults way up this list, even though their coach has no idea what he's doing.
Wizards: This is my team, so I've seen them a lot, and it's pretty clear that John Wall is unbelievable to watch. I posted this on Bullets Forever, but if you're an opposing player, how many people are more daunting coming at you in the open floor right now than Wall? LeBron James? Sure. Dwyane Wade? Yeah, okay. Kevin Durant? He's not nearly as fast, and his dribble is too high. Otherwise? I can't really think of anyone. Wall is so fast, so good at seeing the floor and so smart around the rim (this is what separates him from Rose), so good luck trying to contain him in the open floor. If Gilbert Arenas gets his head screwed on relatively straight, he'll combine with Wall to form the most entertaining backcourt in the league.
Unfortunately, the rest of the team is a work in progress. I haven't liked what I've seen from Andray Blatche all preseason, though in his defense, he's trying to come back from a foot injury. JaVale McGee exchanges breathtaking plays with maddening ones, and the rest of the roster is pretty random. There's also a lingering concern that Wall won't get in the open floor enough, because the Wizards don't have enough rebounding and because Flip Saunders' teams are half-court oriented. If so, that obviously kills some of the Wizards' entertainment value. Here's hoping Saunders sets them loose and McGee becomes a better rebounder.
Kings: I'm really bullish on the Kings, even though I don't really know how the pieces fit together. What I do know is that Tyreke Evans is poised to take a massive jump, depending on how well his jumper is progressing (current prognosis: work in progress). I also know that watching DeMarcus Cousins is going to be so much fun. It's been a long time since we've seen a big man so fiery and willing to speak his mind.
"I believe everything happens for a reason. But I can't wait to play them because I'm going at their necks, especially the big that got picked before me."
"I'm trying to see what's so special. ...I guess that's what they really needed on their team. I really don't know. ‘
"I feel I was the best big to come out of college. For another big to get picked before me, I have a problem with that."
He didn't even mention Favors by name, instead calling him "that big that got picked before me." How awesome is that?
Will he yell at his coach sometimes? Sure. But I think 10 coaches out of 10 will take that passion, because they know most of it is channeled to the opponent rather than to his teammates. Assuming everyone plays with that kind of chip on their shoulder, the Kings will be exciting, and I think they'll be good as well.
8. Boston Celtics (LY: 5)
Word is that Kevin Garnett looks amazing, which should mean we'll possibly see a Celtics team that more closely resembles the cagey, opportunistic one we saw in the playoffs instead of the depressing one we saw in big stretches during the regular season. If Garnett really is closer to his 2008 level than his 2010 level, the Celtics won't be taking nearly as many nights off as they did last year. Too many teams made them look old last year, especially down the stretch.
The team's best feature, though, remains Rajon Rondo, an evolutionary version of John Wall that pushes the ball better than any point guard in basketball. Even if the Celtics' age shows itself in a given game, Rondo will make them interesting.
7. Utah Jazz (LY: 15)
Criminally under-ranked in last year's edition. Deron Williams is awesome, and they always find a way to execute well offensively. Al Jefferson's an interesting new wrinkle, but I think they'll eventually figure out a way to work him in. Either way, with Williams around, they'll always be one of the best transition teams in the game, and when you combine that with their pinpoint half-court offense, they're a pleasure to take in.
6. Orlando Magic (LY: 7)
The biggest question of this season, even bigger than what happens to the Heat, is whether Dwight Howard has reached his apex. If the answer is no, then he becomes the one guy that can change the whole fabric of the league. He's the answer to the Lakers' frontcourt length, and he's the one guy Miami cannot defend.
But we're talking about watchability, not success. The watchability issue with Howard is that you always find yourself wishing his post moves were more defined. It's unfair to say he has no post moves, because it's much harder to be a post player in 2010 than 1995, but good teams certainly figured out how to limit his impact. Since we all love great post players, it's frustrating. If his offseason work with Hakeem Olajuwon pays off in any way, it eliminates the most frustrating thing about watching the Magic.
Well, outside of Vince Carter.
5. Los Angeles Lakers (LY: 2)
Kobe being Kobe. Pau being brilliant. Ron Artest being wacky. Lamar Odom being the swiss army knife. Sixty games of Andrew Bynum being productive, but frustrating. Eighty-two games of Derek Fisher looking old before he proves us all wrong in the playoffs. We know how this team works. Skip the early-season games and watch them later, when they'll be clicking on all cylinders.
THE MIRROR IMAGES
4. Phoenix Suns (LY: 1)
3. New York Knicks (LY: 22)
Two teams cut from a similar cloth, hoping chemistry and style of play makes up for some pretty glaring holes on their rosters. The intriguing part? The fact that Amare Stoudemire went from one location to the other.
From a pure NBA storyline standpoint, I don't think the Amare move is getting enough play. For years and years, people nitpicked at Stoudemire's game by saying his production was enhanced by Steve Nash. Now, instead of getting passes from Nash, he's getting passes from Raymond Felton, who people like even though he can't drive, can't finish once he drives and is an inconsistent shooter (check his three-point shooting stats over his career. The outlier is easy to spot). There's no better way for Amare to silence his doubters than to be just as good under these circumstances (and I think he will be great this year).
On the other side, the Suns look like they're giving Amare's spot in the lineup to Hedo Turkoglu, which is a pretty big diss in its own right. Turkoglu was really bad in Toronto last year, and he's 31. He doesn't rebound and he doesn't play well off others, two things you need to do with Steve Nash on your team. Turkoglu, honestly, could be the anti-Amare. And yet, the Suns still traded for him. They don't care that their starting lineup has one guy who can rebound, or that their bench is Goran Dragic and a bunch of swingmen. They will replace Amare with spare parts, dammit, and they'll push on.
In other words, this is the year we'll finally get some clarity on the biggest question with the Seven Seconds Or Less Suns: was it Nash who was the engine, or was it Mike D'Antoni and Amare that provided Nash with the perfect surrounding for his skills? That question alone makes both of these teams intriguing. Throw in two fun centers (Robin Lopez and the Russian guy, Timothy Mozgov, who won the starting job in New York), two up-tempo teams with shooters and two coaches who like to run, and they're worth watching even if both are mediocre.
CREAM OF THE CROP
2. Oklahoma City Thunder (LY: 4)
You all know why the Thunder are fun to watch, so I won't belabor the point. (If you don't, just read Lee Jenkins' Sports Illustrated cover story, or read about how Kevin Durant insisted on having Thabo Sefolosha and Nenad Kristic on the cover).
I will say this though: let's not mistake watchability for wins. There's no doubt that the Thunder will be good, but it just feels a little too perfect right now. What happens if someone important gets hurt, which didn't happen last year? What happens if coach Scott Brooks sticks with Sefolosha, even though James Harden (who is really good) makes a big leap? Most importantly, what happens if Jeff Green doesn't get a contract extension (which he shouldn't, for all the reasons Zach Lowe laid out here). Durant has already publicly stated he wants Green there long term, so what happens if that doesn't happen?
These are all little questions, but they're still questions. Do not pretend that the jump from 50 to 60 wins is going to be easy. The Thunder will still be worth watching every single night, but I'm worried too many people will be disappointed if they have a similar season to last year instead of becoming serious title contenders. I hope we all recognize that they can be damn fun to watch anyway and appreciate them for what they are no matter what.
1.Miami Heat (LY: 19)
Love them or hate them, you'll be watching them. As a resident LeBron James hater (and Mike Miller, to a lesser extent), even I can admit that. There may not be a more compelling on-court storyline in years than seeing how three of the league's top 10 players figure out how to play off each other. This is different than Boston's Big 3, because none of those guys were good enough to carry a team on their own. James and Dwyane Wade were. Now, they have the opportunity to do it together, and I can't wait to see how it turns out.
I wish I had something more profound to say about this team, but I don't. I'm ready to see them on the court already.