The NBA tends to be classified as a niche league, which in a way is a true statement. This game has a personality and rhythm unlike any other. Its most ardent supporters get excited about the most random things and sit there and laugh at themselves when they spend so much time dissecting the silliness that exists on the periphery of the actual game. (You should have seen Twitter during the Chris Paul madness).
And yet, the NBA is still a mainstream sport. As fans, we don't have the luxury of staying in our own little world admiring stuff like Greg Monroe's hook shot. We can't tell outsiders that they just wouldn't understand. We have to be inclusive and try to find ways to draw the casual fan in.
So with that in mind, here's our third annual NBA Watchability Scale, which help those casual fans decide which teams are worth watching this season. "Watchability" is a purposely vague term, but let's borrow from last year's edition to describe some elements that go into it.
- Do they have good, talented and compelling players? Do they have a star worth watching?
- 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?
- Are they largely free of external drama?
The last bullet point is a new addition based on the storylines we've seen unfold over the past two years. Watching the Denver Nuggets before the Carmelo Anthony trade last year wasn't fun. Watching them after it was over was great. The Orlando Magic with the Dwight Howard saga are the same way.
And, oops, I just gave away the first team on the list. Without further ado:
30. Orlando Magic: I'm boycotting the Magic until the Dwight Howard situation is resolved. Too depressing otherwise. I'm a basketball fan with principles, or something like that.
ONLY BECAUSE YOU LOVE BASKETBALL
29. Milwaukee Bucks: Last season, the average NBA team's offensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions) was 104.5. The average team defensive efficiency was 104.5. Anything above, say, 110 is a great offensive game, and anything below 100 is a horrendous one. Any guesses as to how many times the Bucks played a game last season where both teams were below 100?
That means that if you tuned into a Bucks game last year, you had roughly a 50 percent chance of watching a game where neither team could do anything on offense. Unless you're a fan of games like the Butler-UConn title game in 2011, you're not going to like those games.
And no, swapping John Salmons for Stephen Jackson isn't the move that'll change that.
28. Toronto Raptors: This is basically the same team as last year, and last year's team wasn't all that interesting except when DeMar DeRozan was dunking. Sorry, folks. My mild curiosity with Andrea Bargnani's game is over.
27. Detroit Pistons: I can talk myself into enjoying Greg Monroe's development, and I admit to being curious to see if Brandon Knight can actually play at this level. My guess is that you aren't quite the NBA dork that I am, in which case, there's really not much to see here.
26. New Orleans Hornets: There are fewer bigger Eric Gordon fans than me, and I'm curious to see him unleashed. But this wasn't an especially fun team to watch last year, and that was with Chris Paul. Monty Williams' first season proved he likes to coach teams that execute defensively and drain the heck out of the shot clock. Without the one player that made his team remotely exciting, Williams' style, though effective, won't be pretty.
25. Sacramento Kings: I'm a fan of tortellini, french fries, carrots, PB&J, ketchup and orange juice. Call me a simple man, whatever. Point being, just because I like all those foods doesn't mean I'll prepare myself a meal featuring all six of them. They're each good for their specific purpose.
That pretty much sums up the Sacramento Kings for me. There are so many intriguing pieces on the roster. Tyreke Evans was fun to watch as a rookie. DeMarcus Cousins is incredibly fascinating. Marcus Thornton gets buckets. Jimmer Fredette is JIMMERRRRRR. J.J. Hickson has his moments. Et cetera. But when you put them all together, they form a team that has absolutely no cohesion and is led by a coach who can't get them to play together. I hope that changes this year, but I'm skeptical.
Also, they have John Salmons, and no NBA player's game annoys me more than John Salmons'.
24. Charlotte Bobcats: Kemba Walker was fun running wild on a team with no scorers at UConn, so he could easily be fun running around on a team with no scorers in Charlotte. That's what the Bobcats have going for them. What they don't have going for them: the fact that Corey Maggette is probably going to be their leading scorer, assuming he is healthy.
Though it'll be fun to see BIYOMBOOOOO in action.
THE BORING GOOD TEAM
23. Atlanta Hawks: They're the same team they've been the last few years. You get generally solid play from Al Horford, a couple breathtaking plays from Josh Smith and a lot of Joe Johnson. Also, you get lots and lots of jumpers. Only the Wizards attempted more shots from 16-23 feet last year, and that number will probably increase with Tracy McGrady around. You also get about 5-10 games a year where they just quit. Rinse, repeat.
You enjoy watching the Hawks if you enjoy eating the same turkey sandwich for lunch every day.
22. Utah Jazz: To continue with weird food analogies, the Jazz are this year's mystery meat. They're still a team in transition, as evidenced by the fact that three of their four highest players play the same positions as the No. 2 pick in the 2010 NBA Draft and the No. 3 pick in the 2011 draft. You figure they won't end the season with the same roster as they began it, so cohesion will be an issue. Still, they're always a pretty good bet to give you a couple random Monday afternoon classics on their home court, which is one of the loudest in the league.
21. Houston Rockets: The Rockets tend to appeal to the crowd that loves to talk about how efficient Kevin Martin is, how Kyle Lowry never gets the respect he deserves in a league of point guards and how Luis Scola always throws people off their games. Me? I'm one of those people. I love watching Kevin Martin, Kyle Lowry and Luis Scola play. But seeing as the Rockets have spent several years now in this stage of mediocrity trotting out those random productive NBA players that never catch mainstream acceptance, the hipster shine's bound to come off sooner or later. Once that happens, what do you really have here that catches the eye?
20. Phoenix Suns: Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Once the league's most watchable team, the Suns are now a somewhat depressing mix of cast-offs surrounding Steve Nash. There are still nights where this team recaptures the magic it once had, and Nash and Grant Hill are still worth watching because of how they continue to get better with age. There are other nights where the team's lack of defense and it's inability to find a second dynamic personality to pair with Nash drags them down.
Then again, it's still Phoenix, and it's still Nash. It's possible to be a great actor cast in a shallow character, a horrible plot and distracting special effects in a movie. It's possible, if you focus hard enough, to ignore the madness around Nash and just marvel at how he keeps doing it.
FOR ENTERTAINMENT AND HILARITY
19. New Jersey Nets: The Nets as they currently stand are one of the most unwatchable teams in the league, but they're also the favorite to land Howard, which would vault them way up this list. For now, let's split the difference and put them here.
18. Cleveland Cavaliers: They have No. 1 overall pick Kyrie Irving, and that's enough for me. We really haven't seen Irving play fully healthy in a competitive setting in over a year, so I'm really, really curious to see if he takes the league by storm. Along the way, you'll get some pretty bad basketball from a bunch of guys you've never heard of, but seeing Irving's development will probably be worth it.
17. Washington Wizards: The entire Wizards' season should have Benny Hill music dubbed over it. Like this.
THE OLD GUARD
16. Los Angeles Lakers: Allow myself to quote ... myself from Watchability Scale 1.0:
The Cavs are one of the league's best teams. They boast the best player in the league and the most recognizable star of the last decade (I'm talking about Shaq). So why so low for Cleveland?
- They don't ever run. The Cavs have the most unstoppable fast-break force in the NBA (maybe in league history), and they are 26th in the league in fast break points. I didn't tune in to watch LeBron James walk the ball up the court.
- The offense. If you are like most basketball fans and like ball movement and continuity, you won't like the Cavs offense.
That was two years ago, when I put Cleveland at No. 25. Who was the coach of that team? Mike Brown. Who was directly responsible for many of the reasons listed for putting them so low? Mike Brown.
Now, who is the new coach of the Los Angeles Lakers again? Yup, Mike Brown. This time, he's not gifted a team with the league's most explosive fast-break player. He's "gifted," so to say, with a team with an aging superstar that has a wrist injury and still loves to jack up shots. I can't see this being good for the Lakers' entertainment value.
15. Boston Celtics: When the Celtics were at their best, they ran a clinic on execution and efficiency at both ends of the floor. But in a shortened season with less depth than ever and a potentially disgruntled Rajon Rondo running the show, I'm not sure they'll be close to their best all that often. That means they'll be relying on their defense to help them win ugly, which makes them less entertaining.
Also, it'd be nice if Rondo finally decided to develop his jump shot. I appreciate the guy's idiosyncratic game as much as anyone, but I can't help but get annoyed every time I see him brick a wide-open 16-footer. It drains my enjoyment.
14. Portland Trail Blazers: Last year, the Blazers continued their long tradition of being one of the slowest, least-imaginative teams in the NBA. They have their go-to meal, and they keep making it for dinner because it works. It's boring, but effective.
But at least they added a new ingredient last year in Gerald Wallace to spice up the monotony, which is why they're ranked this high. Few players are as fun to watch in the league, because few players play with such reckless abandon. Wallace blocks shots, gets steals and provides some jaw-dropping athletic moves, all as a small forward. He's also athletic enough to play power forward, which means we get to see more interesting small lineups.
After years of just being the same team, Nate McMillan's club now has an X-factor, and as cliche as that sounds, that's enough to make them worth watching.
13. New York Knicks: Honestly, I have a feeling this is too high. The Knicks will absolutely be better with the addition of Tyson Chandler and a full season of Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony together. There's also Mike D'Antoni's offense, which will never stop being entertaining. The problem is that offense relies on a good point guard, and the Knicks currently have Toney Douglas, Mike Bibby and some Baron Davis character who is already injured. Without a good point guard, D'Antoni's already talked about unleashing Anthony's inner playmaker. Historically, that's meant a lot of contested 20-footers.
On the bright side, there's Iman Shumpert, a rookie that can a) play, and b) talk.
LEAGUE PASS FAVORITES
12. Indiana Pacers: It really didn't take long for the Pacers to take on the identity of new coach Frank Vogel last season. After years of playing an offensive style best described as an organized mess, the Pacers simplified their sets and became much more of an execution team. The ultimate result was the best of both worlds. The off-ball motion that defined Jim O'Brien's team remains, but now the Pacers' offense plays with a purpose. It knows where the ball should go, and the end result is a crisper, more cohesive unit.
There are no stars here: just good, solid team play. Though it'll be interesting to see how a guy like David West, who is used to being directly involved in most of the plays for a team's offense, will fit in.
11. Golden State Warriors: Watch one Warriors game, and you'll understand why people overrate Monta Ellis. The man can be simply breathtaking to watch, especially when he's in the open floor. He swoops in on the break, twists his body in midair and always finds a way to finish even against the tallest, most athletic players. That's what you get once or twice every night. Then, there are nights where his jump shot is falling, the crowd is going crazy and he ends up with 40 points. It's easy to get caught up in the show and forget that he doesn't play fundamental defense and forces a lot of shots.
Basically, he's a microcosm of what we've known the Warriors to be for the last decade. Tune in late, and you're bound to get your money's worth with a Warriors game, even if they aren't a very good team.
10. Philadelphia 76ers: There are no superstars, but there are lots of young players who are athletic in the open floor and cohesive in the half court. When he's not eating Twizzlers before a game, Jrue Holiday might be the most underrated pick and roll player in the league. Thaddeus Young's unique game is a curiosity in and of itself, because he's so quick and able to score in so many ways. Those are just two of the many intriguing young players on the roster.
Historically, Philadelphia always struggled in half-court offensive sets, but they achieved a degree of order under Doug Collins last year. This isn't a team of athletes that can't play together as a team anymore. This is a cohesive unit that will provide plenty of offensive and defensive enjoyment even if they lack a superstar.
9. Minnesota Timberwolves: This year's version of the Clippers, in that they're a young team with an incredibly exciting star that will show some signs of growth this year even if they won't be a playoff team. Ricky Rubio won't be as good as Blake Griffin, but he will be just as exciting throwing lobs and dancing around defenders. Kevin Love will still be Kevin Love, Michael Beasley will be the oddball of the group and I have a feeling Derrick Williams is going to turn some heads. There's also Rick Adelman, one of the league's best coaches that has experience upping the excitement level of young teams.
I know it's weird to think of the Timberwolves as a team to watch. But think about this: when highlights of their first preseason game against the Bucks hit the Internet, there were tons of NBA folks trying to find any means necessary to rewatch the game. That's a preseason game against the No. 29 team on this list, mind you. All of us have caught Ricky fever, and the only solution is more Timberwolves.
DIFFERENT STROKES FOR DIFFERENT FOLKS
8. San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs team you saw last season was not your grandfather's, father's or even older brother's San Antonio Spurs. Long seen as a team that pounded it into Tim Duncan, the Spurs instead completed their transition into an up-tempo team fueled by guards Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. The end result was a club that had the West's best record and was better in transition than anyone else.
I'd expect that trend to continue this season, especially with Duncan getting older. You just hope the Spurs' two quick guards can keep up the pace they set last season.
7. Chicago Bulls: Derrick Rose, whether he deserved the MVP or not, is one of the top five most electrifying players in the game. He alone makes the Bulls worth checking out every night. But don't forget about that defense, which stifles players not by brute force, but rather with effort and incredible attention to detail. Don't call it ugly, because that does it a disservice. If there's anyone in the league that can turn something as unheralded as a defensive rotation into poetry in motion, it's the Chicago Bulls.
6. Dallas Mavericks: You know all about Dirk Nowitzki, of course, but Rick Carlisle's bunch has a number of intriguing new offensive pieces that could significantly up the entertainment value. Lamar Odom was fascinating to watch in Los Angeles, and now that he's taken his talents to Big D, I'll be very curious to see how he's integrated into Dallas' system. More playing time for Rodrigue Beaubois will also be good, because it means less playing time for Vince Carter. There's no Tyson Chandler to patrol the back line, but from an entertainment standpoint, the Mavericks may have actually improved with all their new offensive toys.
THE UP AND COMERS
5. Memphis Grizzlies: Grit N' Grind. Z-Bo. Marc Gasol. A potential "hey, remember me?" year from Rudy Gay (it's happening, and we're all going to love it). A bounce-back year from O.J. Mayo. Continued development from Mike Conley. The Grizzlies have major depth issues, but as long as all of the above elements remain in place, the Grizzlies will be awesome to watch.
On the one hand, they're a throwback team to the days where teams played offense from the inside-out and were able to hack away as much as possible on the perimeter. On the other hand, this is a team full of characters only suited to 2011. Tony Allen in particular is the kind of guy you wouldn't see in any other era, and yet, he's one of the rare perimeter players in 2011 that can succeed without being able to shoot from the perimeter. He's a throwback and a revolutionary all at once, just like his team.
4. Denver Nuggets: Don't blink, because you might see these guys zip past you. The Nuggets are fast and unselfish, which is the perfect combination from a watchability standpoint. Even better, coach George Karl encourages it, preaching a style where players make immediate moves to the basket. You'll get a few out-of-control drives, forced three-pointers and offensive fouls, but considering so many players sit there and wait for something to happen instead of making things happen, it's a refreshing change.
THE MUST-SEE TEAMS
3. Oklahoma City Thunder: Fairly obvious choice here. The only reason I have them at No. 3 is their games can sometimes get choppy. The Thunder were tied for second with Miami in free throw attempts per shot attempt (only Denver was higher), and a lot of that is because Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Kevin Durant tend to drive to draw fouls rather than finish. Durant also has his rip move, which can be kind of annoying, if effective.
But I'm nitpicking here. Clearly, the Thunder are a team you have to watch every night.
2. Los Angeles Clippers: Lobtropolis, baby.
1. Miami Heat: Just a gut feeling, but I think Miami's going to own everyone this year. All those offensive problems they had last year with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade getting in each other's way will be resolved with a year of experience. For once, Miami has some continuity on their roster when their top contenders don't, and in a shortened season, that'll make a huge difference. You're going to start to see some beautiful offensive sets in addition to the tremendous athleticism and defensive intensity you already see from James and Wade.
Once that happens, Miami is unstoppable, and unstoppable in the NBA is the most watchable thing you can imagine. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.