With the college basketball season over, the wait is on for many UNC fans until sports become exciting again. Even if you like baseball, it’s too early in the MLB to really care about games (unless, of course, a bunch of fights break out). There are a couple of Grand Slams in the summer, but tennis is kind of niche. The FIFA Men’s World Cup is this summer, which is cool, but the USA managed to not qualify. The NFL Draft provides a brief respite for many, but that’s only 3 days long.
Even as far as UNC is concerned, it isn’t much better. UNC’s baseball team is on the rise and fun to watch, which is nice, but other than that? Men’s and women’s lacrosse have been struggling and are hard to find on TV, and while the tennis teams have had excellent seasons, they, too, are hard to find if you want to watch.
A notable omission to this preamble is, of course, the NBA. A lot of college basketball-first fans, as I imagine many of you are, don’t seem to pay much attention to the NBA beyond the draft and some cursory checks on how UNC alumni and their teams are doing. I’ve heard plenty of reasons for this, some founded and some not so much: The game is too different, the players don’t care as much when they’re not amateurs, the team in North Carolina is too badly mismanaged to really get behind, there’s no parity, etc, etc.
If you subscribe to any of these notions or others as reasons for not watching the NBA, good news! Basically all of that goes away once the playoffs start. You’re left with a group of teams that should be mostly competitive with one another, the stakes are high, the quality of basketball is the highest in the world, and you usually don’t have to worry about the team in Charlotte (please, Mitch Kupchak, make things right). But of course, the best part of sports is having a rooting interest, and fortunately, there are several Tar Heels in this year’s playoffs (take a look at Jake’s list here) so that you have teams to get behind. If you’re not sure where your priorities might lie, this ranking is for you.
“Boo!” Tier (actively rooting against):
16. Philadelphia 76ers (#3 East)
As fun as Philly is to watch at times, between the versatile dominance of Ben Simmons to the exuberance of Joel Embiid to the slowly, finally emerging star that is Markelle Fultz, they occupy last place on this list because they employ perhaps any UNC fan’s most hated Duke alumnus currently in the NBA: J.J. Redick. For this, I hope they crash and burn, and I hope it’s somehow his fault. The 76ers open against the Miami Heat tonight at 8:00 PM Eastern.
15. Minnesota Timberwolves (#8 West)
Jimmy Butler is one of the NBA’s best feel-good stories, and the turnaround that he inspired in Minnesota, culminating in getting them to the playoffs for the first time in 13 years, has been nothing short of awesome for NBA fans not from Chicago. The Wolves are pretty fun to watch as well, with explosive young players like Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns leading the charge. As a neutral party, the Timberwolves would very likely be my Cinderella. But the wounds that Tyus Jones inflicted on me as a Tar Heel, both in rivalry games and as the point guard of a Duke National Championship team, are still fresh in my mind, and his spot on the T-Wolves’ roster is enough to put them here for the purposes of this list. The Timberwolves open against the Houston Rockets on Sunday at 9:00 PM.
14. Boston Celtics (#2 East)
The Celtics had a busy 2017 offseason, assembling a juggernaut of a team almost immediately while sending out basically every major contributor from last year’s already very good team. Isaiah Thomas? Traded. Avery Bradley? Traded. Jae Crowder? Traded. In total, just four Celtics from the 2016-17 squad made it to the 2017-18 squad. In their place were a bunch of new faces, most notably Gordon Hayward. More relevant to this exercise, though, the Celtics traded for Kyrie Irving and then drafted Jayson Tatum. The first is kind of forgivable because I’m not sure I actually remember Irving wearing Duke blue (he’s also missing the playoffs due to injury), but both? Welcome to the “Boo!” tier. The Celtics start their series against the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday at 1:00 PM.
13. Cleveland Cavaliers (#4 East)
Unlike with the first three teams, who are in the process of creating and solidifying new identities, you probably already know what you think of Cleveland, and it probably largely depends on your opinion of LeBron James. I’m not touching that one, but I will let you know that one of LeBron James’ teammates is former Duke player Rodney Hood, so if LeBron is a villain in your basketball world, you’ve got somebody backing him up. The Cavaliers’ first game is against the Indiana Pacers at 3:00 PM on Sunday.
12. Golden State Warriors (#2 West)
Well, the Warriors don’t look completely invincible this year, so that’s kind of refreshing. The Warriors shipped off James Michael McAdoo and now employ a man whose name is just as familiar, though much less liked, by Tar Heel fans: Quinn Cook (Cook’s journey to the Warriors has been pretty great, honestly, but he still suited up in Durham for four years, so...). Steph Curry is still there, of course, as a local kid to root for, but honestly, that aspect has mostly lost its charm with how overpowered the Warriors are right now. He’s also injured for the first round. The Warriors will start out against the San Antonio Spurs today at 3:00 PM.
11. New Orleans Pelicans (#6 West)
The Pelicans are pretty cool. They play with two dominant, legitimate bigs, which you don’t see a ton of in the NBA. Compared to the team’s starting big men, namely Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans’ starting backcourt is practically unknown. Yes, they have Rajon Rondo, but a) Rondo hasn’t been relevant in years, and b) did you even know that before you read it one line ago? They land this low because, despite their UNC-like style, I still haven’t forgiven Anthony Davis for John Henson-ing John Henson in 2011 and us being robbed of a rematch. The Pelicans will face the Portland Trail Blazers tonight at 10:30 PM.
10. Houston Rockets (#1 West)
This time last year, I wrote that the Rockets were annoying because of James Harden relentlessly driving to draw fouls instead of to score. Now, they’re even more annoying, because they have somehow found a way to make analytics-driven basketball ugly. Their style is isolation-heavy and shoots a lot of three-pointers, which means that their offense often looks like guys pulling up from deep for little to no reason. And contrary to both basketball wisdom and analytics, this has worked for them, and it makes me angry. And it’s not even fun to watch.
9. Indiana Pacers (#5 East)
The Pacers play hard. They have some good players, particularly Myles Turner and Victor Oladipo. Shockingly, they seem to have actually come out on the good side of a trade that involved shipping off superstar Paul George, and maybe this time, they’ll actually be able to make some noise in the playoffs against the Cavs.
8. Toronto Raptors (#1 East)
All hail DeKobe DeBryant. No, seriously, DeMar DeRozan has been an absolute monster this year, and his one-on-one play is something to behold indeed. With his backcourt mate Kyle Lowry and the defensive prowess of rookie OG Anunoby, the Raptors are really fun to watch on the perimeter with the variety of playing styles you see throughout a game. They’re also ridiculously clutch. If anybody will take down LeBron in the East, it’s probably going to be these guys. The Raptors open play against the Washington Wizards tonight at 5:30 PM.
7. Utah Jazz (#5 West)
A year after they earned my sympathy by virtue of being the team that drafted Marcus Paige, the Jazz find themselves at the top of the “Meh” tier again by having drafted another Tar Heel, this time one they’re more likely to hold on to than Paige, who just finished a two-way contract with the Charlotte Hornets. Tony Bradley will likely not be on the Jazz’s playoff roster, but he did, as a first-round pick, sign a contract, and figures to be a part of the team’s future. They don’t have a Heel right now, but they will soon. The team as is ain’t half-bad, either, featuring rookie phenom Donovan Mitchell, already one of the clutchest players in the NBA. The Jazz begin their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday at 6:30 PM.
“Go Heels!” Tier
Jake’s already outlined to you how these Heels are doing on their respective teams, so I’ll make this brief.
6. Washington Wizards (#8 East)
Ty Lawson’s incredibly late signing makes it seem unlikely that he’ll be featured much. This feels like more of an emergency signing than anything else for an increasingly dysfunctional-looking team.
5. San Antonio Spurs (#7 West)
I love Danny Green as much as the next Tar Heel fan, but he already has an NBA ring. It’s more fun to root for the guys whose fingers are unadorned by pro league jewelry. With Kawhi Leonard’s return still a mystery, though, Green is probably the most likely Heel to challenge for NBA Finals MVP if his team gets there, so that’s something. He could’ve had it in 2013... *sniff*
4. Oklahoma City Thunder (#4 West)
Another year, another Russell Westbrook triple-double average. Yes, it’s an absurd statistic. No, Westbrook isn’t the only guy in the league capable of it. It’s been nice to see Raymond Felton find a defined role as backup, though.
3. Miami Heat (#6 East)
Wayne Ellington deserves all the success, acclaim, and happiness that he’s getting right now after the struggles he has had both professionally and personally. It’s heartwarming to see that he’s found a key role on a team, and is finally lighting the NBA up like we always knew he would. In addition to breaking the Miami franchise record for most 3-pointers made in a season, Ellington now NBA record for most 3-pointers made off the bench. He’s peaking at the right time, too.
2. Portland Trail Blazers (#3 West)
Ed Davis returned to action but didn’t do anything meaningful in the last couple games of the season, so hopefully this means he’ll be ready for action in the playoffs. He actually had an excellent run in the 2016 NBA Playoffs, so hopefully he can return to form; the Blazers will need him to deal with the size of New Orleans down low. Also, why couldn’t you have been a Tar Heel, Damian Lillard?
1. Milwaukee Bucks (#7 East)
It gives me great pleasure to put Milwaukee at the top (bottom?) of this list, because Tar Heel fandom aside, watching Giannis Antetokounmpo wreck the game of basketball is one of my personal favorite things about the NBA. Ably supporting him in the frontcourt are the two Heels in the playoffs who never won a championship in college, making this pick even more perfect. John Henson and Tyler Zeller deserve a championship, and they have a teammate with whom it could just be possible despite the low seed. Everything is working for the Bucks, from a Tar Heel fan’s perspective. Show them some love as they try to take down the Celtics.