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A Tar Heel guide to the NBA Playoffs

If you’re a Tar Heels fan and need an NBA team just for the playoffs, this is for you

Orlando Magic v New York Knicks Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s that time of year again, where there aren’t any easily accessible college sports going on and UNC Basketball fans in particular are stranded without a sports outlet to tune out the outside world to. Simultaneously, though, the NBA Playoffs are about to start (and the NHL playoffs are underway #TakeWarning, and the WNBA season has just started: Stephanie Watts, UNC’s first-round pick, just played huge minutes for the Chicago Sky in a nail-biting win in just her second game), and, as always, the Heels are represented in the postseason of the world’s premier basketball league, which means that even if you don’t have an NBA team (or if, like me, your team ended the season on a demoralizing losing streak and missed the playoffs), you can find rooting interests in the NBA postseason. As I’ve done for the past few years, I’ve created here a list of all the teams in the NBA Playoffs, ranked by their rootability via Tar Heel-ness. I hope this helps!

“Please, No” - Tier

16. Los Angeles Lakers (7th Seed, West)

It was cool when the Lakers won last year because it got Danny Green another ring, but nobody likes a repeat. The Lakers are hilariously underseeded for their team’s star power thanks to some aggressive load management over the course of the regular season, but with LeBron James on your team, you’re going to be a title favorite — but the Lakers won’t have made it easy on themselves after drawing Phoenix in the first round.

15. Boston Celtics (7th Seed, East)

The Celtics pretty much run on Jayson Tatum at this point, who is a top-3 most visible Duke alumnus in the NBA along with Kyrie Irving, who barely counts, and Zion Williamson, who’s not in the playoffs. In other words, this pick is purely about how little shine I want Duke to get from these playoffs. Petty? Yes, but that’s the list for you.

“Meh” Tier

14. Brooklyn Nets (2nd Seed, East)

Yadda yadda superteam yadda. I do recommend watching Brooklyn, they’re tremendously fun. But they’d be pretty boring winners, and since this list is all about bandwagoning, nobody likes a front-runner.

13. Atlanta Hawks (5th Seed, East)

Mostly, having Atlanta this low is just me not wanting to see the process of “let’s pass up on Luka Doncic for Trae Young” get rewarded. Way too many Atlanta fans have fooled themselves into thinking the situation was a win-win when the reality is they have the worse, but still very good, player.

12. Washington Wizards (8th Seed, East)

I want the Wizards to be good, but they’re just a disjointed team right now and pretty hard to enjoy - they feel like a lot of pieces being forced into shape by Russell Westbrook putting the team on his back, and that’s neither sustainable nor really fun to watch. They did show signs of being a complete team in their last game before playoff action, though, where they dusted the Pacers behind supporting contributions from Rui Hachimura and Daniel Gafford that they’d been missing all year.

11. Los Angeles Clippers (4th Seed, East)

It would be mildly funny to see Paul George lay another playoff goose egg, which is why they’re down at 11, but the Clippers would be a fine team to take home a trophy after being overshadowed by their neighbors for so long, and they look like they have a decent shot at it. Kawhi Leonard and George have a pretty solid supporting cast.

10. Memphis Grizzlies (8th Seed, West)

Ja Morant may have officially arrived after his late-game heroics that got his team into the playoffs over the Golden State Warriors in the play-in tournament, but the rest of the Grizzlies’ young, DraftTwitter-friendly roster is still developing into a solid NBA team. This team will provide entertainment and it’s good to see online analysts validated because it’s more proof that being a team’s evaluator isn’t actually proof of expertise, but this team isn’t really one you should back to win it all — yet.

“Sure” Tier (Likeable, but no Heels)

9. Miami Heat (6th Seed, East)

The Heat are purely here because any Tar Heel fan who was alive in the past decade can’t help but love a championship redemption story. Plus, at their best, they play really good team basketball, and you have to love that as a fan of the sport.

8. Utah Jazz (1st Seed, West)

I have a bit of a soft spot for the Jazz for drafting Marcus Paige and Tony Bradley and getting their professional careers kick-started — neither made a mark with Utah, but being drafted mattered to both their careers going as well as they have — Paige internationally, Bradley being a valued piece everywhere he’s gone. Donovan Mitchell is a fantastic player and the Jazz play brutally efficient basketball on both ends of the floor, which is really exciting.

7. Denver Nuggets (3rd Seed, West)

Nikola Jokic deserves the MVP, full stop. Do yourself a favor and watch him play a game, if you haven’t already.

6. Dallas Mavericks (5th Seed, West)

Your reason to root for Dallas begins and ends with Luka Doncic, who’s already one of the best players in the league and only getting better. He seems to take things to another level when the stakes are highest, and him getting a ring would be an awesome visualization of the league transitioning to a new generation of stars who are — gulp — younger than I am.


5. Milwaukee Bucks (3rd Seed, East)

I want Giannis Antetokounmpo to play in an NBA Finals; he’s too good to keep falling short and he’s such a good ambassador for the game: from his commitment to improving, to his jack-of-all-trades style, to his obvious love for a small-market team, he feels like basketball more than any of the other superstars in the sport. Justin Jackson is only barely on the Bucks’ roster, and while it would be cool to see him get a ring, you’re not likely to do much in-game rooting for a Heel if you ride with the Bucks this year.

4. Portland Trail Blazers (6th Seed, West)

As I wrote in my NBA catch-up article a few weeks ago, Nassir Little has been pretty buried behind Carmelo Anthony’s farewell tour in Portland. He plays spot minutes, but not really enough to assert himself into the team’s personality. He’s definitely part of the team’s future, by all indications, and it’s possible these playoffs are where that future starts if Melo and/or Robert Covington are out of form, as they’ve been periodically this season, but Portland right now is more a team for UNC fans to keep an eye on than one to root for.

3. Philadelphia 76ers (1st Seed, East)

Danny Green is the most decorated Heel in the league right now, having played key roles on 3 championship teams with different franchises. Philadelphia gives him a decent shot at a fourth, with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid playing at All-NBA levels, Matisse Thybulle turning into the lockdown defender that it was obvious he would be, and the team around them playing their roles well — including Green, who’s obviously a step slow from his prime but still getting things done. The next two teams on this list would be more exciting in terms of seeing more Heels with rings, but rooting for Danny Green is never going to be hard.

2. Phoenix Suns (2nd Seed, West)

Some time off between the end of the regular season and the playoffs might just be what Cam Johnson needed to get back into his groove. I wrote early this month about his shooting slump, and soon after that, he was being held out of games with an injury to his shooting wrist that had apparently been nagging him for a while. Facing the Lakers first up, it’d be a boon to Phoenix to get back the sniper we know and love after some time to rest and heal. As for the rest of the team, it’s truly remarkable how much better Chris Paul is still making teams, 16 years after he was drafted. Phoenix may be the most entertaining team in the league, with his playmaking perfectly balancing Devin Booker’s scoring instincts and Monty Williams, one of the best coaches in the business, orchestrating a gorgeous brand of basketball.

1. New York Knicks (4th Seed, East)

Team has two Heels, they top the list, them’s the rules. Reggie Bullock has enjoyed a career resurgence in Manhattan, and while Theo Pinson’s not seeing much more playing time there than in the other basketball-playing borough of the Big Apple, he’s clearly having the time of his life and playing a large part in creating a locker room that seems like it’s always having a blast playing basketball. After being downtrodden for so many years, it’s good to see the Knicks be a solid team — not a boring big-market powerhouse, but just a good basketball team that looks like it’s having fun and makes the game uncomplicated when they play. They’re an easy team to root for without the Tar Heel connection, and that’s tough to do as a New York team. With a chance of adding two NBA Championships to the UNC collection, they’re an easy top pick as the team to root for if you’re an unattached Tar Heel watching the NBA Playoffs.