It has now been two weeks since the college basketball season ended, which hopefully means you’ve all had time to cool down and process the emotional rollercoaster that was UNC’s run to the NCAA Tournament championship game. Some of you, perhaps even many of you, are already watching this year’s NBA Playoffs, which got underway for real on Saturday after play-in action during the week last week (oh, Hornets, when will you finally get over the hump??). But if I know my audience, then there are also a lot of you who love basketball but just never found a rooting interest in the NBA, and/or tuned in briefly during the aughts, when iso-ball was king and defense didn’t matter, and decided it just wasn’t worth watching. Well, as I’ve been saying in these guides for several years now, that’s far from the case in this day and age, and if you’re a fan of basketball at all, you’ll love today’s NBA.
As for how to get invested? Well, that’s where I come in. You’re probably at least vaguely aware of the UNC alumni in the playoffs, but this will be a comprehensive ranking of the 16 teams based on UNC-fan-friendly criteria: Heels on the roster, college rivalry pettiness, narrative, brand of basketball, et cetera. Without further ado, here we go:
“Your Mother was a Hamster and Your Father Smelt of Elderberries!” (Root Against)
16. Milwaukee Bucks (#3 Seed, East)
I’m very happy for the Bucks’ NBA Championship last year, for all the reasons I outlined in this post a year ago. Justin Jackson got a ring without playing a minute, which is cool, and Giannis Antetokounmpo (first try!) continues to be one of the easiest basketball players in the world to root for. This year, though, the Bucks feel more like villains than the upstarts of last year. For one thing, nobody likes a repeat champion. For another, they now employ Grayson <insert expletive here> Allen, who, in case you were curious, has not stopped his antics now that he’s a professional. I think those two things are enough to put them at the bottom here.
The Bucks currently lead the #6 seed Chicago Bulls 1-0 with their next game on Wednesday, April 20th.
15. Boston Celtics (#2 Seed, East)
The Celtics made a remarkable turnaround halfway through the season; they looked at first like a team with a serious crisis of identity — how do you play team basketball through the Jays (Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown), two score-first wings who didn’t seem to trust their teammates all that much? This was only compounded by Brad Stevens’ move to the front office and the team’s hiring of Ime Udoka, a first-time head coach. The turnaround from play-in-tier to #2 seed has been fueled largely by Tatum’s rapid evolution as a playmaker (and his team repaying him with better scoring off good opportunities), and unfortunately for the Celtics’ spot on this list, he attended Duke. This ridiculous game-winner for Game 1 would endear me to most players, but here, it’s just annoying.
The Celtics currently lead #7 seed Brooklyn 1-0 with their next game on Wednesday, April 20th.
14. New Orleans Pelicans (#8 Seed, West)
The Pelicans scraped their way into the playoffs on the back of Brandon Ingram, who’s probably the Duke player in the NBA I’m least antipathic towards — he’s from Kinston and almost certainly would’ve been a Heel if not for the NCAA investigation, and he was on a pretty unremarkable Duke team. Without Zion Williamson, whose enigmatic injury hiatus has cast a cloud over the season for the Pelicans, they’ve gotten a ton more than expected out of this year’s rookies — Herb Jones and Jose Alvarado are both already defensive menaces — and trading for C.J McCollum has given them just enough firepower to be a threat. But without Zion, they’re more scrappy than actually good, which isn’t all that fun to watch. And of course, we don’t want to see two prominent Duke alumni getting rings, even if these are two of the more likeable ones.
The Pelicans trail the #1 seed Phoenix Suns 0-1 with their next game on Tuesday, April 19th.
13. Atlanta Hawks (#8 Seed, East)
Contrary to what the list to this point might lead you to expect, Jalen Johnson didn’t remotely figure into his team’s placement in this tier. He left Duke halfway through his lone season there and was almost certainly a key factor in Patrick Baldwin Jr. not joining this year’s squad, which might have made them legitimately unstoppable — he’s fine in my book (he also barely plays for Atlanta). No, the Hawks are here first because they knocked the hometown Charlotte Hornets out of the Play-In Tournament, and second because they, like New Orleans, are more annoying than fun to watch. I can’t even bag on Trae Young for his defense anymore; he’s improved to be at least a neutral on that end and is a legitimate superstar who’s playing heel to perfection. But he’s also still a chucker, which has never been fun to watch, and the team plays a disjointed brand of basketball that’s pretty laborious to both defend and spectate.
The Hawks currently trail the #1 seed Miami Heat 0-1 with their next game on Tuesday, April 19th.
Go Off, I Guess (No Strong Feelings)
12. Utah Jazz (#5 seed, West)
The thing about the Jazz is that they’re the epitome of a regular-season team. They’re well-coached and have some firepower, but they just don’t have a second gear and have continually failed to cover up their well-known weaknesses, so they keep running into postseason buzzsaws. That’s only been exacerbated by Donovan Mitchell turning into one of the league’s worst clutch players (a shocking development for somebody who entered the league as one of its best) and all but publicly demanding to be traded, making this team more of a chore to watch in the playoffs than anything else.
The Jazz lead the 4th-seeded Mavericks 1-0 with their next game tonight, April 18th.
11. Denver Nuggets (#6 seed, West)
You’re probably aware of Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets’ center who’s having one of the best seasons in NBA history and plays like just about nobody who’s ever played. It’s an absolute treat to watch him operate, finding teammates he has no right to be seeing and ways to shoot that seem impossible. Minus Jamal Murray and Michael Porter, Jr, though, the Nuggets frequently devolve into just giving Jokic the ball and getting out of the way, and that’s neither fun nor something I want to see rewarded.
The Nuggets trail the 3rd-seeded Warriors 0-1 with their next game tonight, April 18th.
10. Miami Heat (#1 Seed, East)
The Heat just find ways to win. At this point, nobody’s picking against Erik Spoelstra anymore, especially after the Heat’s playoff runs the past two years, and this year’s team might have had Miami’s best regular season since at least the LeBron days. Jimmy Butler is better than you think he is, Tyler Herro is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate now that he’s become an all-around player, and Kyle Lowry brings championship experience and facilitation to the table, and Spoelstra’s coached the whole team into an absolutely elite defense. The only reason they’re not higher on this list is that in the big picture, the Heat don’t really feel like a squad, with an identity. They’re not the underdogs they’ve been the last two years, they don’t have somebody to serve as the face of the team; they just play basketball. Maybe you’re into that. But I like my sports more with some personality.
The Heat lead the Hawks, 1-0 (see above).
9. Golden State Warriors (#3 seed, West)
We’ve probably all got at least a little bit of Warriors fatigue at this point, even after a couple of relatively down years for Steph Curry and Golden State. Still, seeing Klay Thompson back in action is exciting, and even if you’re tired of hearing about the Warriors, there’s undeniably an excitement to watching Steph and Klay drop bombs, even after all this time.
The Warriors lead the Nuggets, 1-0 (see above).
8. Toronto Raptors (#5 seed, East)
Gary Trent, Jr might have gone to Duke, but he was such a nondescript presence on the Marvin Bagley team that I can’t really root against him. Toronto’s a likeable team otherwise, with homegrown stars Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, and OG Anunoby and Scottie Barnes look like they’re next in line. Their roster seems to be VanVleet and a bunch of wings, which makes them unpredictable and thrilling to watch. They’re also playing their best ball at the right time, just like the 2022 Tar Heels.
The Raptors trail the 4th-seeded Philadelphia 76ers 0-1 with their next game tonight, April 18th.
7. Minnesota Timberwolves (#7 seed, West)
There is a delicious irony to how big a deal was made out of Anthony Edwards’ pre-draft comments that he “wasn’t really into” basketball when you look at him now, an exciting, high-flying player who exudes more joy on the court than anybody else in the league. He’s on his way to making the Wolves appointment television. Combine that with my endless sympathy for Karl-Anthony Towns, and it’s so, so easy to pull for this team as a neutral fan.
The Timberwolves lead the 2nd-seeded Memphis Grizzlies 0-1 with their next game on Tuesday, April 19th.
It’s Not You, It’s Me (Rooting for, unless they’re against a Heeled squad)
6. Memphis Grizzlies (#2 seed, West)
The Grizzlies’ collection of Draft Twitter’s crushes is finally paying off this season, powered by stellar coaching and development from Taylor Jenkins and staff as well as an absolutely nuclear season from Ja Morant, who’s easily the most exciting player in the league. Every Grizzlies game has been an event; they’re ridiculously fun to watch, play together, and are a perpetual highlight waiting to happen. The Grizzlies doing well is good for basketball; we should all want more teams to emulate both their front-office process and their on-field product. If there aren’t any more Heels in contention for a ring, the Grizzlies are easily who I want lifting a trophy at the end of this.
The Grizzlies trail the Timberwolves, 0-1 (see above)
INTRODUCING, YOUR NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS!
5. Philadelphia 76ers (#4 seed, East)
Joel Embiid is having a season for the ages and would be a slam-dunk league MVP if not for the existence of Jokic (there’s an indication for you that the NBA isn’t the “give a guard the ball and get out of the way” league it used to be; its two top MVP candidates are centers). He’s doing basically anything he wants while on the floor and it’s pretty incredible to watch. James Harden being on the team increases their ceiling if he hits his peak form sometime soon, but he hasn’t kicked into gear as a scorer since being traded from Brooklyn. As for UNC’s presence, Danny Green continues to provide a veteran, championship-winning presence who spaces the floor and plays defense. As I wrote last year, he’s not the 3-and-D prototype he was in his prime, but he’s still a valuable player when the shots are falling, and regardless of his ring count, extremely easy to root for.
The 76ers lead the Raptors, 1-0 (see above)
4. Brooklyn Nets (#7 seed, East)
The Nets are a hard team to root for unless you were already a fan, between Kyrie Irving’s latest nonsense about the vaccine, Kevin Durant’s online childishness, and now they’ve added Ben Simmons’ frustrating, shooting-averse style of play that has only ever led to postseason implosion. But Day’Ron Sharpe has impressed with the Nets as a rookie in limited minutes, and I’m still very thankful to him as one of the only bright spots on last year’s UNC team. It’d be cool to see him get a ring, especially if he contributes — the Nets are pretty low on frontcourt contribution, and they might need it if only for a different look in the playoffs.
The Nets currently trail the Celtics, 0-1 (see above).
3. Phoenix Suns (#1 seed, West)
Cam Johnson has only gotten better this season for last year’s neutral-fan darling, and he’s now a finalist for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award (Tyler Herro’s going to win, but it’s still notable!). He’s still working back from a thigh injury sustained near the end of the regular season, but he’s looked healthier of late and managed to do this:
This Cam Johnson stuff nearly brought the house down. My goodnesspic.twitter.com/19dql7EBRe— Gerald Bourguet (@GeraldBourguet) April 18, 2022
The Suns remain an incredibly fun team to watch, with Devin Booker’s magical scoring and the ageless Chris Paul still elevating every teammate on the floor. Johnson’s probably got the best chance out of all of his Tar Heel compatriots of winning a Finals MVP if he pulls a Spurs-era Danny Green, which adds a little more spice to rooting for these guys as a UNC fan.
The Suns lead the Pelicans, 1-0 (see above).
I thought the Mavericks picking up Reggie Bullock was one of the smartest low-level moves of last offseason. They needed people who could turn Luka Doncic’s preternatural facilitation into buckets, and Bullock was coming off a career year in New York and looked like a player reborn. Things didn’t really mesh at first between Bullock and the Mavs, but since the beginning of 2022, he’s entrenched himself as a useful starter who hits from outside at a reasonable rate and doesn’t make mistakes — but the Mavs need more from at least one of their role players if they’re to make a run. Maybe it’s Bullock, who scored 15 points in Game 1. Doncic is still his wunderkind self, an absolute magician on the court, but fitness and injury troubles have at times plagued him this year — he didn’t play the Mavs’ first game of this series. Theo Pinson is also on the bench for the Mavs, providing the same good vibes he did for the Knicks the year prior.
The Mavericks trail the Jazz, 0-1 (see above)
1. Chicago Bulls (#6 seed, East)
I swear, it’s coincidence that Brandon’s favorite team also happens to top this list ahead of the other team with two Tar Heels. First of all, I like Reggie Bullock a lot, but he’s not Coby White, who’s probably the most beloved one-year player in UNC history. Coby’s also more of a contributor to the Bulls than Bullock is to the Mavs; in his first year not worrying about developing into an NBA lead guard, he’s developed into a useful microwave scorer and engine for the Bulls’ second unit while improving on defense to be an above-average perimeter defender. The Bulls also employ Tony Bradley, who plays about 10 minutes a game and provides valuable rim protection and is an absolute vacuum on the boards. The Bulls don’t quite have the shine they did earlier in the season now that their shooting percentages have regressed to the mean and Lonzo Ball’s injury has created a defensive void, but they’re still dangerous, with two of the league’s great isolation scorers in Zach Lavine and DeMar DeRozan and the ability to stifle opposing offenses with great team defense even without Ball if they get their heads right. They looked earlier in the season like a legit title contender, and if they can recapture that form, it’ll be all the sweeter to see two Heels walk home with rings.
The Bulls trail the Bucks 1-0 (see above).