Spring has sprung upon us, which means we’ve only got a couple of months left before the sports wasteland (even worse for college!) of summer rolls around. Fortunately, we’ve got two excellent postseasons to enjoy before that gets here. Some of you might decide on hockey to occupy your time, free from any Tar Heely thoughts — or might already be bona fide hockey fans, like my THB colleague Al Hood. Still others might have already been watching the NBA with a rooting interest, and thus don’t need suggestions on who to support. But for the group of you who like basketball but don’t typically watch the NBA, I’m here to help. Sports are more fun when you’re rooting for somebody (and arguably even more fun when that rooting is low-stakes), so based on the Heels in the NBA playoffs, here are this year’s NBA Postseason teams ranked by how much Tar Heel pride their winning would engender. Or something like that, at least.
20. New Orleans Pelicans
19. Boston Celtics
18. Golden State Warriors
17. Phoenix Suns
16. Minnesota Timberwolves
15. Atlanta Hawks
14. Toronto Raptors
13. Los Angeles Lakers
12. Los Angeles Clippers
11. Denver Nuggets
10. Oklahoma City Thunder
9. New York Knicks
8. Miami Heat
7. Milwaukee Bucks
6. Memphis Grizzlies
5. Philadelphia 76ers
These teams are all ranked pretty arbitrarily except for the bottom 3, who are there because of the part of me that enjoys being a hater. The Celtics and Pelicans feature three of the league’s most high-profile players who went to Duke — Jayson Tatum in Boston; Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson in New Orleans. Williamson is reportedly “not even close” to being ready to return from a hamstring injury suffered in January, so he likely won’t play in these playoffs, but hateration doesn’t care about logic. And as for the Warriors: nobody likes a repeat champ. Give somebody else a turn.
4. Cleveland Cavaliers (4th Seed in the East)
Cleveland is 35-year old Danny Green’s latest stop in the NBA after he was traded from Memphis and bought out by Houston ahead of the trade deadline. Cleveland’s a really young team, so it’s gotta be good for them to have a guy in the locker room that’s played in as many playoff games as he has (165, to be exact). The Cavaliers are an extremely fun team to watch and it’s great to see them good sans LeBron for the first time in forever, but Green probably won’t really be part of their playoff rotation except for extremely situational circumstances, making them definitely the least UNC-influenced of the playoff teams with a Heel on the roster.
3. Sacramento Kings (3rd Seed in the West)
After both he and his team had languished in mediocrity the past three seasons or so, Harrison Barnes has been part of quite the resurgence in Sacramento. Mike Brown brought over Golden State’s offensive system over in his first year as the Kings’ head coach, and the result has been an offensive dynamo led by a De’Aaron Fox who’s never been better and the newly added Domantas Sabonis who gives the team an inside presence they’ve lacked for years. Barnes is part of a stable of guys who can be the Kings’ 3rd-best player on any given night, and has been as consistent a two-way player for them as they come. He’s averaged 15 points and 4.5 rebounds per game on the season on good efficiency and usually draws the defensive assignment of the opposing team’s best player 2-4. He’s also one of just 10 players to have played all 82 games this season and is a finalist for the Twyman-Stokes Award for the NBA’s best teammate, a testament both to how well he’s taking care of his body and how well-respected he is in the Sacramento locker room. All of that is awesome for him and for the Tar Heels he represents, but for the purposes of this list, he’s already got a ring, so I can’t put his team any higher than this.
2. Chicago Bulls (10th Seed in the East)
The Bulls have had... a tumultuous season, to say the least, at times throughout the season looking like one of the league’s most imposing teams on either end of the floor and at other times looking like a disjointed, offensively challenged mess. That inconsistency defined the end to the Bulls’ season, but within that, Coby White has begun to emerge as a player who’s taking the next step. In his last month and change of play, White has been offensively lethal and looked much more comfortable in all phases of his game, averaging 15 points and 6 assists (to 1.7 turnovers) per game off the bench — up from 9.7/2.8 on the season. If the Bulls are to be the first 10-seed to win a game, let alone two, in the play-in mini-tournament, White will likely be a key factor, and the Bulls will feel quite Heelsy as a result.
1. Brooklyn Nets (6th Seed in the East)
Gone is the attempted Brooklyn superteam of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, and Ben Simmons that was always scary but never all that great. Irving was traded to Dallas and will be watching the playoffs from home. More relevantly, Durant was traded to Phoenix, and in return, the Nets got five first-round picks, Mikal Bridges, and Cam Johnson. Since then, the Nets have been very clearly playing for the future, not the present — they’re 13-15 since the trade, compared to 32-22 before it — but they’re playing much freer than they did, and Bridges has been a revelation in a more featured role. Johnson’s been pretty good as a starter, too, averaging 16.6 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.4 steals per game while sniping at a 37% clip from deep (and that’s low for him; he’ll shoot better as he gets more comfortable with his new teammates and a new home stadium). But he’s only part of the reason for the Nets topping this list. The trade and new approach to the season have also pushed former Tar Heel big Day’Ron Sharpe into Brooklyn’s rotation, and all he’s done is pretty much lead the league in offensive rebounding rate in his minutes off the bench. He’s averaging 6.8 points and 5.1 rebounds in 14.4 minutes per game since the beginning of March and might be needed if only to put a big body on Joel Embiid in the first round of the playoffs. Two Heels, top of the list — that’s just math.