The Attraction of Struggle Play

The most fun NBA teams to watch aren’t necessarily the best


I got around to updating my favorite teams and players on a popular sports app, and noticed a significant change since last season: my former favorites had, well, fallen out of favor. Some of this was due to some favorite players switching teams (usually via trade); I tend to follow players, not teams (except for my beloved San Antonio Spurs, with whom I’ve been rolling since I was 17 years old. I’m 42 now.). For the most part, the teams that have dropped in my rotation are not the ones performing poorly. In fact, they’re doing quite well.

This personal trend is reflected when I flip through the NBA League Pass schedule. Whether games are on League Pass or nationally televised, my selection process with regard to most of my “favorites” is to ignore most of the popular games in favor of the ones where the outcome is not as certain, except when said teams are playing the Spurs (and if anyone has been paying attention to the Spurs so far, you know that their basketball dominance is not a sure thing, either). This means that when the Oklahoma City Thunder are playing, I know that Russell Westbrook will be doing Westbrook things, and Durant will be the other part of the lethal 1–2 punch, and Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams will probably be awesome. I know that Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors will make an absurd amount of three-pointers as the championship team guns to defend their title (and try to earn genuine respect around the league), and keep the Warriors on every reporter’s lips. The Los Angeles Clippers’ Blake Griffin will continue to throw lobs to DeAndre Jordan for alley-oops, in between showcasing his ramped-up mid-range game and the occasional highlight reel of a dunk. LeBron James, as judge, jury, and executioner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, will carry the team on his increasingly sore back to the NBA Finals, or die trying.

*yawn* Wake me up when something interesting happens.

Well-playing (and yes, high-scoring) teams make good column copy for reporters and bloggers, and boost sales of everything from jerseys, to sneakers, to sports drinks. It is what it is, and it’s the basis of what makes capitalism so great. The Warriors, which boasts the basketball equivalent of Beyonce in reigning league MVP Curry (with all that entails), is the league’s current feel-good story and cash cow. While there are many who tune in to see Curry drop thirty to fifty points (or more) a night while defending the team’s current undefeated record (at the time of this publication), or to watch James will his merry band of oft-injured miscreants to a win, there are others for whom the displays of perfection are rather boring.

It’s not always about the underdog, but the unexpected.

Familiarity breeds contempt, whether you’re winning, or losing, or seeking to upgrade (hi, Los Angeles Lakers).

I’ve found that the more fun games, the ones that make me glad I ponied up the League Pass fee, the ones that have me watching archived games even after I know the final score, are the ones where the outcome is not that certain. Even the Spurs, long heralded as the model major league sports franchise, period, have messed up the betting lines in Vegas by losing games they were predicted to win in an over/under (hi, Washington Wizards, and your heart-stopping, game-winning shot against the Spurs).

The Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans are struggling in ways no one saw coming, and the Hornets, who have historically performed poorly against the playoff-projected Chicago Bulls, opened up a can of whoop-ass to the tune of a recent 25-point blowout that gave them their first win of the season. The Philadelphia 76ers are proving that they may not be as much of a joke as others think, while the Detroit Pistons making folks sit up and take notice. The Milwaukee Bucks are on a winning streak while the Minnesota Timberpups…er, Timberwolves, aren’t racking up that many wins but are showcasing impressive effort, especially in the wake of head coach Flip Saunders’ untimely death. Most of the teams I’ve mentioned are in the weaker Eastern Conference, but they are still intriguing to watch this season — and I normally don’t pay much attention to the Eastern Conference.

I freely admit to an element of schadenfreude, as I am among those waiting for the highly touted to bite the dust (mainly out of a fervent wish to not hear so much about them. Call it The Beyonce Principle), or to finally crash and burn so that the healing can begin (I’m side-eyeing you, Sacramento Kings). Despite that, the truest basketball seems to live among those teams who are currently performing against type and hype. It’s why I choose the Hornets 2.0** over the Thunder, or the Orlando Magic over the Miami Heat, or the Celtics over the Cavaliers (actually, I choose anyone over the Cavs). I like the unpredictability of the games. I like seeing the players adapt (or not). I like being surprised.

I am in the minority, as most are happy to watch the spherical derrings-do of the league’s darlings du jour as much as possible, even when they are beating up on less talented teams. As for me and my house, I’ll paraphrase poet Emma Lazarus: give me your tired (of being marginalized), your poor (records), your huddled masses yearning to have a breakout season. I lift my League Pass beside the playoff door!

Thanks for stopping by.

**I consider the Larry Johnson/Muggsy Bogues-era Hornets, before the sale/move to New Orleans, as Hornets 1.0

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