An NBA championship is the ultimate symbol of a successful season. But only one team can win it. For the 29 other franchises that don’t get to swim to sports immortality through a lake of moderately priced Champagne, deeper, more existential questions await. Questions like: Were we close? How close were we? Is this as good as it gets?
So, what makes a season a success?
Tier 1: Win or Die
AP Photo/Ben Margot
Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors aren’t just the best team in the league. They’re having one of the best regular seasons in NBA history. Their home games, of which they have lost only two, have been rapturous expressions of joy that drive children into out-of-body berserker convulsions.
They are an elite offensive team, powered by MVP candidate Steph Curry’s inner-ear-liquefying ballhandling and space-creating ability to pull up from anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. Their defense is populated by long-armed, fleet-footed athletes, led by Andrew Bogut and the shape-shifting Draymond Green. Beating the Warriors defense is akin to solving a Sphinx’s riddle. “What has 10 arms, five heads, and is always in front of you?”
The Warriors’ net rating stands at a healthy 11.5, comparable with the 2007-08 champion Celtics. Should it hold, their 10.22-point average margin of victory will be the eighth-best mark in NBA history. Of the top-10 teams by margin of victory since 1954-55 (not counting the Warriors) only one, the 1971-72 Milwaukee Bucks, did not win a championship.
And, if all that isn’t enough, they’ve managed to transform Bogut from a moralizing scold who once said his fellow NBA players “get caught up in the hype and do video clips with rappers and all that crap” into a dude who happily sings along with trap music.
What would make this season worth it? The title. You can’t put up regular-season numbers like this and expect anything less. Plus, there’s the spectre of Green’s impending free agency. The time is right now.
Tier: 1.5 Nothing Left to Say
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San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs treat the regular season the way Sonoran desert toads treat drought: as something to be endured, until the spring rains return and stir them from their slumber. Of course San Antonio is rounding into shape at just the right time. Of course Tony Parker is playing like Tony Parker again. Of course the Spurs just sonned the pace-setting Warriors, with Kawhi Leonard enveloping Steph Curry like a soft-spoken black-and-pewter sarcophagus.
What would make it worth it: Managing a peaceful transfer of power from the traditional Manu-Tim-Tony troika to upcoming restricted free agent Leonard, so that San Antonio can continue to haunt the Western Conference for another decade. From the outside looking in, the Spurs are in an amazing place. They’ve been in title contention since the end of Clinton’s second term. We’ve been waiting for them to be “too old” since Bush’s second term. In 2011, they lost in the first round to Memphis. Three years later they won the title. From an expectations standpoint, they’re playing with house money.
Tier 2: Reach for the Ceiling
Every other team in the NBA should be quietly thanking LeBron James. The sports-media industrial complex is composed of moths, and he is the lone light bulb. For the most part, the rest of the NBA gets to play in the shadows. As with Kobe before him, the spotlight that follows LeBron ends up illuminating those around him, indirectly defining them by the way they relate to James. Does LeBron get along with Kevin Love? Is David Blatt the coach or the guy whose job it is to relay James’s play calls to the rest of the team? This is the price of superstardom.
Despite all the white noise, the Cavs have rounded into a fearsome matchup nightmare. Their post-All-Star-break net rating is a hale and hearty 9.6 and their starting five of Irving, J.R., LeBron, Love, and Mozgov is among the league’s elite five-man lineups. Hollinger’s playoff odds has the Cavs at essentially a coin flip (49.1 percent) to make the NBA Finals.
What would make it worth it: Not getting to the Finals would be seen as a disappointment. But if there’s one thing we know about the Cavs this season, perceptions end up having lives of their own. If the Cavs don’t win the title, the most important thing for the franchise will be that Kevin Love not be considered the reason why.
This season, the Hawks became a beacon for progressive-minded basketball aficionados who can’t get enough Popovich. In late December and January, Atlanta won 19 games in a row, which put them in a four-way tie with the 1999-2000 Lakers, 2008-09 Celtics, and 2013-14 Spurs for sixth-longest win streak in league history. Of that group, only the 2008-09 Celtics did not make an NBA Finals.
The Hawks are fourth in the league in net rating (5.8) and average margin of victory (5.68), right behind the Spurs, whose basketball blueprint they have shamelessly cribbed. Atlanta spent much of the season as the consensus best team in the Eastern Conference, before the post-bowling Cavs emerged as an offensive force. The Hawks’ starting five collectively won the January Player of the Month award, which depending on your worldview was either a classy acknowledgment of Atlanta’s penchant for “playing the right way” or an eye-roll-inducing gesture designed to set the precedent for giving the executive of the year award to the entire organization instead of Danny Ferry, wherever he may be.
What would make it worth it: Making the conference finals. The Hawks’ peculiar construction and quasi-socialist philosophy make them a symbol for a certain aspirational style of play and conversely temper expectations. The traditional star system is so entrenched that a loss to Cleveland in the conference finals wouldn’t really surprise anyone. Atlanta’s success, as head-turning as it may be, has so little precedent that it’s almost impossible to comprehend. Las Vegas favors the Cavs to make the Finals over the Hawks, as do John Hollinger’s playoff odds.
Los Angeles Clippers
Chris Paul is about to hit 30, and his Q rating has morphed, over the course of the last few years, from “point god” to “great player who we feel comfortable making fun of.” Paul’s MVP-caliber season has been quietly undercut by Doc Rivers’s constant campaigning for DeAndre Jordan — a looming free agent — to be the defensive player of the year. The patchwork ruin of a second unit was assembled by Rivers, apparently from a six-year-old scouting report. The Clippers starting five of Paul, J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes, Blake Griffin, and Jordan have logged the most minutes of any five-man lineup in the NBA this season. And, if that weren’t enough skin in the game, this summer Doc needs to figure out if he’s going to re-sign his own son.
What would make it worth it: Western Conference finals. Anything short of that poses tough questions for the franchise. Questions like: How much do I love my son?
Dwight Howard has missed large chunks of the regular season, during which it has become apparent that James Harden is the straw that stirs Houston’s drink, in addition to being the glass, the ice, and the booze. Arguably no player is as integral to his team as Harden is to the Rockets. It is because of his incredible consistency that the Rockets have managed to overcome a rash of injuries to thrive in the brutal Western Conference.
What would make it worth it: A strong second-round showing. Losing Patrick Beverley to a wrist injury for the rest of the season gives Houston an excuse, but MVPs should not lose in the first round.
Tier 3: Just Escape
AP Photo/Brandon Dill
There may be no bigger transactional swing for the fences than the midseason trade by a contending team. For every Pau Gasol to the Lakers, Rasheed Wallace to the Pistons, or Dikembe Mutombo to the Sixers, there’s an Evan Turner to the Pacers or Rajon Rondo to the Mavs. Basically, if you’re not getting a star player in his prime, maybe think twice about upsetting your chemistry.
Which brings us to the shooting-starved, grit-and-grind Memphis Grizzlies. The addition of Jeff Green has brought athleticism — peace be upon you, Kevin Seraphin — and much-needed deep shooting, but the Grizz’s defensive rating balloons from 92.7 points per 100 possessions when Green is on the bench to 103.1 when he plays.
What would make it worth it: Marc Gasol has lived in Memphis since the days when he was known as Pau’s unheralded, fat kid brother. Back when he was a rookie — A ROOKIE! — he went to the press to argue against trading Mike Conley. Now Gasol is a slimmed-down veteran star with a well-crafted skill set who appears to have little desire to leave the Grizzlies or tuck into extra helpings of barbecue. A second-round appearance, with the team acquitting itself well enough that Gasol doesn’t think twice about reupping, is what’s required. And Z-Bo choke-slamming Blake Griffin again would be fun too.
Portland Trail Blazers
LaMarcus Aldridge is carrying the team with a torn ligament in his nonshooting hand. Nicolas Batum staggered through most of the season in a post-divorce funk. Dorell Wright has announced his willingness to gut out the rest of the season with a broken bone in his hand, should he be called upon to do so. And the Oregonian is running a multipart long-form series titled “The Rebuilding of Iron Man” about Wes Matthews in the wake of his season-ending, possibly career-altering Achilles injury. So, you know, things could be better. On the bright side, the peculiarities of the NBA’s division structure mean the Blazers will come into the playoffs at the 4-seed.
What would make it worth it: Surviving the playoffs without any further severed limbs; LaMarcus and Matthews re-signing, healthy and whole.
Forget the tumultuous Rondo acquisition and Monta Ellis poisoning the Mavs’ chemistry with acid sulk juice. Forget that Dirk Nowitzki has had a low-key not good season. All that matters is that Mark Cuban and Daryl Morey hate each other. The beef reached a new level when Cubes made the nightclub signing of Chandler Parsons during this past offseason.
It is all but certain that the Rockets and Mavs will meet in the beginning of the postseason. Besides a possible Grizzlies-Clippers matchup, this promises to be the most acrimonious series of the first round.
What would make it worth it: Dallas upsetting Houston, ideally with Parsons hitting the game-winning shot in the series clincher. Cubes does not want to lose this series.
AP Photo/Nell Redmond
Somewhere between November 2012, when David Stern fined the Spurs $250,000 for sitting their aging core of players during a nationally televised game, and June 2014, when those same aging Spurs won the title, conventional wisdom shifted under the feet of Tom Thibodeau. Thibs is the heir to the coaching heritage of Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy, the last NBA hardasses. He is unquestionably an excellent coach, a leader of men, and a talented, league-influencing tactician. He’s also a guy who rides the players he trusts really, really hard, and who leaves the players he trusts less (read: rookies and young guys) to languish astride the pine.
This has led, inevitably, to some friction between Thibs and the Bulls’ front office over matters of philosophy. Minutes restrictions vs. winning every game. Running with your veterans vs. unleashing Mirotic. Scheduling last-minute practices vs. letting guys get some rest.
What would make it worth it: A second-round appearance and a strong showing against the Cavs seem the bare minimum required of a team whose coach’s job is allegedly on the line.
Raptors fans are the most emo in the NBA. When the Raps are playing well, they wonder — loudly, often fairly — why no one is talking about them. When they aren’t playing well — the Raptors have had a bottom-five defensive rating since the All-Star break, and recently lost back-to-back games against the Nets and Celtics — things get decidedly more melancholy. I can always tell how the Raptors are doing by Canadian actress Julie Khaner’s Twitter feed. If she’s tweeting using the hashtag #LimpDickNation, well … I guess it’s obvious how things are going. It’s enough to make one pine for the salad days of #WeTheNorth and Masai Ujiri screaming “FUCK BROOKLYN” to the thousands of Toronto fans packing Maple Leaf Square.
What would make it worth it: Recapturing their mediocre early-season defensive form in time for the playoffs and not getting eliminated in the first round after their GM tells a city to go fuck itself.
Last season, the Wizards’ appearance in the second round was a minor surprise. This year: oh yeah, Randy Wittman!
What would make it worth it: Beating Toronto in a first-round 4-5 matchup of one-armed drunks and replacing Wittman with Mike D’Antoni in the offseason.
Tier 4: As Long As No One Gets Injured
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
New Orleans Pelicans and Oklahoma City Thunder
The two teams fighting it out for the right to get ax-murdered by the Warriors are in totally different places in their respective life-cycles. This was supposed to be OKC’s year before an injury pox devastated the team, ended Kevin Durant’s season, and left Russell Westbrook to hold the line like Frank Miller–era Wolverine fighting off 200 ninjas. This might be heretical, but I kind of hope the Thunder don’t make the playoffs, just so Westbrook can get some rest. Russell slicing across the court like death’s scythe is one of the true thrills in all of sports. But the miles he’s putting on his body in service of this shattered team are concerning.
In New Orleans, Anthony Davis is putting the finishing strokes on arguably the greatest individual season by a 21-year-old in NBA history, despite Pelicans guards not really knowing how to get him the ball. Should Davis’s season PER of 30.8 hold, it would be the 11th-best mark ever, and everyone in slots 1-10 is named Wilt, Jordan, or LeBron.
What would make it worth it: For New Orleans, Anthony Davis putting on a show and gaining valuable experience. For the Thunder, Russell Westbrook not getting hurt while showing Enes Kanter and Waiters Island the playoff ropes.
Tier 5: Target Practice
The Bucks are going to get run by the Bulls, but … PLAYOFF GIANNIS.
What would make it worth it: Giannis gyro steps.
Nets GM Billy King recently vowed to make the team younger and more athletic, which is like climbing to the top of a ladder, standing on the last rung, and vowing to come down.
What would make it worth it: The Hawks have the right to swap first-round picks with the Nets this season as part of the persistent radioactive fallout from the 2012 Joe Johnson trade. Therefore, if Brooklyn gets into the playoffs, it would give the Hawks a not-as-high draft pick and the Nets a microscopic amount of satisfaction.
AP Photo/Mary Altaffer
The Celtics’ young players and young coach could all benefit from some postseason blooding.
What would make it worth it: At least four extra games of Brad Stevens out-of-timeout plays.
Paul George is back from a broken leg and looked much less rusty than anyone anticipated. Look for him to start full-contact catfishing within the next few weeks.
What would make it worth it: Getting Paul George reps. The Hawks or the Cavaliers will beat the Pacers in a seven-game series, but Indiana will make the task as annoying as possible.
AP Photo/Joe Skipper
What would make it worth it: Hassan Whiteside trying to fight Timofey Mozgov.