Why do we watch professional sports?
To witness athletes perform incredible feats at peak physical levels? Sure. To cheer on a local squad that has been assembled with players from all over the map? I guess. To ensure that people who play their favourite game for a living earn up to hundreds of times more than even the best of schoolteachers? Sadly, yes.
For many fans though, there’s more than that to it. When we become invested in a league, we start to factor in much more than just the results of each game. Players take on the roles of heroes and villains, teams can uplift or deflate an entire
football region, and athletic success has the power to inspire everyone from soldiers to hospitalized children. Beyond seeing a team assert its dominance over a league, we want our champions to make us feel good about the fact that they won it all, not some less deserving squad.
As ridiculous as it sounds, we want their victory to symbolize the possibility that some kind of moral justice could in fact be governing the sports universe (it would certainly be nice if it governed the regular universe too). So when LeBron melted down in the 2011 Finals after a year of shrugging off backlash from the The Decision, it felt right. And the next year, when he took some responsibility for his unceremonious exit, put in a dedicated offseason of work, and found an extra gear en-route to the Heat winning the title, that felt right too.
As it stands right now, there are eight NBA teams who can claim to have legitimate championship aspirations. Sure, there’s always the possibility that a massive in-season trade (think Pau Gasol in 2008) or an absurd series of injuries could elevate a non-contender to the throne, but for now, let’s just roll with what we know. When one of these eight teams hosts the Larry O’Brien trophy in June, how will we come to terms with it? Which contender has the feel-good appeal to capture our hearts and make our hoop dreams come true? Compelling cases can be made for everyone on the list, but in the end, there’s a clear, bias-free (my beloved Raptors aren’t entering the contender conversation anytime soon) pecking order.
One last thing: you might notice that there’s only one Eastern Conference team on the list. While on one hand it seems presumptuous to think that nobody else has a shot at reaching the Finals, we already saw a Kevin Love-less Cavs team roll through the East last spring without much resistance, and no team did anything this offseason to suggest that we’ll see a different result this time around. Barring any unlikely developments, the Cavs will be one of the last two NBA teams standing. Plus, even if the Bulls, Wizards, Raptors, Heat, or Bucks were to hypothetically run into and beat an injured Cavs squad, you really think they’d have a chance against whoever survives the Western Conference bloodbath? Me neither.
8. Houston Rockets
The Rockets have always been an easy target when it comes to finding reasons not to feel good about a team. Daryl Morey constructed this squad with the same approach that an auto manufacturer brings to building cars: if it’s not efficient, then screw it. He brought in 3-point specialists, free throw magnets, and complementary defensive pieces. His blueprint was successful—at the expense of the rest of the league, who had to sit through Houston’s economical slogfests of basketball in last year’s Western Conference finals.
Still, this is a feel-good ranking, and even the most uninspiring of systems could be propped up by other compensating factors. Unfortunately, the Rockets don’t have many of those either. After whining his way out basketball fans’ good graces and leaving two franchises in shambles, Dwight Howard hasn’t exactly left us pining for him to win a championship. To a lesser degree, you could say the same about new addition Ty Lawson, who became a pretty toxic influence on the Nuggets’ locker room by the end of his time in Denver.
Then there’s James Harden. In OKC, he was like the George Harrison to Durant’s McCartney and Westbrook’s Lennon. After getting traded prematurely, he’s done all the right things and has the Rockets looking like his very own Traveling Wilburys (that reference might be a bit of a stretch for some of you, but it makes sense in this analogy, I swear). Harden is a guy who, in a vacuum, you’d love to see get a shot at a title; but with Houston, the whole package just can’t compare to the other sympathy stories on this list—not to mention that the franchise already has two championships from the Olajuwon era. Most importantly, if Harden finished his career without a ring, it wouldn’t seem like all that much of a travesty. While he’s easily the best two-guard in the game today and was a deserved MVP runner-up last season, those things speak more to circumstance (just wait till Wiggins gets going!) than all-time elite performance.
7. San Antonio Spurs
I know, it feels weird to see the Spurs this far down on the list. After all, they play the game the ‘right way,’ they have humble stars and gracious role players who perpetually sustain basketball nirvana, and Timmy and Pop could potentially ride into the sunset after this season with a well-deserved sixth ring. What’s not to love?
Well, for starters, San Antonio cashed in most of its feel-good chips after winning the 2014 title. That year, coming off a heartbreaking Finals loss to the Heat, we watched in admiration as the team regrouped and won it all by decisively knocking off the same team that robbed it in 2013. Not only was it a victory for a team that had been constantly knocking on the door since its last title in 2007, it was the culmination of the Spurs’ reinvention, one that saw them commit to an innovative pace and space offensive style that has hugely influenced the entire game. You could feel great about the 2014 Spurs. Their championship also gave Tim Duncan his fifth ring, tying him with another modern legend, Kobe Bryant. Considering that Kobe threw away a potential mega-dynasty in the early 2000’s because he couldn’t get along with Shaq while Duncan has been a model of humility and stability, it’s relieving to know that their title count will at least be equal—if not higher on Duncan’s end.
It was fair to think that after San Antonio reloaded with Kawhi Leonard in 2011 and won the 2014 championship, we had probably seen them reach the mountaintop for the last time in the Duncan/Popovich era—even more so after Chris Paul delivered that knockout punch last spring in the greatest first round series ever played. Instead, enter LaMarcus Aldridge. In one fell swoop the Spurs dispatched Portland to the land of mediocrity and enabled themselves to go into the season with another bona fide star in his prime.
By all accounts, Aldridge has always seemed like a nice, hard-working dude, who would certainly be deserving of a ring if he found himself in the right situation (ditto for fellow newcomer David West!). However, this addition has less feel-good impact than Leonard’s did. With Kawhi, the Spurs drafted and developed a young star who gave them the fresh legs they needed to extend their run. It was rewarding to see that method pay off in a league where their challenger from the East was built through a series of unprecedented free agent coups. The Spurs have every right to go out and sign big name players like the rest of the league does, but after seeing them finally do it, it sort of dampens their mystique and makes the idea of them winning it all a little less heartwarming.
6. New Orleans Pelicans
Remember the 2011 Thunder? How we thought they were still a year or two away and then they came within three games of the Finals? That’s why the Pelicans are here. Of all the teams on this list, they have the least realistic odds of actually winning the title, but certainly not the worst case for why they should win it.
As even the casual basketball observer can tell, the Pelicans do not have a well-constructed roster. I’m sorry, three years after landing a generational superstar in the Lottery, you CANNOT surround him with Ryan Anderson, Omer Asik, and the Tyreke/Jrue/Eric Gordon guard puzzle and just hope for the best. LeBron did okay in Cleveland with a mediocre supporting cast, but he also played in the East and ended up leaving in his prime. Unlike Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, and Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis will not have the luxury of playing with a second legit star in his early years. Nevertheless, he’s still the mighty Brow, and as long as he’s healthy, his squad has the slimmest of shots at a championship.
Just imagine this type of a scenario: Davis leads the Pellies to the sixth seed in the West. In Round 1 they run into a Spurs team that hasn’t totally gelled with LaMarcus, they expose San Antonio’s vulnerabilities, and win in six. Next they face a dangerous Clippers team who goes up 3-0 but ultimately folds in seven because Chris Paul is apparently destined to never play past the second round. In the conference finals they get the rejuvenated Thunder, who look like a lock to move on, until Durant or Westbrook reaggravates an injury and we find out what it looks like when Dion Waiters and Enes Kanter are relied upon to produce in critical playoff situations. Then in the Finals, New Orleans is matched against a Cavs team that played down to their competition in the East and is woefully underprepared for a title run. LeBron has lost a step, Kyrie forgets how to pass, and Kevin Love is still inexplicably underutilized. The Pelicans win!
That all seemed plausible, right? OK, maybe not, but it would be frickin awesome if all those things broke right for them. You’d have Davis leading the team to the greatest underdog achievement since Dodgeball, we’d get a whole bunch of shots of the French Quarter going insane, Ryan Anderson would have something magical to celebrate after navigating through heartbreaking loss with dignity and courage, and Kendrick Perkins might even crack a smile. So many feels!
The only reason they’re not higher on this list is that the Pelicans’ championship window just recently creaked open. If he wasn’t playing basketball, Anthony Davis would’ve graduated from university this year, and as scary as it sounds, his prime likely won’t begin until a couple seasons from now. It’s hard to feel totally great about a miraculous Pellies title run when it would have to come at the expense of other stars who won’t still be dominating in 2021.
5. Golden State Warriors
As far as feel-good stories go, the 2014-15 Warriors are way up there. They were a team composed of underdogs in starring roles and established names who graciously sacrificed for the greater good. You couldn’t have scripted a better scenario than Andre Iguodala shutting down LeBron in the Finals and being named the series MVP after deferring his starting lineup spot to Harrison Barnes in training camp. Not only did Golden State dispel the myth that a ‘jump shooting team’ couldn’t win the title, they utterly dominated the league for eight months by playing one of the most fun, watch-able brands of basketball in NBA history. We could root for them easily and bask in the on-court beauty of it all.
So now that they took care of business, how are we supposed to feel about them? It’s not exactly clear. Roster-wise, not much has changed, save for the addition of reserve center Jason Thompson, who is certainly worthy of some playoff success after sticking it out in basketball wasteland (Sacramento) for almost a decade. Steve Kerr has been battling health issues that have kept him from coaching during the preseason, but he looks to be recovering and should be available soon. Since there’s been such little change, you’d assume that they’d be treated like any other champion who stays intact would coming into a season. However, there’s a bit of a sense around the league that they got ‘lucky’ on the road to their title, and it’s less of a momentous achievement because they never had to face the Spurs, Clippers, or a healthy Cavs team. That perception definitely adds a bit of feel-good potential to this team, because if they were to repeat as champs, they’d be able to overcome the doubters and we’d enjoy the fact that they were sort of underdogs again.
But when it comes down to it, that angle just doesn’t hold a ton of weight. Golden State’s roster is absolutely loaded from top to bottom, and they are easily the most talented team in the league. Nobody wins without a bit of luck, and the Warriors aren’t sneaking up on anyone. They’re still a super likable team that could win again for all the right reasons, but they’re not quite as endearing as last year’s surprising, unconventional juggernaut.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder
Since relocating to Oklahoma City in 2008, the Thunder have been the NBA’s preeminent feel-good franchise (minus the part about Seattle being robbed of the SuperSonics). A big part of that comes from the charm of playing in a small city with only one professional sports team. Yet, while the Spurs (who are in the same situation) are admired for their basketball savvy and class, we grew to love the Thunder because they were a young, fun team on the rise that was built through the greatest three-year stretch of drafting in league history.
The first four years in OKC were like a prelapsarian dream; the team just kept ascending, making incremental progress every season, which culminated in its 2012 Finals loss to the Heat. After the shocking Harden trade, they were no longer in a state of blissful innocence, they were victims of cruel experience (the threat of luxury tax). But, other than the fact that Clay Bennett and Sam Presti ruined the greatest young core of players ever by being total cheapskates, they were still a major feel-good team. In fact, if anything, we could feel even better about them, because they were winning in spite of the team’s personnel decisions, not because they got unprecedentedly lucky. They’ve also dealt with more critical playoff-affecting injuries than any other team in basketball since that Finals loss (Westbrook in 2013, Ibaka in 2014, Durant in 2015). The Oklahoma City Thunder wholeheartedly deserve our sympathy.
Does that mean they would make for the best feel-good story by capturing the 2015-16 title? I don’t think so. Yes, Durant might leave as a free agent next summer, and yes, the front office fired its beloved but overmatched coach and dipped into the luxury tax, all in the hope that KD will be swayed by how seriously the organization is committed to winning. But I’m not convinced that a Thunder title is what us moralists should be hoping to see.
When Durant signed his six-year extension in 2010, the sky was still the limit. He had Russ and James by his side, and there was no reason to think that they wouldn’t contend for multiple championships together. The past three years have taught us how fickle that expectation was. If the Thunder don’t win it all this year, KD will have to choose between playing for the only team he has ever known or taking his talents (*cringes*) elsewhere for a more promising situation—and there will be many attractive suitors out there for him.
Let’s imagine it gets to that point. Wouldn’t it be incredible if he chose to stay in OKC and then won his first title? After what’s transpired recently, he has plenty of reason to think that the stars won’t ever align in Oklahoma City for a championship, but if he stayed, it would be the ultimate declaration of faith for a franchise and city who absolutely worship him. It would be that critical ordeal in the hero’s journey where the hero is challenged like never before, but rises to the occasion and becomes legendary. It’s similar to the choice LeBron faced in 2010, but unlike the Cavs, who never managed to surround him with a second viable star until 2014, OKC has one in Westbrook—and Ibaka’s a hell of a cornerstone too.
So to recap, the Thunder have gone through a pretty tough stretch recently. They’ve got amazing fans, endearing superstars, and would absolutely be one of the best possible feel-good stories if they were to finally break through and win it all this season. But if it happens next season, with a recommitted Durant, it’ll be on a whole other level of feel-goodery.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
Now, you’re probably wondering how a notoriously whiny, overly glamorous team like this could leapfrog the lovable Warriors and small-town studs in Oklahoma City. Before I explain, let’s get all the bad stuff out of the way.
In no particular order: Chris Paul is an annoying micro-manager, Blake is too flashy for his own good, DeAndre is the reason Dirk will be wasting another one of his twilight years, Doc the GM does more questionable things than Rob Ford, Paul Pierce has embraced the trolling old man role way too much (okay, maybe there’s a tiny bit of Raptors bias in this article), Lance Stephenson is a tool, J.J. Redick went to Duke, Steve Ballmer acts like a lunatic during games, and the new uniforms are garbage. I think that’s everything.
Underneath all that though, the Clippers actually have a lot going for them. First off, this is a team that has taken its share of blows over the past few years. They’ve come out on top of tough series against the likes of San Antonio, Memphis, and Golden State, but they’ve never been able to totally put it all together for a big Finals run. You always feel better about a champion when they’ve had to pay their dues: Jordan’s Bulls had to slog it out against the Bad Boy Pistons, LeBron had to exorcise his Big 3 Celtics demons, and they were better in the end for it. This would apply to no one on the roster more than Paul, who has been one of the best and most consistent to ever play his position. He also might—as alluded to earlier—legitimately be cursed from ever reaching the conference finals.
You also have the Rivers factor. Criticize Doc Rivers’ player acquisition skills all you want, but bringing in his son when nobody else wanted Austin could prove to be a stroke of basketball genius—in addition to already being a sentimental blockbuster. It would be next level heartwarming to see the two of them embrace in June as confetti falls in a raucous Staples Center (or a dejected Quicken Loans arena).
Finally, this is the Los Angeles freaking Clippers we’re talking about! The organization that only recently freed itself from the living piece of fecal matter that calls itself Donald Sterling. While the Lakers got Mikan, The Logo, Magic, Kareem, Shaq, and Kobe, the Clippers got decades of disappointment and embarrassment. If there was ever a squad to rightfully bring this long-suffering franchise a ring, this is it.
2. Memphis Grizzlies
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
Since the mystery of the top-ranking teams on this list has been solved, let’s just tackle them together. In fact, for the purposes of this discussion, it’s actually pretty fitting that they both ended up at the top.
Flashback to May 22, 2003. The NBA Lottery was taking place that night and the Cavs and Grizzlies were hopeful—not to mention regular—participants. The top prize was a once-in-a-generation superstar named LeBron James. While Cleveland had the best odds to land Akron’s prodigal son, Memphis was in an undesirable situation where, with the sixth-best odds, it would only keep its pick by landing in the top spot. Otherwise, it would ship the pick to Detroit, per the stipulations of a dumb trade from 1997.
Keeping the pick was a tall order. Yet, as it turned out, Memphis did move up from its original slot, and, with the bottom 11 picks decided early in the broadcast, it was the Nuggets, Cavaliers, and Grizzlies who had a shot at King James. For that brief commercial break during the Lottery, Memphis had a realistic hope that LeBron might fall into its lap. But as we know, Cleveland’s odds held up, Memphis gave up the number two pick, and the Pistons somehow won the 2004 championship despite picking Darko Milicic in an absolutely loaded draft.
Flash forward twelve years later and a lot has happened. LeBron made Cleveland a contender, left it in shambles, and then returned to smooth things over once it had accumulated enough assets to make his homecoming worthwhile. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies have methodically dug themselves out of obscurity and built one of the strongest rosters in the league by developing draft picks, making smart trades, and signing the right complementary pieces. Cleveland is now contending because it won three lotteries in a four year span, happens to be located in the area where the greatest basketball player on earth was born, and conveniently cashed in on said player’s regional pride/remorse; Memphis has had no such arbitrary advantages.
In Big 4 sports culture, there’s a tendency to rag on Cleveland for being a cursed, miserable sports town. Since the Browns captured the 1964 NFL title, it’s suffered through The Drive, The Shot, The Fumble, The Decision, and dozens of other heartbreaking losses. Clevelanders have every right to feel pissed off and sick of it all. But you know what? At least they’ve had glory days. At least grandparents can tell their children’s offspring that they watched the great Jim Brown run over helpless defenders every Sunday. Guess how many championships Memphis can celebrate? None! The Grizzlies and neighbouring Nashville Predators have never made it beyond the conference finals, and the one time the Tennessee Titans made it to the Super Bowl, they lost in one of the most frustrating ways possible.
So if Memphis can hold its own against Cleveland in the misery arena, has caught none of the lucky breaks that the Cavaliers have, and boasts a roster full of tough, skilled, high-character guys, then why are the Grizzlies not ranked number one?
Let’s break it down.
Even though it kind of feels like—given everything that’s been said—it would be poetic justice for Memphis to defeat Cleveland in the Finals, it wouldn’t, because of the opportunity cost. In a world where only one NBA champion can be crowned every season, there’s only a small number of teams who can rightfully say that they were one of them. Because of this exclusivity, we should feel good when the team with the trophy is truly the best one the league had to offer that year. More than in any other team sport, individual basketball players are afforded the chance to tip the odds in their team’s favour. And when a player is the league’s alpha dog and has a good enough supporting cast, he is expected to deliver a championship.
Despite the lurking advances of Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, and Steph Curry, LeBron James is still the best basketball player in the world. He has been the NBA’s alpha dog since the late 2000’s, and he’s won two titles in that span. There’s only been one occasion where he’s played with a favoured supporting cast and come up short. The 2014 Heat/2015 Cavs were overmatched for various reasons against far superior teams, so they don’t qualify as having had favoured supporting casts. The 2011 Heat were a different story.
As I wrote earlier, LeBron had tipped the karmic scales against himself that year, and it felt right for him squander a title that was his for the taking. Although Dirk Nowitzki is a bona fide superstar and the Mavericks played a masterful series, that 2011 squad will go down as a team that won because it peaked at the luckiest time (unlike the 2015 Warriors, who don’t deserve such criticism, and were a historically dominant team from start to finish). Only because the Miami Heat had such a villainous aura did we feel good about the fact that the best player in the game melted down against a well-refined but ultimately less talented challenger.
That’s what Memphis would represent, and it’s tough not to slot it in as the top team on this list. In addition to being a hard-working contender, the Grizzlies have what is arguably the league’s best feel-good roster. Marc Gasol is a worthy franchise cornerstone who loves playing for Memphis, and, although he isn’t quite on Pau’s ‘possibly the nicest human being in the entire world’ level, he seems like a great dude; Mike Conley is quiet, humble, and tough as nails; Z-Bo and Vince Carter are former cautionary tales who redeemed themselves and found a perfect home in Graceland; Tony Allen is the physical embodiment of ‘defense wins championships;’ Jeff Green asked to be removed from the starting lineup for the good of the team; and Brandan Wright is an underrated stud. These guys rock.
But if they win it all, they would have to follow that 2011 Mavs blueprint and play their asses off while all the major breaks fall their way. In a vacuum it would be great to see that happen, but Memphis is already a fringe contender—probably a solid notch below where the Mavs were at—and them winning a championship would be only slightly less shocking than New Orleans winning one.
The clock is ticking on LeBron’s career, and he’s only got a limited number of opportunities left to be the ultimate hometown hero and lead Cleveland to its first title in over 50 years. You could argue that he’s tried to present himself as some kind of Messiah (see The Letter) and should be knocked down a peg rather than find success so early in his second Cavs stint, but that would be nitpicking way too hard. LeBron has already been harshly exposed for one legitimately awful PR move, and he hasn’t done anything wrong this time around. Just roll with it and enjoy the fact that one of the best possible storylines in sports could come to fruition in June.
Also, there’s something about the feel-good potential of this year’s Cavs team that seems way better than last year’s. The beginning of its era was characterized by sloppy play, questions about Kevin Love fitting in, an in-season LeBron vacation, and Dion Waiters. Although most of those red flags were erased in the second half of the season and during the team’s gritty playoff run, something felt wrong about the idea of them scraping their way to a championship while Love rode the bench in a suit. Now that he’s on board for the long haul and the growing pains are through, we’ll get to see what this team is really capable of accomplishing. Plus, the idea of stellar supporting cast members like Timofey Mozgov, Tristan Thompson, Anderson Varejao, Iman Shumpert, and cult hero Matthew Dellavedova getting rings is something we can all look forward to.
One day I’m sure some special Grizzlies squad will have all the right pieces fall into place and win it all, but in the meantime, nobody will make us feel better about being an NBA champion than the 2015-16 Cavs.