The NBA — Who Do You Like?

SportsAttic’s blog heading today doesn’t refer to “The Association’s” 2021 playoff contenders, but rather to those players we identify most closely with when we think of professional basketball.

The NBA markets its stars harder than any other league, so it stands to reason that when the number of likable players begins to dwindle, the success of the league hangs in the balance.

Hang on, though, because in a way it does always hunt back to the franchise, doesn’t it? As of this writing, there are six teams still alive in the NBA Playoffs, and by the end of the weekend, we should have our Final Four. And truth be told, I’m having a heck of a time choosing a bandwagon to ride because there are so few players I can stand anymore.

The Nets would be the easy one, but as has been discussed multiple times on these pages, this year’s Nets edition is just so damn hard to root for. Maybe if Kyrie stays injured? Yes, that does help, but somewhere along the line Kevin Durant went from this sweet-shooting basketball savant to one of the biggest horse’s asses in professional sports. And even with performances like his other-worldly Game 5, when he played all 48 minutes and went for 49 points, I still can’t get onboard with a franchise where KD is the face.

Okay, then how about the Nets opponent in their upcoming Game 7 today, the Milwaukee Bucks? Nah, I don’t like them either. Giannis just doesn’t do it for me (one-dimensional, and what’s with this insistence on shooting the three when it obviously hurts the team?). Besides, the Bucks are just so damn bland and have been ever since they traded Kareem to the Lakers. Next.

The Hawks or the Sixers? Well ,let’s start with Philly. Okay, we can end there, too. It’s Philly, and I don’t root for any teams from Philadelphia. Besides, I think Ben Simmons may be the most overrated star in the league today, and Joel Embiid won’t truly earn his superstar chops until he puts his teammates on his back and wins a close series all by himself.He has that opportunity in their upcoming Game 7, so talk to me tomorrow. Wait, it’s Philly. Forget it.

The Hawks play more of a team ball system than any of the other eastern conference contenders, and I really like head coach Nate McMillan. But they suffer from the fact that they beat the Knicks in Round 1, and I hated them during that series just because. Throw in that I think Trae Young is a punk (a way more talented punk than I gave him credit for entering the playoffs, but a punk nonetheless), and rooting for Atlanta becomes an impossibility..

Maybe the answer lies in the west? I could easily jump on the upstart Phoenix Suns bandwagon if it weren’t for Chris Paul. He may be the best pure point guard and leader of this generation of players, but I still can’t get over the way he quit on Houston against the Warriors a few years back. Plus he’s chippy as hell and his State Farm commercials run way too often.

As a transplanted Southern Californian, I could plant my flag with the Clippers, kind of the basketball version of my New York Mets. They’ve mostly floundered in a two-team market dominated by the Lakers (nee Yankees), so they fit the lovable underdog bill. But how do I reconcile my disdain for Paul George? Major props do have to be given to George for stepping up with Kawhi out the last two games, so maybe another look is warranted, but PG’s presence and past disappearing acts make the Clips a stretch for me.

All of the above has led to some painful soul searching as I reflect on my 50+-year involvement with the National Basketball Association. Have I unwittingly morphed into that old curmudgeon of a fan? The one that sits around complaining about how today’s players can’t hold a candle to the stars of my youth? I mean, give me Willis Reed and Clyde Frazier all day long over today’s pampered and over-entitled “stars,” but that’s not being crusty, just honest, right?

The reality is, when it comes to my beloved Knickerbockers, I’m mostly rooting for the jersey these days (at least when they wear their traditional blue or white uniforms, not those black abominations). True, I learned to like Julius Randle this year, and Mitchell Robinson is fun to watch. I’m hopeful Immanuel Quickley becomes a modern-day John Starks, providing energy off the New York bench for the next decade. But it’s the franchise I root for, not this group of players (who happen to be the most likable Knicks we’ve seen in the last fifteen years or so).

Thus the question I lead with in today’s rant…who do you like?

I mean, I could write a book on all the present day players I don’t like (hiya, LeBron), but that’s too easy. Really, who are the players I like in today’s Association? Could I build a 15-man team around them?

After a quick scan of NBA rosters, I am relieved to see that there are still several stars I like, admire, respect, and can root for. Of course that list begins with Dame. Damian Lillard may be my favorite baller of the twenty-first century. Tough, talented, selfless and (if there’s a hoops god) soon to be the Knicks franchise cornerstone.

In addition to Lillard, sticking with just the guards for now, I can add the Splash Brothers in Golden State. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson (hopefully fully recovered in time for next season) remain as much fun to watch in their 30’s, for their all-around talent and approach to the game, as they were during the dynasty days. It will be good for the league if the Dubs can add a couple more pieces this offseason and have the Warriors contend in 2021-22.

Moving south, I’ve always enjoyed Patrick Beverley’s tenacious approach and defense-first mindset. Tough as nails and a great teammate, I’ll have no problem rooting for him (checkmark in the Clips column as I continue to scout for my playoff bandwagon). And now that Kemba Walker is shedding his Celtics green I can resume rooting for him–a class act that makes the players around him better. Meanwhile, Devin Booker is only getting better every year out in the desert.

Jae Morant? I haven’t seen enough of him yet, but there’s potential for him on the radar as a guy to root for down the road. Same goes for Luca Doncic if success doesn’t spoil him along the way. The Balls? Sorry, they may be the greatest guys in the world, but their dad killed any potential appeal for me long ago.

In the front court, I’ll root for Anthony Davis the minute LeBron moves on or should The Brow don another jersey. Put him and Mitch at center on my fantasy squad. Kawhi Leonard is another star that’s easy to root for with his disdain for me-first histrionics and a solid grasp of the fundamentals. Here’s hoping he gets back for the conference finals.

What about Zion, you ask? He’s done nothing to make me root against him, but I’m predisposed as a fan to not gravitate toward those to whom much is given. And I”m not wild about the rumblings coming from New Orleans about him already forcing his way out of town.

The Morris Brothers are two glue guys I respect, and even though I can’t keep who’s who straight between the twins, toughness and a willingness to embrace the enforcer role, while also possessing ball skills, are huge pluses for me. Throw in Robin Lopez for more dirty work and his cool hair, and we have the makings of one hell of a team.

I could go on and on here, and that’s really the point, because now I’m appropriately reenergized by my realization that I don’t need to give up on the NBA just yet. And that there remain stars in the league I can rally around, despite what may be my inexorable march toward curmudgeonhood.

As for the SportsAttic picks for the duration of the playoffs? Clippers over the Suns in the west. Sixers and Bucks survive in the east. And look for the Sixers to advance in a seven-game battle. But that will be the end of the line for Doc Rivers and his crew of underachievers.

It’s the Clippers year, and they will ride a healthy Kawhi and a rejuvenated PG to the first title in franchise history.

The NBA — it can still be FAN-tastic!

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