Late April is upon us, bringing as it does each year tax debt, allergies, and the Eastern Conference playoffs. Of these three, I am unsure which is the least welcome. There are two teams in the East with even a puncher’s chance of winning the NBA title, and the rest of the conference is shot through with nearly unwatchable mediocrity and teams that play something they call basketball but should not be recognized as such.
The grisly circus kicked off on Saturday with the Wizards beating the Raptors 93–86 in a game in which neither team cracked 40 percent from the field. Somehow this contest was allowed to go into overtime. The following night I tried to watch the Atlanta Hawks play the Brooklyn Nets and was interrupted by my cat making strange, vaguely occult howling noises from the other room, as though he was trying to warn me of something.
His cries have gone unheeded. This past year I’ve carved out an occasional beat as Slate’s chronicler of terrible hoops, and this work sadly does not end with the regular season. Below is a field guide to the Eastern Conference playoffs. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll read it, skip the forthcoming games, and stay up late to watch the Western Conference, which in a better world than this would be known simply as “the NBA.”
1. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks are the latest in what feels like an annual NBA tradition: the team with the great regular-season record that nonetheless provokes an almost superstitious mistrust with regard to their title prospects. (Last year this team was the top-seeded Indiana Pacers; the previous season the distinction fell to the 57-win Denver Nuggets. Remember them? Probably not.) I hope the Hawks prove this wrong, and there’s no question that this is one of the two best teams in the conference by a considerable margin. The Hawks play a fluid and immensely unselfish brand of basketball, though their lack of a discernible star has led to a casual perception that the team is boring. This couldn’t be further from the truth, and the longer they hang around, the better. Time for these Hawks to fly.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavs entered the postseason as title favorites, a somewhat strange designation as they weren’t even the best team in this dumpster fire of a conference. One reason the Cavs are favorites is that in basketball the individual brilliance of a single player (in this case, LeBron James, the best basketball player on Earth) can vault a team to greatness more decisively than in other sports. The other reason that the Cavs are favored is that the Eastern Conference field is so bad that there’s a belief that the Cavs’ presumptive march through the postseason will be a bit of a cakewalk, and by the time they reach the Finals they’ll simply have more in the tank than their Western Conference opponent—they’ll have played fewer games, rested players during early-round blowouts, had the liberty to strategically take their foot off the gas. Perhaps you have no problem with this state of affairs, but if so you probably also have your own personal rankings of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony albums.
3. Chicago Bulls
The drop-off after the first two seeds is steep and brutal. It’s doubtful that any of the 3–5 seeds in the East would beat a 6 or 7 seed in the West. The Bulls are a good team occasionally perched on the verge of being great, but Derrick Rose is stalked by tragedy, and they’re probably going to have a new coach next year. There’s little capacity for surprise here.
4. Toronto Raptors
“The 6 ain’t friendly, but that’s where I lay up,” declared Torontonian Drake on 2014’s best hip-hop track, a hilariously inaccurate description of a lovely city populated by lovely people. The 2014–15 Raptors are a scrappy bunch led by irascible point guard Kyle Lowry, perhaps the least Drake-like player in the NBA. They are also already down to Washington early in the series and appear not long for this mortal coil.
5. Washington Wizards
Washington is a talented team with real personality and a stupid name, destined to be cursed for as long as they deny fans the opportunity to hear the Clash’s “Washington Bullets” before home tipoffs. They’re led by an incandescent point guard in John Wall, an oft-injured but gifted shooting guard in Bradley Beal, and a lion-in-winter–phase Hall of Famer in small forward Paul Pierce, who just gave one of the greatest interviews of any pro athlete in recent memory. Unfortunately, Randy Wittman is a bad coach, and if they make the second round he’ll probably keep his job, further damning Wizards fans everywhere.
6. Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks are an interesting team, both in the genuine sense and the euphemistic one in which interesting becomes a polite way to avoid saying good. They have the electrifying talent of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the herky-jerky point guard play of Michael Carter-Williams (no one seems able to decide whether MCW is actually good, including MCW himself), and the vastly improving coaching of Jason Kidd. Because they’re the Bucks, few people outside the Milwaukee area have watched them, but they’re an appealing team that is at least a year away from significance.
I am a lifelong Celtics fan and unreasonably proud of what this team has accomplished. They scraped out a 40–42 record, good for the 16th-best mark in the NBA, which means that even if the NBA seeded the entire postseason simply by record, the Celtics would still get in. And yet the Celtics went 12–4 in their division, including 7–1 against the Knicks and the Sixers, two of the worst basketball teams in the universe, and an additional 3–1 against Brooklyn (more about them below). This year’s Celtics are already close to being eliminated by the Cavs in a series they never had a prayer of winning, and it’s unclear that a first-round playoff exit gives the team more value than a pick in the draft lottery. One could argue that the team is gaining “playoff experience,” but given how few players on the Celtics seem resolutely assured of figuring into the team’s long-term future, I’m not entirely sure how much that’s worth.
I’m happy the Celtics are in the playoffs. But should playing hard and not trying to lose against teams who aren’t trying to win really be enough to land you in the postseason? Academic questions, perhaps, but not asking them feels like capitulating to cynicism.
8. Brooklyn Nets. Oh, God. With sincere apologies to the world’s greatest borough, this is the least likable team in the NBA, a squad of overpaid underachievers who lack the requisite personality to even be called malcontents. The Brooklyn Nets have no business still playing basketball, and the fact that they took this spot from the Indiana Pacers—a team that overcame genuine adversity this season and would have probably put up an interesting first-round fight with the return of Paul George—makes it all the more distasteful. Talentwise the Nets are capable of decent ball, but that would require learning each other’s names first; instead they are an unfunny workplace comedy reimagined as a basketball team. Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri had it right last year.