NBA teams all try, with varying degrees of effectiveness and poignance, to win NBA games. You know this already. But in doing that, they unintentionally but inevitably also produce a meditation upon the human condition. The very structure of the game invites psychological inquiry: what other sport requires its athletes to perform in uniforms so near to nakedness, while at the same time allowing paying spectators to sit so close that a single upturned Jumbo Pepsi can stop the show for three minutes? There is a level of individual expression inherent in high-level basketball and a degree of vivid weirdness in the teams that result from all those individuals working in sort-of concert that is unmatched in any other sport. You know this, too.
With their psyches so clearly vulnerable for their audience, each NBA team implicitly practices and promotes their own distinct philosophical worldview, consciously or un-. Here are the questions that each team will be require their fans to confront in the 2013-14 season, ranked by the urgency with which each question must be answered.
1. Minnesota Timberwolves
When oh when will good things ever happen to good people?
After enduring one of the most injury-ravaged seasons in NBA history, League Pass audiences around the world feverishly hope that the T-Wolves’ joints and ligaments will enjoy a period of blessed safety. With some combination of Kevin Love, Alexey Shved, JJ Barea, Nikola Pekovic, and that crafty prince Ricky Rubio on the floor at all times, Minnesota games could be a Shangri-La of one-touch passes and blissful improvisatory delight. Or it could be like every other Wolves season in recent memory. Knowing that it’s all so unjust doesn’t make it any easier to take.
2. (tie) Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs
Am I selling my soul by taking on my 9-to-5 desk job with stability and health benefits when my passport remains so barren and unstamped?
Who knows what it says about our species that we view total dominance and mastery as something boring and staid and almost hateful, especially when compared to airier ideals of potential and possibility. Our hearts may predict a different set of contestants in next June’s Finals, but our heads know that we imagine as much only in a futile attempt to “mix it up.”
To root for the Heat is equivalent to investing in a Silicon Valley startup: the feeling of success will shower down upon you thanks to the brilliance and innovation of others, although you’ll want to be ready to jump to the next startup when this bubble bursts. To root for the Spurs is to commit to 40 Willy Loman-ian years to The Company, allowing the self to be subsumed by the company and its goals, and perhaps by the end to relish the utility and vitality of each and every cog. Other teams on this list may treat you to the lost weekend of your life, and they certainly don’t have a bedtime—but these are the only two that can promise you a warm, home-cooked dinner each night of the week. If that’s what you want.
4. Philadelphia 76ers
Where is the boundary that transforms humility and self-deprecation from admirable trait to uncomfortable quirk?
In the NBA’s answer to the Houston Astros, the 76ers have entirely mortgaged the present for the sake of the future, currently equipped with a starting lineup that uncannily resembles a mid-level bench unit. If Philly is a contender three years from now, will future rebuilding projects around the league be as brazen as this front office in their pursuit of single-digit win totals? And will fans be as aggrieved if the team runs into a couple of shocking wins, as Sixers fans were after the team ran up a 3-0 record, with wins over the Bulls and Heat, in the season’s first week? (The answer to that one is no, as no fans are ever as aggrieved as Philadelphia’s.) Conversely, if this year’s avalanche of losing only begets more losing, will legislators of the future have to institute philosophically advanced addendums to the rulebook in an attempt to prevent this type of madness?
5. Detroit Pistons
Is attempting to become a cooler person a valid path to achieving true self-improvement?
There is nary a sexier team across the entire League Pass palette. The ratio of style to substance remains blissfully unknown at the present—but one can be assured that new genres of style will be concocted by this blessedly refreshed roster. Detroit’s arsenal of Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond, and now Josh Smith may singlehandedly bring the big man back into style in the Association. This team will also feature Brandon Jennings being Brandon Jennings, Rodney Stuckey sort of being Brandon Jennings, and Chauncey Billups continuing to earn a player’s salary despite spending as much time in a suit as the coaching staff. Perhaps most excitingly, this marks the genesis of Rasheed Wallace’s (hopefully) long coaching career. This is not real improvement, not really, but it should be fun.
6. (tie) Golden State Warriors, Washington Wizards
Is it wisdom or folly to pursue a child-like faith?
Like those evolutionary diagrams that show a fish emerging from the waters and becoming a humanoid, these teams are in very different stages along the same continuum of Youth Movement. At the present time the Warriors are walking—and running, running a three-on-one break and taking a three-pointer because whatever—upright and the Wizards are awkwardly scrambling from a crawl into a crouch. Success for these teams in the years ahead would herald the influence of an extraordinarily fresh-faced generation and their corresponding set of commercials. Wherever they end up, it is because they have trusted the child to lead them. A bunch of them, actually.
8. Utah Jazz
Does the absence of parental figures turn a boy into a man?
The multitude of veterans/placeholders that have helped Utah tread water at .500 since trading Deron Williams are all gone. Now young guns Alec Burks (12th overall pick), Gordon Hayward (9th), Trey Burke (9th), Enes Kanter (3rd), and Derrick Favors (3rd) have a nine-month audition to see who justifies their selection and who will soon be contributing from the bench for another team.
9. Toronto Raptors
How much patience can you summon within yourself once all of your patience has been used up?
It’s never been a great time to be a Raptors fan. Nineteen years of basketball in Toronto have yielded zero fifty-win seasons, just four winning seasons, and one playoff series victory. This summer the Raptors spent big on acquiring reigning Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri, a person as qualified as any to free David from this bland cube of Canadian marble. As with Michelangelo, it would be rude to ask if Ujiri is finished yet, especially when he’s just gotten started—as patrons we can only trust that the artist is working towards a productive end. These Raptors will at least be interesting, but never more so than at the trading deadline.
10. (tie) Los Angeles Clippers, New York Knicks
How long/wide is the gap between the end of adolescence and the start of adulthood?
It remains to be seen whether those very marketable Clippers will appear in those late-round playoff games that come run between their heavy-rotation serial commercials. Meantime, Carmelo Anthony has stood for a few years at the same fork in the road—the reputation of Tracy McGrady down one path, the legacy of Dwyane Wade down the other. Traffic is starting to back up behind him. It’s time to go, one way or the other.
12. (tie) Indiana Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder
How long/wide is the gap between entering adulthood and achieving self-actualization?
Both of these teams are solid concrete superstructures in a league where few foundations are earthquake-ready—it’s easy to forget that they were both unsightly piles of rubble as recently as four seasons ago. Both have moved through the standings in a linear line sloping endlessly upward, a trajectory that belies the true difficulties of executing properly in all the years in a rebuilding plan. Russell Westbrook’s unfathomable knee injury in last year’s playoffs marked OKC’s first anxious responses to the suddenly omnipresent demands of real adult life. The thrill of self-improvement has already given way to the anxiety of not getting “over the top”—even if the top is already occupied by two entrenched territorial giants (see numbers 2 and 2a.).
14. Orlando Magic
They say that your true character is revealed by how you act when you think no one is looking—are they right?
After the Howard/Bynum trade scorched the earth for more than one NBA team, it is now obvious that Orlando—initially mocked for not acquiring any “big names” in the deal—definitively won the trade, acquiring their present nucleus of quiet, blue-collar hustlers. Meaning that a team with Stuff the Magic Dragon as its mascot is the same team most likely to appeal to the sort of hoop fundamentalists who appreciate a firmly set pick, tucked-in shirts, and no trash talk. They’re building towards something, whether we watch it or not.
15. Houston Rockets
If I acquire micro-fame on social media, does that mean I am a more interesting person?
Between James Harden’s beard, Chandler Parsons’ handsome face, Jeremy Lin’s ancestry, and Dwight Howard’s essential vexing Dwight Howard-ness, this year’s Rockets will get plenty of buzz. As a team built by and for the 21st century, the question that they seek to answer is not particularly timeless, but it remains particularly relevant.
16. Brooklyn Nets
Should you even have to buy a gift for the person who already has it all?
The Nets ransacked Boston’s crumbling greeting card store, stripping it of its sentiment in order to absorb it into their semi-shady, sprawling international conglomerate. Coverage of the Nets will be predictably tiresome—Twitter will eventually be ablaze with midseason scandal coverage regarding who exactly is responsible for that unholy fart that was unleashed in the locker room (Tootgate, it will be called, and it will be Reggie Evans). The team will be the spectacle that it clearly wants to be—but will it be anything else? Will all of the preseason excitement inspire Jason Terry to acquire another comically regrettable tattoo? Don’t worry, you’ll hear about it.
17. (tie) Chicago Bulls, Memphis Grizzlies
Will I arrive at my desired station in life faster by working 60-hour weeks? 70? How much does it take?
It’s teams like these that make the rule of crowning only one NBA champion a year feel like a cruel deprivation. Nobody would argue that these are anything but remarkably well-built teams; no team is excited to see them looming on their schedule—one can only imagine the line for the ice bath post-game in the opposing locker room. But try to work out a scenario in which these teams are the Last Team Standing in June and it involves a pristine record of good luck for the Bulls or Grizzlies as well as all manner of hexes and catastrophes befalling other competitors. In the meantime we can trust that both teams will go balls-out in not just dreaming the impossible dream but working impossible hours to achieve that impossible goal. No matter how short a rotation or how many minutes per player seems to be required. Admire it as much as you like.
19. Cleveland Cavaliers
Is it optimistic or delusional to plan for the best-case scenario?
Despite the presumed development of Kyrie Irving (first overall pick) and Tristan Thompson (4th), and the arrival of Dion Waiters (4th), last year’s Cavaliers did even worse than the 2011-12 edition, slumping from a .318 winning percentage down to .293, earning them their third first overall pick since 2003; they used it on Anthony Bennett, who scored two points through the team’s first three games. If the metaphorical ball bounces in the Cavaliers’ favor as often as the lottery ping-pong balls have, we could have a new perennial Eastern Conference contender starting as early as this spring. All of this speculation, of course, is prelude to the biggest and craziest hope at all: that Cleveland, jilted lover, can finally convince their prodigal beau that they have finally gotten a job and they have worked on that anger issue and they are ready to get back together again baby let’s give it one more chance. (They could, of course, become a good team without LeBron, but this is the more emotional route.)
20. Boston Celtics
If I am the type of person who has a mighty fire burning in my bosom, are there any situations in which I should voluntarily extinguish it?
This question is not concerned with the majority of Celtics roster—cobbled together under obligation by an enterprising accountant instead of by a competitive GM—but rather exclusively with Gerald Wallace, stalwart FreeDarko thesis subject. Last year saw Wallace tragically transform from undervalued gem into object of derision for the national pundits who pointed out the undesirability of Wallace’s shooting percentage (39.7%) coupled with his contract ($9.6 million). Wallace is about to receive $30-plus million dollars over the next three years—that is all Mikhail Prokhorov’s fault, by the way—and his trade to Boston will probably not be the last time Wallace’s unwieldy contract is shipped around the league as a counterbalance. He is now contractual ballast more than he is valued contributor, but at least we know that Wallace will fling himself into crowded lanes and onto hardwood floors until his body very literally won’t allow him to do so anymore. Pity the coach who caps his minutes because the Celtics are “in rebuilding mode”—Wallace spent the better part of a decade taking years off his life for the Charlotte Bobcats.
21. New Orleans Pelicans
If you change a person’s wardrobe, do you also change the person?
The Pelicans have not only changed their name and logo (and added a harrowing Shrieking Alien Bird mascot), they have also changed their team-building strategy to something other than being a safe harbor for 10-day contracts and a sort of diploma mill for no-hopers looking to add “NBA player” to the resume; here were 19 different Hornets over the course of last season, and 22 in the season before that. Spending big on Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans was either a bold and progressive move or it just helped jazz up a few bubbly press releases about rebranding. Either way, it’s a look.
22. Denver Nuggets
How do we stand to benefit as individuals if the heart wins the battle over the head?
Those who win Executive of the Year and Coach of the Year usually have some extensive job security, or can at least expect another six months on the job. But after another winning season led to another postseason flameout, the Nuggets couldn’t keep Masai Ujiri from leaving for Toronto, and unceremoniously canned George Karl. Javale McGee and Nate Robinson remain in their stead, sure to provide all manner of paradigm-shifting alley-oops and .gif-able hilarity. Presumably at the cost of a playoff spot.
23. Sacramento Kings
Why is the anticipation of Christmas morning invariably better than Christmas morning?
The ratio of media coverage about Kings ownership to media coverage about Kings basketball games has grown perilously larger and larger since, well, since the departure of Webber, Bibby, Stojakovic et al. Last year saw the people of Sacramento somewhat awkwardly band together to keep the Kings away from Seattle, earnestly wishing into the wind like a child composing letters to St. Nick in June. Well, what the city of Sacramento found underneath their tree was the same thing that was on their wish list. But what are the odds that the arena will stay at capacity and swell with such Sacramento pride through 41 games of watching this team—with its brilliant baby big man and a bunch of other problematic parts—play basketball?
24. Dallas Mavericks
Are we still required to respect our elders even if they are going daft?
If the Mavericks were able, using some whimsical time-travel device, to have all of their veteran players take the floor for 2013-14 at the peak of their careers—Vince Carter, Shawn Marion, Devin Harris, Samuel Dalembert, of course the mighty Dirk—this team would be both a contender and a blast to watch. But this year’s Mavericks are not a contender, because they will be playing aging and diminished versions of all of the above. At age 27, it remains to be seen whether Monta Ellis (who is somehow really only 27?) is on the verge of flaming out in a blaze of off-balance three-point attempts or if he is just getting warmed up for ageless decades of endless jump shots for non-playoff teams. What a drag it is getting old.
25. Milwaukee Bucks
Is pretending to love the other the same thing as truly loving?
The Bucks have spent their summer getting prepped for another season of 37-43 wins, swapping out one set of vaguely frustrating mid-level players (Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis, Drew Gooden) for another (Brandon Knight, O.J. Mayo, Caron Butler, Zaza Pachulia). One gets the sense that Bucks fans might be happier if their team did a Philly-style dismantling and an earnest rebuilding. But ownership continues to baldly chase all that extra ticket revenue that comes with each new first-round sweep.
26. (tie) Atlanta Hawks, Portland TrailBlazers
Can I step into the same river twice?
Although the great philosophers—not to mention our own individual human intuition—have had this question handled for generations, Atlanta and Portland are trying their best to overturn the conventional wisdom. Both teams have compiled rosters that are technically filled with new faces that nonetheless will instill a bizarre sense of déjà vu in viewers: we have pretty much seen these same proficient but uninspiring teams before. Best to take heed and treat these teams as a cautionary tale—the river will always change underneath our feet, even if we ourselves have not.
28. Phoenix Suns
I just had a rough breakup and the weight of this cold, temporal world feels so heavy upon my shoulders. Is it alright if I just stay in bed all day?
The Suns seem to have been caught by surprise that all NBA careers, even those as magisterial as Steve Nash’s, are finite. The Suns’ current strategy for acquiring personnel is strange and stalled and half-capitulative, and gives the impression of being fogged in deep woe over Nash’s absence. The team, in the meantime, has fallen from the Western Conference Finals—that was just in 2010—to lottery mainstays faster than Wile E. Coyote plummeting balefully, anvil in paws, to the bottom of a canyon.
29. (tie) Los Angeles Lakers, Charlotte Bobcats
Is past virtue any indication of present virtue?
If there weren’t so much misty-eyed purple-and-gold “legacy” in the air, the Lakers would goofed on mercilessly for spending their summer millions signing the type of players that losing teams sign: Nick Young, Chris Kaman, Wesley Johnson, Shawne Williams, Xavier Henry. Bringing back Jordan Farmar is a sorry attempt at appeasement, a hollow emblem to try to get the fans to remember the good ol’ days. This ragtag bunch will D’Antoniball as fast as they can in Kobe’s absence, but it won’t feel much like the Lakers.
Meanwhile, in Charlotte, Michael Jordan is actively sabotaging his own legacy by putting together a sour, strange rap sheet of a resume as an executive. The Bobcats flushed away any wisps of potential League Pass cred in the draft by passing on the mercurial Nerlens Noel in favor of future Slamadamonth foil Cody Zeller. A caveat: If Jalen Rose is somehow correct in predicting that Michael Jordan himself will suit up for one Bobcats game this year, Charlotte and all regarding them will be asking a fundamentally different question about the human condition. Go ahead and move them up to number one in these Power Rankings in that event.