It’s a common misconception that the song “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” was written in reference to Christmas. Clearly not. There is no time more wonderful than late October, when the leaves turn in the South, the college football playoff picture starts to come into focus, and the greatest sport in the history of the known universe — NBA basketball — begins its glorious regular season.
And so, it is my solemn duty to serve as the NBA’s ambassador to conservative America. Yes, it’s a progressive league. Yes, its fan base is concentrated in blue cities. But talent is talent, and excellence is excellence. And it’s time for red America to embrace the greatness.
Here is the only preseason guide you need to read. Per tradition, it divides the league by familiar political categories.
The Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Division. Cheerfully inept.
The Atlanta Hawks. I thought hard about putting the Hawks all alone in the division that defines joyful incompetence. After all, what’s crazier than sending your number-three pick to the Dallas Mavericks — effectively trading away Luka Doncic, a possible rookie of the year and potentially the next Dirk Nowitzki — for Trae Young? It’s a silly thing to do, but gosh darn it, the Hawks will play with a smile on their face. They might win 19 games, but Young is going to launch jumpers from every corner of the offensive side of the court. Look for nights when he’ll go 9–20 from deep, followed by a 2–21 nightmare. Either way, it will be entertaining. Either way, the Hawks will lose.
The Sacramento Kings. Okay, maybe this is unfair. The team does have an exciting core. De’Aaron Fox is blazing fast, and they’ve drafted well (for a change). They’re less inept than they used to be, but they’re still going to lose. They’ll miss the playoffs again. But there’s something about the Kings that makes them worth watching. From the front office to the court, this is a cast of characters. There’s always drama around the Kings. Watch and enjoy.
The Brooklyn Nets. In honor of AOC herself, we had to get a New York City team in her division, and the Nets fit the bill. Years after trades that robbed the team of its future while granting it a mediocre past, the Nets are finally ready to . . . Be not terrible. As for the eccentricity, never forget that guard D’Angelo Russell literally Snapchatted his way out of L.A. (No, really, look it up.)
The Hillary Clinton Division. Losing, grimly.
The New York Knicks. Has any franchise squandered more advantages and disappointed its fans more thoroughly than the Knicks? And yet it starts another season without hope. Kristaps Porzingis, its star of the future — a man that the departed Phil Jackson almost ran out of town — is out with a knee injury, and not even a better coach (David Fizdale) and a good draft pick (Kevin Knox) will make the Garden rock. I would say that the future looks a tiny bit bright, but this is the Knicks we’re talking about. If there’s one thing we know, it’s that the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train.
The Orlando Magic. The less said, the better. Years of top draft picks have yielded . . . this. Unless they’re playing my favorite team, I may not watch a single second of Magic basketball this year.
The Phoenix Suns. I had hope for them last year. I really did. Devin Booker is one of the most exciting young players in the NBA, and he’s the player in the league most likely to drop 60 on any given night. But something about the team just seems off. I don’t mind seeing a bad young team if the bad young team plays with hope and joy. The Suns did not. Will they this year? I say no. I hope I’m wrong.
The Chicago Bulls. Yes, they have some good athletes. Yes, they have some young talent. But Bulls fans have to face facts. It’s a long slog — and some lucky draft picks — before the team’s relevant again.
The Cleveland Cavaliers. I hate to do this. I really do. But recent history shows us that when LeBron leaves, watching the team remains about as entertaining as watching an alcoholic struggle through recovery. LeBron’s teams are about LeBron, and when they have to go cold turkey, the results aren’t pleasant. It was a good run, Cleveland, but your future is not bright.
The Cory Booker Division. Posing as relevant.
The Detroit Pistons. They’ve got Blake Griffin, a one-time superstar. They’ve got Andre Drummond, a rebounding machine. They’ve got Reggie Jackson, a guard who could well average 20 points and six assists. And they’ve got a good new coach, Dwayne Casey, the man who made Toronto a contender. They look great on paper, right? They’re ready for their heroic stand, right?
Wrong. Griffin and Jackson are too fragile. The mix isn’t quite right. Not every Casey can lead this team to the playoffs.
The Charlotte Hornets. They have actual playoff buzz. But how much of that is based on the roster and how much is based on the irrational exuberance that follows when you survive the “Dwightbola virus”? Dwight Howard is gone, and that’s addition by subtraction, but the subtraction isn’t enough to carry Charlotte into the top 16.
The Denver Nuggets. They almost made the playoffs last year. They’ll almost make the playoffs again.
The Portland Trailblazers. Damian Lillard can and will make an actual Spartacus stand. It won’t be enough. The West is better, again. The Blazers are not.
The Beto O’Rourke Division. Expensive busts.
The Minnesota Timberwolves. In theory they have a Big Three. In theory. Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Andrew Wiggins bring an enormous amount of talent to the hardwood. Collectively, however, the results are bad. Very bad. Butler wants out. He had an already-famous meltdown at practice just before the regular season, and it seems like coach Tom Thibodeau has lost a step. Perhaps the NBA is passing him by. Just last year, the ’Wolves were the team of the future. Now it looks like their glory day will never come, and by the end of the season, Thibs may skateboard straight to the unemployment line.
The Los Angeles Clippers. The “expensive” in the phrase “expensive busts” applies less to the Clippers roster than to the Clippers franchise. I may be slightly off in my math, but owner Steve Ballmer dumped about eleventy billion dollars in Microsoft bucks to purchase a team on the decline. It was a nice (though short) run for the Clippers as the premiere Los Angeles NBA team. That run is now over.
The Elizabeth Warren Division. They have a 1/1024 chance to be good.
The Dallas Mavericks. Mark Cuban does not like to lose. He’s going to. Probably. But I’m going to keep an eye on those Mavs. They committed grand larceny securing Luka Doncic in the draft, and there’s a chance that he’s good, immediately. They’ve got a promising point guard in Dennis Smith, and there’s a chance that he’s much better than last year. I’m not saying “chance” in the Dumb and Dumber one-in-a-millions sense. No, the odds here are better than 1/1024. We’ll go with Warren six generations removed. There’s a solid 1/64 chance that the Mavericks are not terrible at all.
The Washington Wizards. I’m out. I’m out on the Wizards. Mostly. It’s a team with talent — including one of the best backcourts in basketball — but the chemistry is off, and they’ve never quite broken through. Adding Dwight Howard isn’t the solution, and the rest of the conference has gotten better. But it’s premature to write them off entirely. John Wall and Bradley Beal are just too good for that. Let’s go with Warren eight generations removed. There’s a solid 1/256 chance that the Wizards will be a top-four team in the East.
The Miami Heat. They’re here only because coach Erik Spoelstra is one of the best coaches in the league, and there’s always a chance that Pat Riley can import talent. Let’s go with Warren nine generations removed. There’s a solid 1/512 chance that the Miami Heat will make it out of the first round of the playoffs.
The Rocky Balboa Division. Was Rocky conservative? Liberal? Don’t know. Don’t care. He’s the comeback king.
The Memphis Grizzlies. Last year was a miserable year in Memphis. Mike Conley got hurt early, and a seven-season playoff streak ended with a 22-wing campaign that turned the Grindhouse into a morgue. I didn’t even have the heart to go to a game, and I live, eat, and breathe Grizzlies basketball. But it is a new day, people. I can hear the Rocky music stirring in the background. Mike Conley is back, Marc Gasol is still one of the best centers in the NBA, and Chandler Parsons might be almost healthy. Add a spectacular draft pick in Jaren Jackson Jr. and you have a recipe for a return of the Grit and Grind of Grizzly teams past. I can’t wait.
The Nikki Haley Division. The future’s so bright, they gotta wear shades.
The Utah Jazz. Donovan Mitchell is really, really good. Really good. He’s one of the most Nikki Haley players on the most Nikki Haley team. Watch the Jazz. They may be in the Western Conference finals.
The Milwaukee Bucks. Giannis Antetokounmpo has been working on his shot. Giannis has been in the gym, getting strong. Giannis has a new coach who’s going to space the floor, giving him room to roam. The Bucks are the Jazz of the East.
The New Orleans Pelicans. Don’t @ me, haters. Anthony Davis is an extraordinary basketball player, Julius Randle is a perfect, high-energy, bruising complement to Davis inside, and Jrue Holiday had a breakout year. Aside from the lethargic home crowd, the Pelicans are one of the most fun teams to watch in the NBA. No one knows if Davis will stay in New Orleans, but for now he’s there, and so long as he stays, the Pelicans are ready to rise.
The Indiana Pacers. They’re the Lazarus of the NBA — a resurrected franchise led by a resurrected player. The Pacers were left for dead after they traded Paul George. Victor Oladipo was left for dead after a frustrating year in Oklahoma City. Larry Bird, basketball Jesus, wept. But then Oladipo came forth, and now the Pacers are set to be good for a long time to come.
Oklahoma City Thunder. OKC had arguably the best offseason in basketball. They kept Paul George. They added the defensive pieces the team needs. They added Dennis Schröder, a scorer who can sustain the offense when one or both of OKC’s stars are on the bench. And — critically — they subtracted Carmelo Anthony. Oh, and Russell Westbrook is still the most explosive athlete in the NBA. The Thunder are one lucky break from the Western Conference finals.
The Donald Trump Division. Fragile powers. The title beckons, yet misery is possible.
The Philadelphia 76ers. Can a team be young, talented, and fragile all at the same time? Welcome to the Sixers experience. If this team can stay healthy and together, we may well watch Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, and Joel Embiid dominate the league for a decade. But Simmons has already missed a full season to injury, Fultz has missed most of a season to one of the most bizarre shoulder/shooting problems in recent memory, and Embiid has not only missed two seasons, he’s yet to prove that he can make it through a single regular season without a significant injury. This team could be a dynasty. I’ll believe it when I see it.
The Toronto Raptors. I have one question and one question only. Is Kawhi Leonard still Kawhi Leonard? If he’s healthy and motivated, then the Raptors will contend with the Celtics for the Eastern Conference crown. And with no LeBron to contend with, they just might win. But Kawhi allegedly hates to be cold, and Toronto — rumor has it — is way up north. Will he have one eye on sunny L.A.? If so, look for a year of frustration for one of the best home crowds in the NBA.
The San Antonio Spurs. Because they’re the Spurs, they were able to trade a possible one-year rental of a very disgruntled Kawhi to Toronto for an all-NBA guard. DeMar DeRozan was furious at the trade, and he’s got a chip on his shoulder. That’s a recipe for a great individual season, but the Spurs are weak at point guard, some of their key pieces are old, and the team just might decline.
The Houston Rockets. How can we call a team that was one decent shooting night from dethroning the Warriors a “fragile” power? Easy. Chris Paul is a key piece of their puzzle, and he got hurt at the worst possible time. No one knows if he can stay healthy enough to endure a title run. They added chemistry-killer Carmelo Anthony. It could work. I hope it works (because the Rockets were really fun to watch last year), but they’re just fragile enough that we might look back on the last year’s thrilling Western Conference Finals as the best this team could do.
The LeBron Division. The team with the GOAT.
The Los Angeles Lakers. LeBron has been to eight straight finals. LeBron is the best player in the history of basketball, and he’s (incredibly) still at his peak or near-peak. I refuse to believe the Lakers won’t be a very, very good basketball team.
The William F. Buckley Jr. Division. Intellectual juggernauts.
The Boston Celtics. This team was built from the ground up by basketball geniuses to contend for a decade. It could win now. Even without all-NBA stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, it made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. Jason Tatum is set to make his own leap to all-NBA greatness. Put this crew all together, keep it healthy, and you have one of the deepest teams in the league. Oh, and they’ve got one of the top three coaches in the NBA. I’m praying for a Lakers–Celtics final, but I’m afraid I won’t get it because of . . .
The Sauron Division. Only Frodo can save us now.
The Golden State Warriors. They’ve won three titles in four years. They’ve won eight of their last nine finals games. They have Steph, KD, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. They have an outstanding coach. So, what do they do?
They add DeMarcus Cousins, one of the top two or three centers in the NBA. The Eye of Sauron is strong indeed. The forces of darkness are pouring from Minas Morgul, the walls Barad-dur are high and strong, and all hope flees the land.
The Warriors’ starting five could serve as the U.S. Olympic basketball team, and the rest of the world would tremble in terror. There is no logical, practical basketball reason why they won’t win again.
But that’s why we play the game. In the words of Al Michaels, calling the game when the underdog U.S. hockey team beat the omnipotent Soviets, “Do you believe in miracles?”
Ask me next June.