Rooting Guide for the 2020-21 NBA Playoffs

The Orlando Magic’s 2020-21 season could not have gone much worse. The two franchise building blocks, Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac, missed pretty much all of the season, while starting lineup linchpins Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon were dealt to Chicago and Denver, respectively. The Magic sank to the bottom of the NBA and sent guys who I’d never even heard of out on the floor and even let center Khem Birch leave so he could find better opportunities elsewhere. 

All this to say, Orlando will not play in the NBA playoffs this year. But one of the great aspects of the NBA is that there are plenty of players, teams and storylines to root for, and to root against. I don’t have all the expertise to break down each NBA playoffs participant, but as a casual fan with special insight into jerseys and bandwagoning, I’m proud to present my guide to who to root for in this year’s NBA playoffs.

Eastern Conference

  1. Philadelphia 76ers

Jerseys I Own: Dwight Howard 2011 Home (Magic)

Why I’d Root For Them: To keep my friend Daniel happy. Just kidding, although I can’t imagine how hyped he’d be to fill up Liberty Ballers with content this June. MVP candidate Joel Embiid’s Twitter account and gregarious personality are fun to get behind, plus Northwestern alum Daryl Morey is leading the charge in the City of Brotherly Love. The Sixers have had a couple bad bounces over the years, some more literal than others, and they would certainly enjoy a long run to the Finals. 

Why I’d Root Against Them: To keep my friend Daniel humble. Also kidding here. Championships reward team-building strategies. Some, like the Lakers signing LeBron James and trading for Anthony Davis, are inimitable, but the Sixers’ infamous tank-a-palooza “The Process” would be seen in a different light with a Larry O’Brien trophy. As a fan of a team who might be headed down this path, I do not want to see it rewarded.

Bottom Line: 2021 gives the Sixers their best shot yet at the title. The Nets and Bucks might be more littered with MVP candidates, but they’ll have to prove themselves against Philly, no small task. 

  1. Brooklyn Nets

Jerseys I Own: Kevin Durant 2012 Home (Team USA)

Why I’d Root For Them: Brooklyn has fit so much star power on its team that it’s impossible to look away. As if luring Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to the Big Apple wasn’t enough, the James Harden trade earlier this season has given the Nets an all-time Big Three. The frontcourt also includes Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. The entertainment factor is through the roof with this team if they’re all healthy.

Why I’d Root Against Them: Who can stand superteams, anyway? The Nets are the second-most likeable team in a city with two teams and, with all of their players rarely healthy at the same time so far, feel more like a show than a true team. With health and chemistry concerns, there’s a good chance they could flame out if I jumped aboard the bandwagon.

Bottom Line: The Nets offer the most upside, but the implosion could be legendary, making Brooklyn the Tampa Bay Buccaneer equivalents of the NBA.

  1. Milwaukee Bucks

Jerseys I Own: None

Why I’d Root For Them: Giannis Antetokounmpo. It’s really difficult to root against this guy, and his game and length are unlike any previous player in NBA history. Giannis should have one of his best supporting casts around him too, and I always have love for small-market teams holding their own against the league’s superpowers. 

Why I’d Root Against Them: I’m still not over Milwaukee beating the Magic in the first round last year. I also have a little bit too much fun seeing their yearly playoff implosions, and maybe a playoff loss in a closely contested Eastern Conference could get the right coach in place.

Bottom Line: The Bucks have plenty to prove — mainly, that they’re not just a regular season team — and have as strong a chance as anyone at winning it all. 

  1. New York Knicks

Jerseys I Own: None

Why I’d Root For Them: The Knicks are finally relevant again. Something about seeing New York successful, whether it’s Spike Lee or pop culture references in Soul or other movies, is uplifting, and these Knicks are far from the mega-contract disappointments of years past. New York has succeeded with a team of misfits, from the rejuvenated Julius Randle to the overlooked R.J. Barrett to perennial fan favorite Derrick Rose, and a run deep in the playoffs would make basketball exciting. And it would make Stephen A. Smith beam from ear to ear.

Why I’d Root Against Them: Seeing an Eastern Conference finals without the Sixers would be a disappointment, even if the Knicks are a Cinderella story. A more gradual buildup to championship contender might not be the worst thing for New York.

Bottom Line: 

  1. Atlanta Hawks

Jerseys I Own: None

Why I’d Root For Them: John Collins and Bogdan Bogdanovic carried my fantasy basketball team for the past two months, and after a couple of utterly unwatchable years, the Hawks have made a delightful climb up the Eastern Conference standings this year.

Why I’d Root Against Them: Those awful, awful jerseys, and the fact that I hate them. They’re the Magic’s staunchest rival, and I do not want to see them succeed, even if it’s just advancing a round in the playoffs.

Bottom Line: If I watch the Hawks in a playoff game, just know it’s to watch the other team. 

  1. Miami Heat

Jerseys I Own: Dwyane Wade 2020 Vice, Bam Adebayo 2021 Vice

Why I’d Root For Them: I enjoy watching Florida basketball teams, Tampa Bay Raptors notwithstanding. Bam Adebayo has shored up each of the past two of my fantasy basketball lineups, and I’ll sit down just to watch Tyler Herro, Jimmy Butler or Udonis Haslem play. Miami’s culture of grit is also fantastic and the envy of the league (read: other Florida teams). 

Why I’d Root Against Them: They had their time in the spotlight last year in the Bubble. And while their roster is loaded once more, they don’t have a player on the level of Kevin Durant or Giannis Antetokounmpo who gives off the feel that they’re shifting the narrative of NBA history when they step on the court.

Bottom Line: I jumped on the Heat bandwagon for last year’s playoffs (especially against the Lakers). I’d be surprised if they run it back, though. 

  1. Boston Celtics

Jerseys I Own: Kemba Walker 2017 Home (Charlotte)

Why I’d Root For Them: The Celtics always seem just about ready to turn the corner and then can never put it together. I love Kemba Walker’s game and Jayson Tatum is a fantastic competitor, and how can you really hate Brad Stevens? It’s not the KG-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen Celtics, but if they survive the play-in and win a couple games, I could see myself pulling for the C’s.

Why I’d Root Against Them: Heartbreak is almost certain, especially in a place with expectations of the Finals every single season. Jaylen Brown, arguably the Celtics’ second-best player, is out for the season. 

Bottom Line: 2022 seems like a better year for Boston to make its run for the title, both from a health and a seeding standpoint. 

  1. Washington Wizards

Jerseys I Own: None

Why I’d Root For Them: Russell Westbrook is a triple-double machine. The guy has not gotten the cue to decline even after a couple of high-profile trades. Bradley Beal, my second-round pick in fantasy this year, deserves to be on a winner at least once in his career.

Why I’d Root Against Them: Along with Atlanta and the Lakers, I detest Washington and hate to see them succeed at any level. Even if the Wizards win in the play-in game, I know I’ll hear it for a while from my brother Nate and will only have Orlando’s lottery odds as a rebuttal. 

Bottom Line: I’d be fine with the Wizards staying competitive for another week or so for the content, but anything beyond that goes against my competitive instincts.

9. Indiana Pacers

Jerseys I Own: None

Why I’d Root For Them: They’re the lowest-seeded team in the Eastern Conference, so they’re the biggest underdogs still alive. I owe it to Malcolm Brogdon for a solid season of fantasy basketball at the point and would strongly root for them to knock off the Wizards in a play-in game, at the very least.

Why I’d Root Against Them: The Pacers don’t even want to play for their coach. Indiana is a play-in team in name only (Chicago had to absolutely implode with two All-Stars to not get the 10th spot) and is on the downturn in their competitive timeline. 

Bottom Line: Are you sure the Pacers are in the play-in?

10. Charlotte Hornets

Jerseys I Own: Kemba Walker 2017 Home

Why I’d Root For Them: Reason number one is LaMelo Ball, a point guard who is both younger than me and makes the gutsiest, wildest passes I have ever seen made on a basketball court. The Hornets came out of nowhere to contend for the playoffs this year and have a lot of intriguing young players who could blossom over the next couple seasons. Plus, they’re one of the best-dressed teams in the league and upgraded their uniform set this offseason.

Why I’d Root Against Them: I’ve been off and on about the Hornets over the years, and while they’re a fun team this season, I don’t see them escaping the first round and wouldn’t be surprised if they fall in the play-in games. They also play in the Magic’s division, and there is only one small market team in the Southeast Division that I will feel comfortable with succeeding in the playoffs. 

Bottom Line: I’d love to watch Charlotte the next couple weeks, but hopes of a total LaMelo breakout might need to be pushed forward a couple years.

Western Conference

  1. Utah Jazz

Jerseys I Own: None

Why I’d Root For Them: Donovan Mitchell is one of the league’s most dynamic young players, though an ankle injury has his health status doubtful. The Jazz have developed with largely the same core for the past couple of seasons, and I would love to see their roster-building efforts pay off with a deep playoff run, if not all the way to the Finals. 

Why I’d Root Against Them: For starters, the atrocious jerseys. If Mitchell misses an extended period of time, I can’t single out a Jazz player that I would turn on the TV to watch, and there are just too many other compelling stars in the Western Conference to jump aboard the Utah bandwagon. 

Bottom Line: I could see the Jazz winning a round or two, but they don’t excite me as much as some of the other Western contenders.

  1. Phoenix Suns

Jerseys I Own: None

Why I’d Root For Them: This is the team I’m talking about. The Suns have never won in the Finals and hadn’t even reached the playoffs in a decade before soaring up the Western Conference standings this year. Young studs Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton are plenty of fun to watch, but the guy who has been on fire this season is 36-year-old Chris Paul, who has never tasted true postseason success and is due for a Finals appearance. The Suns also have fantastic jerseys and were Bubble darlings last year with an undefeated stretch late. 

Why I’d Root Against Them: I’m drawing blanks. 

Bottom Line: I will be rooting for the Suns, who, between talent and franchise history and mascot and jersey options, have all the makings of a perfect bandwagon team. Go Suns!

  1. Denver Nuggets

Jerseys I Own: Aaron Gordon 2020 Statement (Magic), Aaron Gordon 2017 City (Magic)

Why I’d Root For Them: Nikola Jokic should win this year’s MVP award, and his playoff track record is strong as his regular season one. His supporting cast is top-notch even considering the injured Jamal Murray, with up-and-coming talent Michael Porter, Jr. and jettisoned Magic star Aaron Gordon in the lineup. 

Why I’d Root Against Them: Awful jerseys. Who thought navy, crimson red and yellow was a good idea, especially after years of majestic powder blue and yellow. I’d grimace if AG00 takes off outside of Orlando, and I definitely don’t want them to take down the Phoenix Suns. 

Bottom Line: I’m fine with the Nuggets surviving the first round, but I’m hoping that some of the other Western Conference contenders can knock them out before the Finals.

  1. Los Angeles Clippers

Jerseys I Own: None

Why I’d Root For Them: NBA Finals are always more fun with Kawhi Leonard. NBA fans were robbed of a Battle for Los Angeles in the Western Conference finals last year and I still think that the star-studded Clippers would be an excellent watch late in the spring. We all saw their playoff implosion last year. Now it’s time for the playoff streak we all know the Clippers are capable of.

Why I’d Root Against Them: The Clippers got good by virtue of being in Los Angeles (and showing some signs of organizational functionality), drawing Paul George and Kawhi Leonard to rise to the ranks of the top of the Western Conference. Jumping on the bandwagon comes with tremendous risk of becoming a punchline once again, and I’m not even sure these guys like each other.

Bottom Line: With Utah and Phoenix in the headlines up top, now might be as good a time as ever to buy into the Clippers’ stock and watch them tear up the Western Conference bracket. 

  1. Dallas Mavericks

Jerseys I Own: None

Why I’d Root For Them: Luka Doncic. Doncic ascended to the NBA’s elite last year and showed his clutch ability with a playoff game-winner, and if I’m rooting for just one player to succeed in this year’s playoffs, it’s Luka. I love Mavs owner Mark Cuban as an owner and a Shark Tank judge and have a history of rooting for Dallas teams over the years.

Why I’d Root Against Them: I have a difficult time working up too much hype about the Mavericks given their first-round draw in Los Angeles. Bringing in another top star might be what Dallas needs to become a true Finals contender. 

Bottom Line: I’ll be all in on the Mavericks if they can win a couple series, but Dallas has been too inconsistent this year for me to bank on a long playoff run. 

  1. Portland Trail Blazers

Jerseys I Own: None

Why I’d Root For Them: I don’t even know what the NBA community would do if Damian Lillard ended another playoff series on a buzzer-beater. Dame Time has been one of the coolest parts of the NBA in the past five years, and the guy deserves to have another deep playoff run. 

Why I’d Root Against Them: The Trail Blazers are pesky and annoying, always in the playoff hunt but never consistent or dynamic enough around Lillard to take the leap to NBA powerhouse. I’d love to see them burn out in this year’s playoff and then actually retool the roster, or send Dame to a place he can actually succeed. 

Bottom Line: I’m not rooting for Portland, unless you can guarantee a Dame Time buzzer beater.

  1. Los Angeles Lakers

Jerseys I Own: LeBron James 2016 Home (Cleveland)

Why I’d Root For Them: Watching LeBron James and Anthony Davis play basketball together is a joy to watch, and after both missed chunks of the season, it looks like the duo is finally getting healthy again. 

Why I’d Root Against Them: I was fine with the Lakers winning the title last season after all I’ve been through, but I have no sympathy now. Los Angeles is my least favorite NBA team and losses in the play-in tournament would be the ultimate way to see them implode.

Bottom Line: The Lakers won the title seven months ago. It’s time for someone — anyone — else to win.

  1. Golden State Warriors

Jerseys I Own: Steph Curry 2012 Alternate

Why I’d Root For Them: The Warriors have fully shed the label of superteam and are the underdogs once again in the Western Conference. Steph Curry is a can’t-miss offensive player who I would love to see in a best-of-seven playoff series. Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre are two supporting players I can’t help but root for.

Why I’d Root Against Them: Golden State has a better chance of making a run once Klay Thompson returns from injury next year. And while I’d take them over the Lakers in a play-in game, I think I’d be partial to the Grizzlies or Spurs if either was matched up against the Warriors. 

Bottom Line: I’m in on the Warriors solely on Curry’s three-point prowess, but I’m bracing for next year to be the time Golden State returns to contending status.

  1. Memphis Grizzlies

Jerseys I Own: None

Why I’d Root For Them: Ja Morant is my favorite young player in the league and a poster dunk waiting to happen. If the Grizzlies could run the table in the play-in and make it to the actual playoffs, I don’t think I could hold myself back from becoming a Memphis fan for a couple of weeks. 

Why I’d Root Against Them: There’s an excellent chance they do not make it out of the play-in game, and the Lakers and Warriors would probably make for more entertaining first-round opponents for the Western Conference’s top dogs. 

Bottom Line: I’m here for playoff Ja Morant, but my expectations aren’t set too high.

  1. San Antonio Spurs

Jerseys I Own: Tim Duncan 2011 Home

Why I’d Root For Them: I’ve been partial to the Spurs as my Western Conference team for about a decade, and with great stories like Dejounte Murray on the roster and a splash of Fiesta color in their visual identity this year, San Antonio is an eminently likeable team. 

Why I’d Root Against Them: This is not the David Robinson, Tim Duncan or Kawhi Leonard Spurs. The only star in San Antonio is in the logo, and every other play-in team offers more promise of entertainment than the non-descript Spurs.

Bottom Line: I will root for the Spurs for as long as they last in the Western Conference, especially if they decide to break out the Fiesta jerseys again.

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