There’s never been a better time to love, watch, or invest your time in the NBA. The most appealing sports league in the world has become more than a nightly roller-coaster ride that lets countless scenarios unfold in the most entertaining ways, on and off the court. It’s a vibrant cultural touchstone with ceaseless momentum, planting seeds in Hollywood and the fashion industry, altering societal stigmas linked to mental health, gambling and marijuana, and engaging with complex and divisive political/racial/societal issues as they appear.
It's imperfect, but also couldn't minimize its own relevance even if it wanted to. While the NFL represents a divided nation, the NBA embraces incongruity. It’s full of young, engaging stars from all over the world. As they enter, ready to make a name for themselves, the identifiable stars who make the league so profitable dip in and out of free agency. They sign with different teams and demand trades. Next year, more recognizable characters will wear different jerseys than they are now—enough to spark countless narratives that are irresistible even to the most casual fan.
It’s helped create a hyper-competitive environment that, unlike the NFL, isn’t tribalistic. Rooting for a favorite team is almost antiquated in a world where people are fine sitting through a random Pelicans-Bucks game just to witness the moment Giannis Antetokounmpo squares up against Anthony Davis, as if it were a thrilling set piece directed by 35-year-old Steven Spielberg.
But nomadic viewership lowers emotional stakes. To cheer for one team over another is to glide from pain to joy and back again with timelessly indescribable feeling. If you don’t have a favorite team, I suggest you latch onto one before opening night; as the 2018-19 season gets under way, with a tasty collection of story lines, rivalries, and rumors all whip into a bottomless reservoir of talent, now is a terrific time to fall in love.
Let this guide do the heavy lifting as you try and find the most appropriate franchise to lead you through what promises to be the most captivating season in NBA history (until 2020 immediately blows it all away, of course).
You’re extremely indecisive: Phoenix Suns
You can’t remember the last time you actually watched something on Netflix, even though you open the app on your iPad every single night. The thought of committing to one show or movie is too difficult when there are so many other options. You mindlessly scroll through streaming purgatory, not quite understanding why you can't just watch everything at the same time.
The Suns—a team that somewhat-curiously fired their GM one week before opening night—don’t know who they are or what they want. Is it the playoffs? A slow-cook rebuild? Should they tank? Pay veterans? If you’re the type of person who returns 95 percent of what you buy on Amazon Prime, you deserve the Suns.
You don't have internet access: Charlotte Hornets, Memphis Grizzlies
No disrespect to these two teams, which have several interesting and undiscovered qualities that make them fascinating in their own way. But Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. aren’t enough. Kemba Walker and Mike Conley can, in the right light, be seen as draws all by themselves, but if you don't see yourself staying awake for four quarters when they're on the west coast, don't pick them. On the other hand, if you're indifferent, don't mind losses, and can appreciate how beautiful life's absolute-slightest pleasant surprises are able to be, let's just flip a coin and be done with it.
You're a frontrunner with low self-esteem: Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Lakers
Bandwagon jumping is a timeless, ever-irritating sports fandom felony. Not to judge people who willfully commit such crimes, but those involved probably wear knockoff Yeezys with pride and/or regularly test drive a Ferrari through their neighborhood without telling anyone who asks that it’s not technically their car. These people love finishing first, especially if they can get there by cutting corners. They cheat at golf.
The Warriors are here for an obvious reason: they’re the best team, have won three of the NBA’s last four titles, and something will go horribly wrong if they don’t three-peat. If you choose them, you’re avoiding disappointment and the general misery that comes with cheering for any one franchise in a 30-team league. You're also extremely risk averse and painfully boring.
The Lakers (currently) do not have the same cachet as Golden State, but there’s an undeniable swagger that takes shape whenever the best player alive/ever is leading your favorite team. Even though L.A. almost definitely won’t win the championship in 2019—and may not even make the playoffs—there’s a certain confidence that comes with cheering them on. And in the back of your mind, you also know that there’s a decent to definite chance they add another superstar next summer and immediately become the prohibitive favorite. You’re not fooling anyone with this pick. LeBron still equals world domination.
You’re a masochist: Sacramento Kings (application pending: Minnesota Timberwolves)
Fans who’ve spent the past dozen years rooting for these two teams remind me of the flagrantly NSFW opening to Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. They are the hopeless drifter who wouldn’t wish what they’ve endured on their worst enemy.
The Kings are perennially hopeless. If you intentionally choose them, one can only assume that you take cold showers and eat ice cream for breakfast. Your favorite adjective is “numb.” Pessimism lords over your decisions, backed by the belief that something will eventually go terribly wrong because it usually does. Choose this team if you expected Kevin McCallister to die the first time you watched Home Alone 2.
Since 2007, the only team with a lower winning percentage than Sacramento is Minnesota (and they’re coming off a 47-win season!). It’s too early to say whether they belong here, though. Karl-Anthony Towns might be the best player alive in a few years and it’s probably too early to make any definitive statements about Andrew Wiggins’s trajectory. But Jimmy Butler’s trade demand hit this organization like a PTSD diagnosis. This franchise can’t have nice things. Go all in at your own risk.
You’re patient, possibly to a fault: Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks, Orlando Magic, Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Clippers, Chicago Bulls
Even as each one of these organizations embarks on a rebuild with fresh ideas coming in from their front offices and coaching staffs (except Chicago), it’s so hard to trust any of them (including Chicago). The Knicks are carefully constructing a new house, brick by brick, behind David Fizdale’s militaristic obsession with conditioning, but their best and most unique player may miss the entire season. Orlando is all in on size, length, and seemingly illogical physical proportions found in their two most recent lottery picks. The Hawks are collecting assets. The Nets and Clippers have serious cap space. The Bulls are focused on their curious core of talented misfits.
It could be a while before any of these teams see playoff action, and some of these rebuilds may top out with a first-round elimination. But there’s value in getting in on the ground floor with a long-term investment.
You’re either older than 35 or younger than 12: Dallas Mavericks
This is a strange category for any team to be in, but it’s fitting for the Mavs. In what will unofficially be Dirk Nowitzki’s final season, sentimentalists will not want to miss any Mavericks games this season. Given his age (40), it’s possible that any minute could be Dirk’s last. It won’t take much, maybe a badly sprained ankle or severely pulled hamstring. If you believe “stop and smell the roses” is the most important expression ever uttered, ride with Dallas.
Beyond Dirk, this is a fun team that may be on the cusp of something special. Athletically, Dennis Smith Jr. looms as a natural disaster, and Luka Doncic may someday be the face of the freaking sport. The Mavericks won’t make the postseason (again), but it’s not a bad time to get in, even if you don’t remember or care about Dirk’s prime. (If you’re one of those people, please let Ian Thomsen teach you about it ASAP.)
You're searching for a religious experience: Milwaukee Bucks, New Orleans Pelicans
If you can’t fall asleep, stay up and watch Giannis and AD dominate everything. Both will spend random weeks throughout the season looking like God. Right now, there might not be a more terrifying mass-adrenaline moment associated with basketball than whenever these two leave their feet. Neither has yet to peak; each enters the season with a refurbished supporting cast. So long as they stay healthy, you should be extraordinarily pleased with either team. If not, prepare yourself for an inescapably deep depression.
You believe loyalty is the glue that holds society together: Cleveland Cavaliers, San Antonio Spurs
There were moments over the summer when I completely forgot Cleveland had a basketball team. LeBron was (and in some ways, still is) the entire organization. That doesn’t mean the Cavaliers are wretched or incompetent—Kevin Love just signed a lengthy contract extension and Collin Sexton may win Rookie of the Year—but it does speak to how demoralizing it can be to lose the greatest player who ever lived two times in the same decade.
To go from the thrill of an annual Finals appearance to the sudden realization that you may never make the Finals ever again is dark. And if you weren’t born in Cleveland but willingly choose to root for this team two years after they won their first championship and two months after LeBron left town, please know ahead of time that there’s now a hard cap on how much joy professional basketball can bestow upon you.
The Spurs would be in a different category had Dejounte Murray not torn his ACL over the weekend. For an organization that heads into every season with higher sustained expectations than any other over the past 20 years, this season will either be an ephemeral off ramp that Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford withstand as practically as any two minds possibly can, or the epilogue for an era that often felt like it'd never need one.
Choosing the Spurs or the Cavaliers is admirable, but don't do it if you can't handle having people in your life suddenly wanting to avoid eye contact.
You think modest expectations are the key to true happiness: Indiana Pacers, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz
By far the most fulfilling teams to root for are those talented enough to overachieve, young enough to learn from mistakes, armed with an exciting direction and a clear identity. In short, pick one of these teams if you’re content with a team that will probably fall short, but in doing so provide a memorable, fun season that bears a ton of optimism going forward. And in the outside chance any one of these organizations reaches the conference Finals, or beyond, you’ll look like a genius.
You hate change (and possibly yourself): Washington Wizards, Portland Trail Blazers, Detroit Pistons, (application pending: Miami Heat)
This isn’t a statement about how any of these teams play. Each of them has star power—assuming Jimmy Butler ends up in South Beach—and should be pretty good. It’s more an indictment of the hole their front offices have thrown them into. Even with a Pistons team that just fired its president and head coach, these organizations are, for the most part, stale. They aren’t going up and they aren’t going down. Right now, they just sort of exist.
You’re on their side if you don’t understand why your Blackberry is no longer socially acceptable, still watch network television (but found Amazon’s Forever kind of interesting), and have never owned a car with power windows.
You want to have your cake and eat it too: Houston Rockets, Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors, Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers
There are specks of a blatant antagonist in your DNA, but you picked one of these five teams because you hate losing but don't want the grief that comes with attaching yourself to a prohibitive favorite. The Rockets, Celtics, Raptors, Sixers, and Thunder may not favorites, but they're not underdogs either—all of them should be better than the Lakers—and if you pick any one of them, you've done so because you believe they will win the whole damn thing.
You’re setting yourself up for probable disappointment and that’s okay! You’re the type of person who’s 100 percent confident Tiger Woods will win two majors in the next eight months and convinced that fanny packs are a trend with staying power. There’s a decent chance neither of those predictions come true, but anything is possible in your world. We’re talking about a calculated gamble. You acknowledge that all of these teams may lose their last game (with Philly and Oklahoma City far more likely to fall than the other three), but where’s the fun in siding with a juggernaut? Go one or two rungs below that and feel more astute if everything works out. Which…it may!