The Thunder and the Blazers have enjoyed a considerable level of buzz ever since Hurricanes Oden and Durant took the Pacific Northwest by storm in 2007. As Portland’s buzz level has crumbled under the weight of its knees, the post-Seattle Thunder’s buzz level has skyrocketed and may never be higher. The key concept in this equation is optimism. Optimism, the ever-palatable substitute for championship rings.
As the first round of the playoffs approaches its thrilling apex, we are reminded that mid-to-late-April is when buzz teams are born. The Indiana Pacers are the latest feel-good (or at least feel-pretty-decent) team to exit the playoffs with their heads held high. After being bounced tonight by the Bulls in 5, we can see the positive side of a team that will never win an NBA Championship. We can all rest assured that this Granger-Collison-Hibbert nucleus will not contend for a title in its existence, but it will at least provide Pacers fans, and fans like me, with a hopeful alternative narrative to the Cold War that’s about to play out in the NBA for the next several seasons.
As the rest of the league focuses on the weighty task of winning an NBA title, stockpiling assets, and surviving the expectations that come with this territory, a handful of smaller-market buzz teams will fly under the radar, achieving a goal that they have full control over – being “buzzy.” As young and exciting players combine with low but hopeful expectations, teams like the Grizzlies, 76ers, Hornets, and Pacers (see: 7th and 8th seeds) have negotiated win-win scenarios with their fanbases. We win, you love us. We lose, you still love us – because our goal is bigger than accomplishment; it’s promise.
Attachment to promise over performance is a phenomenon unique to the NBA (to some extent, it plays a big part in the MLB as well, but comes as a result of an entirely different set of circumstances). The dynastic nature of the NBA leaves little for its bottom-feeders to subside on. As smaller-market teams are hamstrung by losses in free agency, risky contracts, and very top-heavy draft classes, championships are very hard to come by. As a result, it’s almost a necessity to create a very different kind of capital.
Sometimes, small-marketers will transcend this position, sacrificing buzziness to achieve a “higher” goal. In the case of the Cleveland Cavaliers (2003-2010), we were all witness to how that ended. The Thunder (2007-????) are the next best example of this. The question for me is: In the long run, how would Thunder fans feel if their team stayed where it is, at the pinnacle of promise, remaining forever young, retaining its underdog identity, and being universally liked by everyone outside of the state of Washington? (I’ve never asked, but do people in Seattle like the Thunder? Wait, do people in Vancouver still like the Grizzlies?)
I would wager that if Cleveland fans had to choose, they would go with the mid-to-late-’90s, where expectations matched results (both: low), rather than the relative failure of the mid-to-late ’00s. I suppose that the ecstasy of winning one NBA championship is enough for every team to chase it. But with the odds at 1 in 30, and those odds even lower for a small-market team, are these reasonable odds to chase? (And then when you consider that the Lakers’ and Celtics’ combined 33 championships account for more than half of the 64 NBA championships in history, then really, why do we even try?)
I’d say that the Pacers, 76ers and Grizzlies are getting tons of buzz based on their 2011 playoff performances. The buzz team allows post-knowledgeable NBA fans to project visions of greatness for a team of unlikely players who we want to see succeed in the playoffs, not because of a direct emotional commitment to the team, but because buzzing the right team means that you “get” the NBA. You even get to buzz certain players: the ones who are new to the playoffs (Tyler Hansbrough, Marc Gasol, Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner) or the “grizzled veterans who are respected but are ultimately failures who have been rebranded as having ‘adapted to new roles” (Shane Battier, Zach Randolph, Andre Iguodala). You can even talk yourself into Aaron Gray and Spencer Hawes for “having size.” Even though the Knicks flopped and are a mainstream mega-NBA brand, they also represent “the social buzz” element of buzz teams, which is a desire to “send good vibes” to a fallen franchise, or a market that has never experienced success. I can’t tell if I would want people from Oklahoma City to feel like champions, but maybe if Durant played in Portland, that would feel “pretty cool to root for.”
As we remember the 2010-2011 Pacers, may we salute them for leaving the playoffs with their heads held high, for quitting while they were ahead.
Fourteen teams left.