Getty Image/Ralph Ordaz
The NBA has made it a quarter of the way through the 2020-21 season, through some stops and starts for various teams as players go in and out of the league’s health and safety protocols. The lineup fluctuations caused by trying to proceed through absences have impacted play and interest at times, but it has been refreshing to see the level of play around the league this season.
With postponements and the occasional star absence, each night requires fans to dive into the League Pass schedule to find the best games, because that doesn’t always align with where the biggest teams are in action. As such, we’re going to highlight five teams in each conference that, through the first 16-20 games have been a true delight to watch and don’t get as many opportunities as others on the national TV schedule. As such, TNT and ESPN staples like the Lakers, Clippers, Warriors, Celtics, Nets, and Sixers don’t make the list. (Although we must note that in terms of overall viewing experience, factoring in the team and broadcast crew, the Nets figuring out their new Big 3 with Ian Eagle and Sarah Kustok on the call is appointment television.)
Some of these are top contenders who simply missed the national window in the first half of the season while others are middling teams, scrapping for play-in dreams but are a joy to watch.
The Jazz have been a hot and cold team in the past, but the first quarter of the 2020-21 campaign is one of the hot stretches. It certainly helps when Utah makes every shot, but they also do things that die-hards will love. Looking for a well-crafted offensive system? Utah has it. Do you appreciate the NBA’s best defensive force? Rudy Gobert has you covered. How ‘bout a few ATO plays that will leave coaches at all levels drooling? Quin Snyder delivers. The Jazz also have a few players that are easy to love, even beyond the top billing. Mike Conley is back in a serious groove, and he has long been a staple of League Pass favorites lists. Then, you get to Joe Ingles, who seemingly never stops talking (in the best way), and deploys an old-man game that is remarkable to observe. They only have a few national TV games in the first half, but have taken over the West’s top spot and are well worth the watch.
Phoenix is really good and likely to get better. Devin Booker is a superstar, and he’s also fun to watch. He scores at all levels, does it with flare, and rises to the occasion when it matters. Deandre Ayton makes a few plays per game that will raise your eyebrows, and the Suns deploy a playing style that, at least to many, is enjoyable to consume. From there, Chris Paul is one-of-a-kind, and even if the current, more “mature” version isn’t quite what it was at his peak, he is a true craftsman. Mikal Bridges is, too, a craftsman on the defensive end, reading the game in a preternatural way and turning heads as one of the best off-ball role players in the league. Phoenix even has a fun bench that can keep things moving when needed. Eddie Johnson is a bit of an acquired taste in the analyst chair, but the whole package works, even as they have hiccups as they figure out how to put all of their pieces together.
The Nuggets do have a decent diet of national television games, and that happens when you reach the Western Conference Finals. Still, Denver isn’t a full-blown fixture on TNT and ESPN, heightening the League Pass experience. While the broadcast is quite reasonable, this is largely an on-court selection, and it centers heavily on Nikola Jokic. Denver’s leading man is one of the most aesthetically pleasing players in the league, throwing ridiculous passes from angles that no one else attempts. He’s a 7-footer that keys an offense as a passer, and Jokic is now scoring (and rebounding) at an elite level to boot, putting him firmly in the MVP discussion. Not that the Nuggets need more appealing entities, but Michael Porter Jr. is splendid when he has it going, and the same could be said for Jamal Murray. Finally, Monte Morris may not be flashy or exciting but, if you appreciate the finer things in basketball circles, having the ultra-solid caretaker can add a hint of pleasure to the viewing experience.
The Kings can run hot and cold, and if you catch them on an off-night, things can get ugly. That said, they play a wildly entertaining style and, as long as you’re a fan of high-scoring games, you’ll enjoy the Kings’ offense trying valiantly to make up for the fact that they deploy the league’s worst defense in history. De’Aaron Fox is a mad man running the floor and pushing the tempo, while Harrison Barnes is enjoying one of the best seasons of his career. Richaun Holmes is a delight to watch in the paint and Tyrese Haliburton is a true basketball savant and one of the most enjoyable rookies to watch. What really elevates the Kings to League Pass favorites is that all of that comes with the soundtrack of ESPN vet Mark Jones and Doug Christie, who have immediately turned into a top-5 local announcing duo.
The Rockets are creeping up on being a .500 team after rattling off their fourth straight win on Thursday night against the Blazers to move to 8-9. For those who thought Houston would just fade into obscurity in the post-James Harden era, the opposite has happened. I don’t know exactly how good the Rockets can be, but I know they are incredibly enjoyable to watch as the national TV audience got to see on Thursday. John Wall might not be exactly the Wall of old, but he’s playing some terrific basketball and he and Victor Oladipo have quickly formed a chemistry to lead the Rockets on both ends of the floor. Christian Wood is flourishing as a budding star at the center position, and Eric Gordon is still capable of big scoring outbursts. What’s really stood out recently is the defensive effort they’ve put in, led by their backcourt and the ever-present energy of P.J. Tucker. They are the rare team to trade a generational superstar and immediately become a more enjoyable team to watch.
After a three-year hiatus, the Hawks are pretty good again, and they are also entertaining. Granted, Atlanta had a pretty ugly stretch in early January with four straight losses in rather hideous fashion but, at (relatively) full strength, this is a quality team that plays an entertaining style. Trae Young doesn’t seem to be beloved by everyone, but he’s a dynamic scorer, an otherworldly passer, and a true showman. He has quality, highlight-producing lob threats in John Collins and Clint Capela, an emerging standout forward in De’Andre Hunter, and a playing style captained by head coach Lloyd Pierce that is modern in nature. Atlanta’s broadcast is bolstered by the sultry tones of longtime voice Bob Rathbun, who makes you feel like you’re in capable hands for 48 minutes. Finally, the Hawks also have fantastic new jerseys to enhance the experience, and their MLK-inspired court design, including a stained glass logo at center court, is elite.
New York Knicks
It is an embarrassment of riches to have Mike Breen and Clyde Frazier as a team’s primary commentators. Breen is arguably the No. 1 play-by-play voice in the league, Frazier has a truly unique approach, and the overall broadcast experience is delightful. The Knicks may not scream out as an eminently watchable team on the court but, in a weird way, it is almost refreshing to watch a Tom Thibodeau-led bunch. Julius Randle is off to a sensational start, as he and R.J. Barrett play a ton of minutes, and the supporting cast, including rookie Immanuel Quickley, have been a pleasant surprise. New York is more competitive this season under his leadership, and the Knicks deploy a style that few teams utilize in the modern game. They grind out possessions, lean heavily on the same cast of characters and generally overachieve. It may not be everyone’s aesthetic cup of tea, but too much similarity can be a bad thing when you’re flipping around on League Pass. The Knicks are different, and for the first time in awhile, a worthy watch on a nightly basis.
The Pacers are a really good basketball team once again, and with rare few national TV appearances, they’re a team you kind of have to go out of your way to watch. When you do, though, they’re a delight, as Nate Bjorkgren and his coaching staff has given them some new life on offense with their new, Raptors-esque system, but with some twists as they lean heavily on All-Star Domantas Sabonis, who is off to another terrific start. Malcolm Brogdon has regained his three-point stroke this season and is making Indiana look like they got a bargain when they signed him two summers ago. Jeremy Lamb and Doug McDermott are giving them admirable contributions as they wait on T.J. Warren and Caris LeVert to make their season debuts for the Pacers, and so this is a team that figures to only get more intriguing as the season wears on and everyone is able to play. Oh, they also have the man who likely should be the DPOY frontrunner in Myles Turner, who is blocking everything with 4.2 rejections a game and has found his groove offensively as well. They’re a very enjoyable watch, with tremendous fundamentals on both ends of the floor with some star caliber play mixed in.
Take a trip to SexLand next time you find yourself trying to pick from the early slate on League Pass and I assure you won’t be disappointed. Like the Pacers, the Cavs are a team that’s still waiting for everyone to get back on the court, as they’ve had a number of injuries pop up, including one that’s limited Kevin Love to just two appearances on the year. However, Collin Sexton is a budding star on offense, shooting the ball at a preposterous rate this season, and he’s capable of taking over games, as the Nets learned last week. Darius Garland has also taken a positive step forward in his sophomore season, making SexLand a very real movement on the banks of Lake Erie. Larry Nance Jr. is currently banged up but should be back soon and he is the glue that holds this Cavs team together, wreaking havoc defensively and providing spacing and energy offensively as a connector. Andre Drummond is very much enjoying life in Cleveland, leading the league in rebounding for the fourth straight season and packing in 18 points per game as well. Jarrett Allen provides a different energy to Drummond, but has quickly made himself at home in the Cavs rotation and just overall this team is a joy to watch for the way they play on a nightly basis. I’ve also learned to love Austin Carr, and if you embrace his energy this is just a great team to watch.
I’ve found myself watching a lot of Hornets games this season, which I didn’t anticipate coming into the season, but they’ve been a lot of fun. Gordon Hayward is having a career-best start to the season and looks to be at home with this Hornets team. Terry Rozier was thought to be potentially the odd man out when they drafted LaMelo Ball, but is likewise off to a terrific start and proving that there’s room for all three of their guards, along with Devonte’ Graham, to get theirs and also work together to make this Charlotte offense hum. Ball is a joy in transition and makes a couple passes a game that are worth tuning in for, even if he’s still got plenty to work on in terms of his own scoring efficiency. Miles Bridges has really found his niche as the sixth man for this Charlotte team and P.J. Washington is a bit of a do-it-all glue guy. They don’t win every night, but they’re often competitive and their broadcast crew of Eric Collins and Dell Curry is a fun one who bring some welcome energy to the 7 p.m. window that they often occupy.