In the NBA, there are championship teams, there are playoff teams, and there are hipster teams. If your team isn’t one of those, they’re nothing. The hipster team — also known as the critically acclaimed team — is an important part of the NBA experience. The NBA is a predictable league on both a game-to-game basis and when it comes to which teams will make the Finals. Since 2006, only two eventual championship teams — the 2010 Lakers and the 2011 Mavericks — finished outside the top five in regular-season net rating. Regular followers of the association could probably pick the two teams that will end up wrassling for the Larry O’Brien Trophy with a high degree of accuracy by August of the preceding summer. And that’s fine. Watching great teams is exciting. But human beings also crave novelty.
That’s where the hipster team comes in. A hipster team represents the rarest of NBA experiences: a surprise. These are the teams that burst onto the scene organically; whose on-court chemistry often comes across as pure attitude; who play as if entertaining is just as important as winning, and yet manage to win some games anyway. Just never the big ones.
The hipster team is defined by dreams that are too wondrous to survive the rigors of reality. To win a title, a basketball team must eventually submit to the tyranny of playing the right way: It must value possessions, play defense, play under control. The hipster team is a revolt against orthodoxy. And there are few things more romantic than a revolution. Especially when they fail.
The hipster team comes in two versions, which often overlap:
1. Young and ready to run. The purest version of the hipster team is built around a core of young players who are either better than expected earlier than expected, or are possessed of such beguiling potential that the imagination is carried away on the winged dunks and effortless swag. A team with such players is like a snowflake evanescing in your palm; a season or two — sometimes more, but often much less — of natural beauty, and then it’s gone (see: 2000–02 Los Angeles Clippers).
2. The island of misfit toys. Talented players often have difficulty finding themselves in the best situations. This happens for a variety of reasons, all of which basically come down to dumb luck. Rookies get drafted by the wrong teams (Anthony Davis; sorry, New Orleans); talented veterans with injury histories get lowballed (Steve Nash); team executives make franchise altering mistakes ([stands on desk so they can hear me in Oklahoma City] THE JAMES HARDEN TRADE); coaches may clash with their players; and teammates will occasionally beef (Jason Kidd and Jimmy Jackson; Stephon Marbury and Kevin Garnett). The result is top- or close-to-top-shelf players shaking loose on a semi-regular basis. Occasionally, these players end up on the right team, with the right coach, and everything just clicks.
The hipster team occupies a necessary philosophical space for basketball fans. Everyone wants to root for a winner, but sometimes your team sucks. And bandwagoning, especially for the discerning NBA consumer, is distasteful. The hipster team, then, is an investment. A flag out on the wild frontier, where behind-the-back passes, 6-foot-7 centers, and 30-foot pull-ups don’t get you benched. Who knows, they might even be the shape of things to come.
The history of the hipster team begins, as all things should, with Don Nelson.
Don Nelson’s Milwaukee Bucks, 1983–86
Playing style: Proto-Hipster Team
Don Nelson probably didn’t strike anyone as a revolutionary figure when the the Bucks promoted him to head coach 18 games into the 1976–77 season. Nellie was less than a year removed from his playing career when he joined Milwaukee’s bench after 11 seasons as a cog — an important cog, but a cog just the same — on the great green mid-1960s Celtics machine. "I had never drawn an X or an O while standing in front of a team in my life,’’ Nelson recalled in 1986.
Maybe it was that lack of formal experience that made Nellie so prone to experiment. Or maybe it was simple pragmatism. Going into the 1984–85 season, Bob Lanier, the Bucks venerable big-man hub, retired, and a trade sent two of the team’s best ball handlers to the Clippers. The Bucks were theoretically in rebuilding mode. Nellie was faced with a roster in which his best ball handler, decision-maker, and athlete was 6-foot-5 small forward Paul Pressey. And, so, the point-forward was born. "I wanted to coach a team that could run a fast break led by a forward," Nelson wrote for The Players’ Tribune this past July. "But most of all I wanted to have all my best players on the court at the same time — regardless of position."
Nelson coached the Bucks to seven straight Central Division titles, seven 50-plus win seasons. But the Bucks never made it past the Eastern Conference finals. Nellie acrimoniously quit at the end of the 1986–87 season. He spent more than a decade with the Bucks, but his run has been largely overshadowed by his next coaching gig.
Run TMC, 1989–91
Playing style: The Fast and the Mildly Perturbed
The Run TMC (Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond, and Chris Mullin) Warriors have an outsized influence on the the NBA, and a huge presence in the memories of the those who watched them.
The essence of Run TMC — and Nellie Ball, Nelson’s meth’d-out version of the small-ball scrimmaging he participated in as a member of the Celtics — was speed. "Speed always wins," Nellie wrote in The Players’ Tribune piece, and Tim Hardaway, a rookie in 1989–90, was like a souped-up Honda Civic out of a Fast & Furious movie, liquefying ankles with a killer crossover nitrous-rig. Mitch Richmond was in his second season, but seemed as if he was born with an ability to score. Both operated in the space provided by five-year veteran Chris Mullin, who was arguably (and it would be Reggie Miller doing the arguing), the best shooter in the NBA at the time. The team led the league in points per game and pace in 1989–90, and was fourth in 3-point attempts. Run TMC’s legend is a like a shadow at sunset, looming in outsize proportion to reality.
This was the first true hipster team. Much of that is simply great branding. Run TMC is — depending on your feelings about the propriety and problematic-ness of "Jail Blazers" — the greatest team nickname in NBA history. It was coined (via newspaper contest) at a time when rap was just beginning to move into the mainstream. It’s fun to say, fun to idly scribble into your notebook during class, and, then as now, the logo looks awesome on a T-shirt. In much the same way Jimi Hendrix’s entire recording career lasted from only 1967–70, TMC’s enduring reputation makes it easy to overlook that they were teammates for just two seasons before Richmond was traded to the Kings (as part of a package for 6-foot-9 Billy Owens! Because the Warriors wanted to get bigger!), and they were only the fastest team in the league for the first of those (1989–90). They never won 50 games in a season together, and only made the playoffs in their final year. Run TMC weren’t even the fastest Golden State team ever. Six Warriors teams played at a faster pace, per Basketball-Reference. Those teams just didn’t have a cool enough nickname.
The Nets, 1992–93
Playing style: Meadowlands Bruisers
Imagine if this team played in Brooklyn. Kenny Anderson, a New York City playground legend (and, oh, how we love our playground legends) at point guard; the irascible, supremely talented, Sheed-before-Sheed Derrick Coleman at the 4; and the Croatian Amadeus, Drazen Petrovic, all on the same squad.
The 1992–93 Nets were a hybrid of the two varieties of the hipster team. They were young (Anderson was 22 and in his second season; DC was 25) and cast aside (Petrovic, 27 years old in 1991–92, had spent a season and change mouldering on the Portland Trailblazer’s bench). Anderson’s rookie year with the Nets was marred by the heavy-handed approach of then-coach Bill Fitch. The no. 2 pick in the 1991 NBA draft, Anderson had held out for a richer contract, a common occurrence under previous versions of the collective bargaining agreement. To sign him, the Nets had to waive Jud Buechler and Dave Feitl. Fitch was displeased. "Our ownership made a horrible decision," Fitch said. "I’m ticked. I want to win. You can’t win if you’re not going to be able to control your own basketball team."
In retaliation, Fitch made sure Anderson spent his rookie season welded to the bench, giving Mookie "Young Pearl Jam" Blaylock about 35 minutes a game. By the end of the season, Fitch’s players were refusing to enter games. He would soon resign.
Enter Chuck Daly, armed with thick carapace of hair and two championship rings from his years in Detroit. He quickly turned the Nets into a top-five defensive team. In the 1992–93 campaign, Anderson put up 16.9 points and 8.2 assists per game. The team was bedeviled by injuries, but the core of a perennial playoff team was clearly visible. In 1993, if you had to bet on the trio of Anderson, Coleman, and Petrovic, or the Knicks’ Patrick Ewing (30 years old), Charles Oakley (29), and John Starks (27) being the core of a playoff team for the next five years, you’d be forgiven for picking the Nets.
Then Petrovic died in a car accident in the summer of 1993. The team made the playoffs the following season, after which, perhaps wearied by constantly battling with Coleman and Jayson Williams, Daly resigned.
The SuperSonics, 1992–97
Playing style: The Glove and the Reign
When we were kids, my brother made a papier mâché statue of Shawn Kemp, legs astride the sky, arm cocked back, based on the above picture, which was taken at the 1991 Slam Dunk Contest. I’ve spent hours searching our parents’ basement looking for it. Why is basketball the best sport in the world? Because where else can you regularly see man fly. When Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton were at their best for the Sonics, you saw stuff like this all the time.
From 1992–98, the George Karl’s Sonics won 55, 63, 57, 64, and 57 games. They were a true championship contender, consistently ranked in the top 10 of offensive and defensive rating. And they always put on a show. For me, peak Kemp was the greatest in-game dunker of all time. With Gary Payton (and Nate McMillan) clamping down on guards, and forcing turnovers, KeyArena was wet with the humid funk of dunks: power dunks, tomahawks, soul-destroying facials, and alley-oops of all kinds.
Unfortunately, like many a Karl team, the Sonics always seemed to shrink on the biggest stage. In 1994, after winning 63 games, Seattle was eliminated by eighth-seeded Denver in the first round of the playoffs, much to the iconic joy of Dikembe Mutombo. It remains one of the greatest playoff upsets ever in the pre–"the Warriors were up 3–1" era.
The next season, Seattle won 57 games only to lose to a Lakers team led by Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones, and Cedric Ceballos. The Sonics made the Finals the following year, where they gave the 72-win Bulls everything they could handle, except a seventh game. Emblematic moment? Kemp reverse dunking on Dennis Rodman, pulling up on the rim, and treating Dennis’s head like it was a fire hydrant.
After that Finals run, Seattle gave Jim McIlvaine a $35 million contract, pissing off Kemp. He forced a trade to the Cavaliers, where he promptly became obese.
The Magic, 1993–96
Playing style: Showtime for the Nintendo Generation
In many ways, the 1993–96 Magic were the East’s version of the Kemp-Payton Sonics. Both teams boasted a dynamic perimeter star and a planet-shattering big man, ringed by shooters and specialists. Both made the Finals once, though the Sonics had a longer run of true hipster relevance. Both teams fell apart because of jealousy and money.
It’s hard to overstate how exciting young, pre-injuries Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway was. He was 6-foot-7 of lithe coiled spring; he had Scottie Pippen’s engine and chassis with Magic Johnson’s targeting computer. Shaq was Shaq: a terrifying force whose second- and third-jump efforts were as explosive as anyone else’s first. In only their second season together, Hardaway and Shaq won 57 games and beat the Bulls in the playoffs (though it should be noted that Michael Jordan was still in baseball shape), reached the Finals, and faced the Rockets. They choked in epic fashion, and Shaq got dominated by Hakeem Olajuwon. The following season, after winning 60 games, Orlando was swept by a vengeful Michael Jordan.
Even with Jordan back in the league, the Magic’s outlook was excellent. MJ was 33 in the summer of 1996. The Pacers were scrappy, but short on power. The Knicks were a spent force, and the Heat were years away from actual relevance. In theory, they should have fielded a Finals-caliber team for the next several years. Instead, the Magic front office lowballed the greatest center of his generation, and that summer, Shaq signed a seven-year, $121 million deal with the Lakers. Hardaway’s knees self-destructed soon after, and the Magic have never been the same.
The Kings, 1998–2003
Playing style: The Princeton Offense on Weed
The Chris Webber–Jason "White Chocolate" Williams–Vlade Divac–Peja Stojakovic Kings were probably the greatest, most entertaining collection of cast-offs in NBA history.
- C-Webb, one of the most obviously talented forwards ever, forced his way out of Golden State (effectively signaling the end Nellie’s tenure there) in part because he didn’t want to play center. After a stint in D.C., he was traded to Sacramento, a place he didn’t actually want to play.
- Williams averaged 17.1 points, 6.7 assists, and nearly three steals as a Florida Gator before getting kicked off the team for drug violations; he never appeared in the NCAA tournament.
- At the time, Divac was known primarily for his foul-drawing theatrics and for being part of the Jerry West–designed draft-day grand larceny that delivered Kobe Bryant to the Lakers.
- No one had ever heard of Peja Stojakovic. Or Hedo Turkoglu. Or Scot Pollard. Or Bobby Jackson.
The team was an immediate sensation. They moved the ball like they had the "flashy pass" controller button held down. The Kings’ chemistry particularly between Williams and C-Webb, was lit in the most high-on-weed sense of the word. A whole generation of young basketball fans discovered Pistol Pete Maravich because Jason Williams kept getting compared to him on SportsCenter.
During the 1999–00 season, the Kings won 44 games, and took two games off the eventual champion Lakers in a highly entertaining first-round battle. The next season, Sacramento won 55, and seemed poised to take the next step. Well, maybe "poised" is the wrong word. Certainly insofar as Jason Williams was concerned. White Chocolate had, by then, developed a taste for the highlight play, but lacked any wisdom about when to attempt one.
With less than 25 seconds left in Game 1 against the Lakers in the 2001 playoffs, Kings down by three, Williams challenged Shaq for a layup. Result? What do you think?
In Game 3, he committed four turnovers in 21 minutes, and Bobby Jackson began closing out games.
After the Lakers’ sweep, the Kings traded Williams and assets to Vancouver for Mike Bibby and other pieces. It was the end of the innocence, but the Kings were vastly improved. Then, in 2002 … well, we know that story.
The Suns, 2004–08
Playing style: Seven Seconds or Less
Mark Cuban feared that Steve Nash’s lower spine might be made out of poutine shards. It was 2004, and despite six mostly stellar seasons, which included two All-Star appearances, the Mavericks owner decided to let his franchise point guard leave Dallas in free agency. Cuban would later call the decision the worst move he ever made. For Mike D’Antoni, then a fringe-NBA character who had dragged the Suns to a 21–40 record through 61 games in charge, it was a godsend. In his first season coaching Nash, the Suns won 62 games total.
D’Antoni’s strategy was simple (though at the time, it seemed like more of a pyramid scheme than league-altering revolution): spread the floor with shooters, use an other-worldly athlete as your roll-man hammer, and let Nash pull the strings.
Phoenix might have won the title, if not for Joe Johnson breaking his face, injuries to Amar’e’s legs, Nash getting hip-checked and his face turning into an un-stanchable blood-filled-bag, and Stoudemire and Diaw getting suspended for leaving the bench against San Antonio.
The Spurs eliminated the Suns three times from 2004–08. The final indignity? San Antonio then co-opted their offense.
The Thunder, 2009–12
Playing Style: Lotto Winner’s Instagram Feed
Did you know that the Oklahoma City Thunder once had three MVP-level talents on its roster? You did? Well, let’s revisit that fact again, because it bears repeating now and forever, for as long as people play basketball for money. The Thunder had three legitimate MVP candidates, all younger than 22, plus Serge Ibaka. Sam Presti achieved a feat not seen since the early days of the league. The Thunder — and that sound you just heard is the entire Oklahoma City metro area closing this browser tab — were bringing James Harden, one of the most potent offensive weapons in the league off the bench. Off the bench! And they let him go because of a difference of $4.5 million. Clay Bennett probably owns $3 million worth of golf equipment. True, we live in a post-television-deal age, when salary figures with one digit in front of two commas barely register as real money. BUT, STILL! By acquiring Durant, the Warriors essentially recreated, with cash, what the Thunder accomplished with ping-pong balls and prayer. We can never, ever stop talking about this ever.
Sometimes, a team has the anti-authoritarian vibe and the devil-may-care potential of a hipster team, but never reaches a level of basic competence where you could, even for a second, imagine them appearing in a conference finals.
The "We Believe" Warriors, 2006–07
Playing style: Nellie Ball! What Else?
NELLIE BALL IS BAAAAAAAAAACK! Fastest pace in the league? Check! A high-scoring fun machine? Check? Not actually that good, but who cares? Check and mate.
The 42–40 Warriors — Nellie Ball incarnate — were a delight to behold for everyone except Dirk Nowitzki and, for a brief moment, Andrei Kirilenko. As Stefon used to say, this team had everything.
- Late B-Diddy-era Baron Davis, still able to call up extra horsepower from the engine room.
- Monta Ellis, before everyone was totally sick of Monta Ellis’ schtick.
- Stephen Jackson, a.k.a. Captain Jack, a.k.a. the dude who told Pop to trade him, a.k.a. the platonic ideal of the "guy I want in my foxhole" player.
- Slam Dunk champion Jason Richardson.
- That motherfucker Al Harrington.
- Andris Biedrins, on his way to a $54 million extension, a crippling fear of free throws, and wild nights on the streets of Riga. (Google "Biedrins" "Riga" at your own risk).
- Mike "Tom Thibodeau Dreams About Me" Dunleavy Jr.
- New Jersey’s own Troy Murphy, before he looked like he slept 12 hours a night in a brown paper bag.
- Matt freaking Barnes.
- Mike "French Vanilla" Pietrus.
- Kelenna Azubuike.
And, before you say, "That’s not really everything," DAJUAN WAGNER (DAJUAN WAGNER ALERT) HAD A CUP OF COFFEE WITH THIS TEAM.
The "Head Knock" Clippers, 2001–03
Playing style: When You Play Someone in ‘2K’ and All They Try to Do Is Alley-Oop
True fact: The Young Clippers two-fisted head knock celebration symbolized the placing of the testicles onto the forehead of the defender. This team went 39–43 and 27–55, but they did it in style.
The Agent Zero Wizards, 2004–07
Playing style: Deranged Swag
Back when Steph Curry was still getting carded at comic book stores, Gilbert Arenas (ironically, a former Warrior) was doing the "turn my back before the shot drops" thing. Today, long after the "pick one" fiasco, the only thing Gil lights up is Instagram.
The Oden-Roy-Aldridge Trail Blazers, 2009
Playing style: Tragedy
If the injury gods had been merciful, a young core of Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Greg Oden could have competed for a NBA title. It feels crazy to say this now, but healthy Oden was a towering force. And Roy was possessed of a potent, intelligent, all-around offensive game. Even as his body was failing him, he was capable of putting up numbers, and putting dudes on milk cartons.
The Next Hipster Team
The Minnesota Timberpuppies
Playing style: TBD (Thibodeau Baby Dogs)
Karl-Anthony Towns is the best young big man since Tim Duncan. Kris Dunn could win Rookie of the Year or break per-100 possession turnover records. Zach LaVine dunks are the hottest thing in Minnesota for three months out of the year. And Wiggins has braids now. Add defensive innovator Tom Thibodeau to the mix, and mush, doggie, mush. This season is for KG.