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Who Will Win This Year’s NBA Hipster Team Championship Belt?

Will it be Lonzo and the Baby Lakers? Joel Embiid and the Process Sixers? Or will Nikola Jokic’s Nuggets become everyone’s second-favorite squad?

Nikola Jokic, Lonzo Ball, and Joel Embiid Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last year, I went through the history of the NBA and charted the holders of the Hipster Championship Belt. A hipster team is a team that surprises us. As I wrote, this award is given to a squad “that burst[s] 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.”

They are, in other words, surprising. There is nothing more surprising than youth. And there’s never been a better time to be a young player in the NBA. The league-wide style of play, unshackled from the twin tyrannies of hand-checking and illegal defense rules, favors skill and mobility over raw physicality and height. The kind of clear-out one-on-one play that strangled the life out of ’90s and early-aughts basketball is gone.

NBA Preview 2017

But the most important reason that it’s great to be a young player right now is: expectations. As in, there aren’t any! The accretion, by a handful of teams, of top-tier veteran talent clears the way for a generation of rookies and young players to simply develop without worrying too much about wins and losses. To entertain with very few strings attached.

Why are expectations for the youth so low?

  • The Golden State Warriors tilted the balance of relevance dramatically toward the Western Conference and toward veterans. All roads lead to the Bay, and time is on their side. Stephen Curry will turn 30 this season; Kevin Durant just turned 29; Draymond Green and Klay Thompson are 27. Barring injury, catastrophic mismanagement, or some unforeseen combination of both, the Dubs could be the favorites to win the title for the next three to five years. For star-level players age 27 or above, that means your best shot at winning a championship might come from teaming up. Thus we have Chris Paul in Houston with James Harden; Paul George and Hoodie Melo in Oklahoma City with Russell Westbrook; half the Banana Boat in Cleveland; and Gordon Hayward alongside flat-earth-shitposter Kyrie Irving in Boston with Al Horford.
  • The rookie scale! In 1994, the Milwaukee Bucks selected Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson, 6-foot-8 out of Purdue, the nation’s leading collegiate scorer at 30 points per game, with the first pick in the draft. The team offered him a nine-year, fully guaranteed contract worth $60 million. These were the Wild West days for hyped-up incoming players and their agents, before limits on rookie contracts were put into place. Robinson, as was customary in those days, held out for more—he wanted to become the first $100 million rookie in league history. That didn’t happen. However, the deal Big Dog did sign—10 years, $68 million—was still a triple-layer wedding cake of cash, and the richest contract for an incoming player in NBA history. Owners locked the players out the following season, largely because they were tired of paying top dollar for unproven guys like Robinson, a solid iso-scoring forward whose mediocrity was of a piece with the most mediocre era of basketball in modern league history.

Without any further ado, here are the contenders for the 2017-18 Hipster Championship Belt.

Philadelphia 76ers

You can’t blame the youth
You can’t fool the youth
You can’t blame the youths of today
You can’t fool the youth
Peter Tosh

The Process is dead; long live the Process.

In 2013, quant god and man-out-of-time Sam Hinkie came to power in Philadelphia. He immediately set about flipping players for young, worse (and invariably much, much cheaper) players and picks, and instituting an up-tempo game plan designed to magnify his squad’s deficiencies. This system of aggressive losing—aimed at hacking the incentives of the NBA’s lottery system—is now known as “the Process” and resulted in a bounty of players. Those that remain are:

Joel Embiid

‪The process take on the champions league final...... EL PROCESO #HalaMadrid #TheProcess

A post shared by Joel "The Process" Embiid (@joelembiid) on

Embiid is the answer to “what if Olajuwon could shoot 3s?” and the physical embodiment of the Process. He is a unique mix of size, skill, and talent who, due to a broken navicular bone in his foot and various other maladies, couldn’t play for his first two seasons in the league. He made his debut in 2016-17, playing 31 games on a minutes limit before getting shut down due to a torn meniscus. His per-36 stats read like Sloan Conference fan fiction: 28.7 points (37 percent 3-point shooting!!!), 11.1 rebounds, 3 assists, 3.5 blocks. He’s also, arguably, the most entertaining social media star in the league.

Dario Saric

Saric is slow, doesn’t really jump, and has a sluggish release. Yet, he’s somehow my favorite Sixer. He relishes contact, has a boxer’s footwork, and plays an incessant bully-ball style based primarily on spinning into defenders with his elbows aimed at their sternums. And he’s a willing passer. These are all great traits to have when playing with dudes who need the ball. He’s the perfect off-the-bench grinder.

Jahlil Okafor

Drafting players is dependant on luck, and you can’t win them all. This is a particularly galling reality, considering Philly had to go out of its way to almost lose them all (the Sixers won 18 games in 2014-15) in order to get the third pick, then bypassed my son Kristaps Porzingis to take the plodding Okafor. A selection of headlines recently written about Okafor: “Does Okafor Have a Place in Today’s NBA?”; “Jahlil Okafor to get ‘every opportunity’ to play going forward”; “What is Jahlil Okafor’s trade value?” So anyway, things are going really well.

Ben Simmons

Another perfect Process pick. Simmons, a 6-foot-10 point forward in the LeBron mold (Rich Paul, a close friend of LeBron’s, signed Simmons to Klutch Sports days after the forward declared for the draft), was a five-star recruit in high school, and the most-hyped college player in the nation. His talent, unselfishness, and uncanny vision are undeniable. As is his lack of a perimeter jumper! Ben broke his foot and missed his rookie season, allowing the post-Hinkie Sixers to pursue the Process without additional deleterious press.

Markelle Fultz

Philly acquired Fultz by trading the third pick (plus a future first-rounder) to noted asset-hoarder Danny Ainge on draft night. The Celtics, who took Jayson Tatum at no. 3, reportedly passed on Fultz—who thrives in the pick-and-roll and averaged 23 points, on 47 percent shooting (41 percent from 3), six assists, and six rebounds at Washington—due to an “overflowing backcourt.” Various shakily-sourced reports about “maturity issues” (Fultz is 19 years old, guys!) have bubbled around the guard, going back to his year at Washington. NBA fans love a conspiracy and a trade of this magnitude was bound to engender whispers. Let’s chalk those rumors up to bullshit theorizing and an unfair but unsurprising attempt by Celtics fans to take a victory lap now that Ainge finally pulled the trigger on a deal involving assets.

THAT SAID! Fultz starting his Player’s Tribune media video by saying “Hi, I’m Insert Name. I’m so excited to be in Insert City,” his apparent propensity for Dwight Howard–level japery, and his overwhelming love for Chick-fil-A (combined with his existing round-face disease symptoms), should give us all pause.

Also concerning: Fultz, apparently not happy with the shooting form which resulted in a 53.5 percent effective field goal percentage, decided to retool his mechanics without telling anyone, for no particular reason! Here’s what Markelle’s shot looks like now:

This is like if you took a hitch and made an entire shot out of it. Not great!

“His percentages revealed that he’s a more-than-capable shooter,” said head coach Brett Brown (who now looks like the blind guy from Don’t Breathe who froze his semen). “I think right now him trying to figure out how to not overcomplicate things and maybe make over something that didn’t need to be made over as much as he might’ve thought is a challenge.”

GUYS: I AM EXCITED FOR THE SIXERS.

I’m not the only one.

Mere minutes after the Sixers picked Fultz first overall, I got into a text spat with a friend who works for the team. He’s convinced Philly will win something like 48 games, unless Embiid misses significant time.

It should be noted that Embiid, at media day, said, “I don’t think I’ll play 82 games this year. That’s not happening.”

NEVERTHELESS: Shoot this shit into my veins.

Los Angeles Lakers

One game into the Lakers’ summer league run, I was ready to put Lonzo Ball in the trash, next to the Big Baller Brand ZO2s. Two games in, I was thinking about buying a jersey. Three games in, I was ready to have the trip-B tattooed on my neck.

Yes, Lakers fans are going to be insufferable this year. Yes, the looming season-long LeBron Manifest Destiny rumor-mongering is already wearisome. (Aside: I just pitched 15 LeBron-to-L.A. pieces). Yes, “the league is better when the Lakers (and Knicks) are good” line wears very thin, very fast if you root for any of the other 28 teams. Who cares. Take the emotion out of it. The Lakers will be fun. Bad, but fun.

The Kyle Kuzma hive is already buzzing like Charlie Sheen’s sinus cavities. One of the most delightful aspects of this preseason has been the way Staples goes “Ahhh” when Kuzma spots up from the perimeter. At this point, Lakers fans legitimately love him more than Lonzo and it is wonderful. Julius Randle is perhaps the most notable member of #SlimDownClub. Brandon Ingram has been attacking the rim with the verve of an extremely aggressive wacky-inflatable-tube-man on a wind-whipped used car lot. Larry Nance Jr. will unleash at least three dunks this season that cause the internet to stutter, if not stop.

Get in now, because the Lakers, for the first time since the Nick Van Exel era, and probably for this season only, are hipster.

Denver Nuggets

Nikola Jokic passes are among the very best things the league has to offer. Seriously. They are works of art. The incongruousness of a goofy-ass dude with a does-it-himself buzz cut hurling exquisite, pinpoint dimes will never get old.

Gary Harris (42 percent shooting from 3!!!) is the best-kept secret in the NBA. Marijuana is legal in Colorado, the team is owned by noted Trump supporter Stan Kroenke, and they had the lowest attendance in the league last season. Get in! The bandwagon is empty!

Dallas Mavericks

The Mavericks are old, Dirk Nowitzki is on his last, one-legged leg, and Rick Carlisle, like most coaches, is loath to play young guys. Here’s the thing, though: Dennis Smith Jr. is going to commit aerial homicide this season. The dude has spring-loaded heels, wings in his shoulder blades, and jackhammers for hands, and will absolutely be the best non-Dirk reason to watch the Mavericks this season. Assuming Rick lets him fly.

New York Knicks

The Carmelo era is over. The Young Euro era has just begun. Knicks fans—and fans of modern basketball—have been clamoring for the team to make Kristaps Porzingis the focus of the offense since my son came into the league two seasons ago. Last season, my Latvian unicorn—weighed down by the pinch-post responsibilities of the triangle offense and having to operate in Melo’s shadow—notched a relatively paltry 24.3 percent usage rate, taking almost 15 attempts in 33 minutes per game.

THOSE DAYS ARE OVER! MELO IS GONE! PHIL IS GONNNNNNE! THE UNICORN IS FREE!

After a summer of hitting the weights and crushing the “like” buttons under the posts of various Instagram models, Porzingis (very lukewarm take alert, considering he plays in the biggest market in America and is also good) looks poised to make his first All-Star team.

KP’s best friend on the Knicks, Willy “Handsome Billy” Hernangomez, put up 16 points and 13.6 rebounds per 36 minutes last season. Mindaugas Kuzminskas is like if a 27-year-old Lithuanian dude went through aggressive hypnotherapy and came out believing he was Kobe Bryant. And French rookie point guard Frank “Nicotine” Ntilikina, a.k.a. “Frankie Smokes,” has all the tools to be a lockdown perimeter defender, assuming the Knicks develop him, and his body isn’t made of pop rocks. Frankie Smokes missed summer league due to injury and recently had to leave practice because of une sore groin.

LES KNICKS SONT DE RETOUR!

Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers qualify as hipster under last season’s “island of misfit toys” rule. They’re a team of castoffs, managed by a coach who could very well get fired this season. The main cast of characters is well known to us. Blake Griffin has, at times, been a grating presence. He’s mostly stopped the flopping and ostentatious gesticulating, though. (Not that he gets much credit for it.) Austin Rivers is Doc’s son. DeAndre Jordan dunks a lot.

But, this offseason, they added [THE CLIPPERS FINALLY HAVE A SMALL FORWARD KLAXON] Danilo Gallinari, back in a large market after getting shipped to Denver from New York in the Carmelo Anthony trade; Patrick Beverley, a threat to knee ligaments everywhere; Sam “White Chandler Parsons” Dekker and bench-scorer extraordinaire Lou “Polyamory” Williams (both, along with Beverley, were acquired from Houston in the CP3 trade); and, finally, European icon Milos Teodosic.

If you’re not familiar with Teodosic, he’s a 30-year-old Serbian point guard who looks like Mark Wahlberg at the end of The Gambler, is a superfund site on defense, and zips passes around the court like he has nothing to lose. He also, allegedly (according to Sam Dekker) eats cheeseburgers for breakfast.

Let’s break this thing down for a second: Teodosic, who, again, is 30, the age at which you should stop doing things like eating cheeseburgers for breakfast, eats cheeseburgers, PLURAL, for freaking breakfast. Now, maybe he gets them protein style from In-N-Out. That would still be an unwise thing for a professional athlete past his physical prime to do, but at least it would be a relatively healthier choice. And economical to boot. Whatever. My guy eats like a trash can and I love it. He’s an adult, after all. And I can’t wait to see 20 dudes wearing his jersey at Coachella this summer.