The biggest NBA bandwagon fan base at the midseason mark

The biggest NBA bandwagon fan base at the midseason mark

A journey to find the most promiscuous fans in the league

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Trae Young and LeBron James play for two of the biggest bandwagon fanbases in the NBA.
Trae Young and LeBron James play for two of the biggest bandwagon fanbases in the NBA.
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As someone who is loyal to a fault, people who hop team allegiances never cease to make my brain hemorrhage. I don’t know how the LeBron James cult does it. “He’s my favorite player” is what a child says when they first discover what sports are. Yeah, I loved Penny Hardaway, too, but when I moved to a city with an NBA franchise at age 11, I picked the Trail Blazers because I thought that’s what you’re supposed to do.

You choose a team in your formative years — by proximity or otherwise — and stick with them. I don’t know why I’m sports monogamous. (Being raised Catholic might have something to do with it.) Maybe I should try something new, hop on NBA Ashley Madison and see what it’s like to cheat on Damian Lillard. NBA Twitter is one big, messy orgy anyway. Let me derobe and jump in.

*Five minutes later.*

Nope. Noooooope. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. That is not for me. Let me go back over here to my perfectly sufficient missionary with a few nice finishing moves and live my life. I am not trying to do whatever Kyrie Irvings fans are doing, I’m not submissive enough for the LeBron hive, people kept handing me flyers for a discounted romp with Russell Westbrook, and Golden State was just a crunchy nudist colony.

That’s enough experimentation for… ever. Since I dipped my toe in the bandwagon waters, I’ll be scrubbing it forever, but I also was able to make observations for strictly research purposes. These are the results (please be negative, please be negative, please be negative) from my search for the NBA’s top 10 most bandwagon fan bases midway through the season.

But before I get to the top 10, I wanted to shout out honorable mentions Phoenix and Philly. They narrowly missed this designation because people are off The Process, and Chris Paul has to win a title for fans to give him his flowers.

Alright, from borderline masochism to the most hedonistic, let’s get started.

SLIDE #110. New York Knicks

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People showed up expecting a party, and are left with R.J. Barrett trying to cheer up fans not sobbing over Julius Randle’s mental breakdown. The bright lights aren’t for everyone, and the lighting at MSG went from pre-movie dim to a gigantic, glaring, flaw-exposing spotlight compared to last season.

The Randle who averaged 24-10-6 in 2020-21 deserved a $117 million, four-year extension, but this one who is only getting 18 points and shooting the worst percentage of his career (41 percent from the field) is why the Knicks bandwagon is running on fumes. Trading for Cam Reddish helped extend the trip, but if you’re not going to let him put gas in the tank, this season is going to quickly sputter out.

Here’s my coworker Carron Phillips a week ago on the Reddish-Knicks situation with an assist from Deadspin’s Jesse Spector:

“As my colleague and Knicks fan Jesse Spector said, ‘The Knicks need to figure out what the hell they’re doing in a lot of ways, because it’s not tanking, but it’s also not contending.’

That last sentence pretty much sums up what the Knicks have been for the last decade, as an overhyped franchise that hasn’t won a title in almost 50 years. And if the Knicks want to build off the momentum from last season that ended in an embarrassing first-round exit to Cam Reddish’s old team, they should start by figuring out what to do with Reddish and determine if Tom Thibodeau is the coach they believe can rectify all the head-scratching situations he’s put them in.”

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2 / 10

9. Atlanta Hawks

9. Atlanta Hawks

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Trae Young and the Hawks had their moment last playoffs, and even though they’re sitting at 10th in the East, they have Ice Trae, and people love Ice Trae. (Just know I’m calling him Ice Trae with the same level of bemusement that Rocket took when mocking Taserface.) Atlanta showed last year that they are deep and talented, and that’s why people loved them at the beginning of the season.

I took the bait, writing, “The Hawks are good and, more importantly, hungry” one game into the season after Ice Trae complained postgame about being disrespected. Well fucking shit, had I known the way to motivate them was via heckling I wouldn’t have been so nice.

The Hawks are only slightly less disappointing than the Knicks, but the hopes were higher. If history tells us anything about coach Nate McMillan it’s that he’s great in the beginning but eventually loses his team. You’d think a deep, offensively talented team would want to open it up, but McMillan loves to slow it down — 19th in pace per game. The only people who haven’t leapt off this bandwagon into the frigid waters of freezing cold takes are Ice Trae faithful and sports writers sticking with their preseason predictions.

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3 / 10

8. Chicago Bulls

8. Chicago Bulls

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Signing DeMar DeRozan, a player everyone had given up on, to stupid money is a sure fire way to throw people off the scent. Prior to the season, pundits wondered if this team could play defense, what would they get out of DeRozan, how would LaVine’s contract situation affect his game, and how would the other newcomers — Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso — fit in.

Factor in their disappointing end to last season after trading for Nikola Vučević, and people couldn’t tell if it was an aroma or an odor wafting out of the Windy City. Well, DeRozan is an All-Star starter, and the Bulls are good enough to attract the attention of even their most bandwagon fans who only come out when it looks like they have the next basketball profit.

Coworker and Chicagoan Sam Fels is not a bandwagon fan, but he prefers hockey. However, he even took a break from being perpetually sad about the Blackhawks to “snort toe nails” and extol the Bulls, including rookie and native son Ayo Dosunmu. Add hometown hero to major media market, Zach LaVine dunks, winning, and historical significance, and you have a fanbase reliving some of its glory years and a few new fans trying to siphon off as much joy as possible.

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4 / 10

7. Cleveland Cavaliers

7. Cleveland Cavaliers

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This is the best the Cavaliers have looked since LeBron left, and the team is so fun that everyone is excited, including me. I’ve been on the Evan Mobley train since early in the season.

“It’s progressively gotten harder and harder to find a 7-footer who isn’t a project. Like, oh, you know how to attack a closeout, find a teammate, rotate on defense and shoot? Usually you get ‘catches lobs’ and ‘set picks,’ and the rest is as raw as beef carpaccio.

“Mobley isn’t raw, and if I wasn’t morally opposed to well done steaks, that’s how I’d describe his game.”

When I wrote about the Cavs a second time it came at the quarter season mark and focused on their defense.

Well now at the halfway mark, they’re tied with the Warriors for points allowed at 102.5, and foul less than anyone, per NBA.com. I’m not the only one who latched onto their bandwagon (I’m sorry, Dame!), and this ride will at least go on to the first round of the playoffs.

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5 / 10

6. Charlotte Hornets

6. Charlotte Hornets

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The Ball brothers have a brand. I’m not talking about Big Baller Brand, I’m talking about their status as quasi-influencers who also play basketball. Lamelo Ball is the most charismatic and he also happens to be the best basketball player, too. Lonzo’s game is built more to appease old-school hoops heads who love a point guard who plays defense, passes, shoots, and doesn’t need the ball. Lamelo doesn’t need the ball either, but it’s so much more fun when he has it.

That’s exactly why the Bulls are No. 8 on this list, and the Hornets are No. 6. Charlotte has someone Chicago is winning without: A must-watch player. I’ve seen in-person how explosive DeRozan and LaVine are, but Lamelo to Miles Bridges hasn’t lost its nuance yet.

I wrote about Lamelo’s “It” factor earlier this season… Wait. No pull quote? OK, just roll another Melo to Miles highlight.

The Hornets’ record (28-24) is good enough to attract more Lamelo true believers, and NBA Twitter is full of people who are intrigued by the Big Baller Brand.

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6 / 10

5. Miami Heat

5. Miami Heat

Miami was ground zero for the biggest outbreak of bandwagon fans we’ve ever seen. When LeBron said he was taking his talents to South Beach, South Beach somehow gained even more cachet than it already had. Now Heat culture is a thing, and we have to treat Miami like they’re the Lakers when it comes to fire agency because Miami is “cool.”

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I don’t know how much of a bump your trendiness gets from signing Kyle Lowry, but your title odds increase and that draws increased media love. After dining out on Jack Harlow making a song about him, Tyler Herro is back to being a bucket.

Here’s Criss Partee on Tyler Herro, bucket:

“Besides missing a few games this year for various reasons (injuries, COVID, etc.), Herro has been nothing short of baller status. He averages 20.7 ppg, and just under 5 rpg and 4 apg, while shooting 39 percent from three-point range. Tyler is doing all this coming off the bench as the Heat’s sixth man.”

Calling Herro “fucking delusional” after he said he’s in the same conversation as Young, Luka Dončić, and Ja Morant might have been an exaggeration on my part. Perhaps simply “delusional” would’ve worked. Regardless, the Heat are second in the East a couple years removed from making the Finals, and the public doesn’t need a lot of incentive to back Miami.

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7 / 10

4. Memphis Grizzlies

4. Memphis Grizzlies

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Well this is a surprise. Cracking the top five in bandwagon fans are the Memphis Grizzlies. I don’t know if true Grit and Grinders like people flocking to their “drippy” squad, but this is what happens when a team exceeds expectations and has a young superstar who says shit like, “We run up the chimney. We ain’t ducking no smoke” after getting into it with the Knicks during a W in the Garden.

Memphis is 36-18, good for third in the West. And with the majority of their conference where we thought they’d be or worse, they’ve also received a jolt of popularity due to teams like Dallas, Utah, and Denver disappointing. It’s not like those teams were ever laden with bandwagon fans, but the type of person they’d usually attract, the hipster NBA fan, has found a new toy in Memphis.

I don’t know if I cite enough advanced metrics to qualify as a hipster NBA fan, but I did write about the Grizz and their roster of budding young talent a few weeks back. Not everyone is on board with alternating their allegiances between the behemoths of the NBA, so they gravitate to less threatening, less popular teams.

Memphis might not have as many bandwagon fans as I allege they do, and that’s OK. It’s February, they’ve been one of the best teams since December, and basketball fans as a collective are falling in love with Ja Morant. That’s more shine than they’ve seen in a long time. Garnering a new following isn’t always a bad thing; most of the time it means you’re doing something right. The Grizz are doing a lot right.

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8 / 10

3. Golden State Warriors

3. Golden State Warriors

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The return of Klay Thompson, coupled with the never-ending Steph Curry lovefest, is why the Warriors clock in at No. 3. Having the most popular player since LeBron and breaking records while winning titles is going to earn you fans. What the Splash Bros. do — rain threes with more flair than a Chotchkie’s waiter — merits the love they receive.

Some could call the Golden State obsession exhausting, annoying, and pretentious, but I would call it… exhausting, annoying, and pretentious. I don’t want to hear about the Warriors changing the game. Until the league is littered with authentic successors to Steph and Klay, teams aren’t going to evolve. It’s like asking Alex Smith to play like Patrick Mahomes.

Not everyone can bend the rules of physics. I like watching the Warriors play, but I’m not breaking down game film because I know the secret ingredients are Curry and Klay. What they do on the basketball court may be replicated, but we won’t be calling the team that pulls it off the “future of basketball.”

That said, the Warriors were abominable for so long that they’ve been accused of moonlighted as Lakers fans before Curry came to town. That counts as cheating and automatically makes you a bandwagon fan. I’m sorry, you removed your helmet, you must leave the guild or wash yourself in the mines of Mandalore.

SLIDE #92. Los Angeles Lakers

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Since LeBron went to Miami, he’s been on a “super team” every year but his first in LA and the season in Cleveland after Kyrie Irving abandoned him. James does a great job of making sure the team he’s on has the best chance of winning a title. That often comes via switching teams and attracting free agents. It’s made it unacceptable to be on a team that’s not at the forefront of the title conversation.

Grinding out playoff appearances only to fall short of a Larry O’Brien trophy and have your career go the way of Sisyphus is lame. Staying with a team your entire career is lame. Chase the dragon and try to catch it as much as possible. My uncle Mark, a self-proclaimed bandwagon fan/aficionado, says, “Since I’m a bandwagon fan, I’m never disappointed.”

Dopamine surges are why the Lakers have so many bandwagon fans. They’re in the conversation to sign or acquire talented players even when they suck. Any discontent felt by Lakers fans is usually swiftly wiped away with promises of signings and success.

I don’t know if Westbrook was plan A or the backup plan, but if the Lakers move on from him, they’ll probably bring in another All-Star, who, worthy or not, will reinforce how fun it is to be a Lakers fan. Showtime is a brand and it attracts players and fans alike.

I’m not here to determine which came first — the front-runner or the bandwagon — but both are still swarming to Southern California.

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9 / 10

1. Brooklyn Nets

1. Brooklyn Nets

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This Nets team might go down as the worst case of bandwagon fandom we’ve ever seen. What percentage of Nets gear that you see people wearing in public has been purchased since Irving and Kevin Durant signed? Seventy percent? Eighty percent? Ninety-five percent?!

KD has a diehard fan base — one that’s constantly under attack by devout LeBron fans, mad he stacked the deck in Golden State. They do exist and follow him much the same way children (and adults) follow their favorite player.

I don’t know if I’d call James Harden’s following a “hive.” Having a smattering of worshippers is better than nothing especially when nothing is all you’ve ever won. Hardenites form more of a nest, but he has to be someone’s favorite player, right? I feel bad for that young boy or girl or adult.

A lot of people fled the Nets caravan once they realized someone on the bus was a walking Petri dish. That said, Irving’s stance against the COVID-19 vaccine also served to boost his popularity among the large swath of anti-vaxx idiots who roam the streets among us at this very moment. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that most of the people who love him for standing up for what’s wrong don’t actually care about basketball. They’re actually thrilled Irving found a hole in the NBA’s holier than thou act and (mostly) skirted the vaccine mandate. There could’ve been a dip in new enrollees after Durant got injured, but Irving’s return to play (in away games) helped avoid that.

But now the real reason this team is No. 1 in the NBA in bandwagon fans: People from New Jersey are too proud to follow a team across the Hudson, and New York will always be a Knicks town, so it’s fair to ask, is anyone who likes the Nets not a bandwagon fan?

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