Of the crop of interesting teams to follow this year*, I'd pick the Denver Nuggets, here's why:
There's nothing douchey about following Denver. The consensus expert opinion** is that the NBA is a three team race this year. Any of those three teams is going to be on TV once a week and will be great to watch or root for. But if you tell people that you're just getting into the league and you're following one of those three teams you're going to lose the crowd. Real fans will disdain you, and you'll be left canoodling with casual fans who only watch the deep playoffs, the finals, or worse yet, are fans of Dwight Howard, LeBron James, or Kobe Bryant. It's OK to like watching those teams but you can't pick one as your team without also having to wear a "rookie" tattoo on your forehead.
They're not the Lakers. The Lakers, Yankees, Cowboys, Patriots, and Manchester United should never be followed by new fans of the sport looking to pick a team. That's just the way the world should work. It doesn't, but you have a chance to avoid all-time galactic sports-hate from people you've never met who would otherwise think you're swell and maybe even share their cheez-its with you. Follow the Lakers and your immortal soul will be in danger. Sure, you'll get to claim fandom of the winningest team in recent NBA history and a favorite to contend again this year (although there's still some question about how great they'll be***) that is also one of the more famous and valuable sports brands in the world. You'd be able to fly those annoying little flags on your car every May and June and wear gaudy purple and gold kicks to the local Y. But if you're willing to trade your soul for all that, you might as well just start selling crack to kids. Don't do it. Don't sell crack to kids.
Their coach is beating cancer, may be one of the best in the history of the game, and is occasionally horrible enough for people to think he's betting against his own team. George Karl is one of the winningest coaches in NBA history. He's old school without looking or acting truly ancient. He's what you get when a wunderkind who was more than a little cocky for his own good gets close to redemption but doesn't quite make it. You get humbled and cagey in an older, more subdued guy who still secretly just wants to outsmart everybody else in weird ways and straddles the line between elegant strategies that topple superior teams and a lack of common sense to win games against inferior opponents. He's brilliant and eccentric and a bit mad. But he's not boring.
The Manimal****. Dude's only 6'6'. Go to the 1:00 mark of this video. I don't even . . . humans shouldn't be able to do that.
LeBron Lite. There's only one LeBron James. He may be the most physically perfect basketball player in league history. He's a few inches taller than MJ, weighs about 30lbs more, and can pass better than any big man that anybody can remember. He can play every position, score from anywhere on the court, and that's not even his strength. His defense just won him a championship, a gold medal, and made him the best player in the world. And if you were going to take about 10% off the rest of his game but left his defensive ability intact, you'd get Andre Iguodala, the newest Nugget. AI6 is a long, quick, athletic, cutting scorer who can defend any perimeter player in the league, which gives the Nuggets the unique ability to shut down an opposing team's best player. He's an equalizer. As long as he's in and playing well, no dynamic wing player will overwhelm this team. He's fun and fast for casual fans, but does all kinds of little things that aren't covered by the box score that advanced stat guys love. He's also a stand up guy and one of the more fun guys in the league to root for.
Javale McGee's mom. Javale McGee looked like the classic $2 head on a million dollar body type player coming out of Washington. He got shipped out after not meeting his potential and overall being kind of an idiot. True, the Wizards were a bad situation with lots of bad influence, but you can never really tell whether one guy is the cause or an effect. Whatever the case with Javale, he's turning it around in Denver. He's battling with players who were expected to roll right over him. He's listening to his coach. He's making better decisions. And I'm not saying his mother is having more of an effect on him in Denver than when he was with the Wizards, but let's just say its clear that dude is getting it from more than one coach when he's playing. Coach Karl has a talent for taking lemons and building a lemonade stand that can give Starbucks a fight, but the turnaround here is even more impressive than usual. Javale was playing so well they had to cut his minutes to avoid having to overpay for him in the offseason. We could be watching the evolution of one of the five best big men in the game.
To the untrained eye, they're going to look spectacular. Denver plays a style of basketball similar to how you would play if I put you in front of NBAJAM and gave you seven of the most athletic guys on the court, a legendary offensive strategist for a coach, and turned off defense. They play above the rim, all offense, highlight-reel basketball. Their players are young, emotive, aggressive, and some are a wee bit crazy. On the question of "if you weren't playing basketball, what would you be doing?" they said the circus, but much faster and with occasional violence.
To the trained eye, they're going to look spectacular. Denver has assembled a collection of underrated young players who are coachable, extremely athletic, and fundamentally sound basketball players. If the Lakers, OKC, and Heat have assembled super star teams, then Denver is the Moneyball team. They traded their only super star (Carmelo Anthony) for a collection of young players and have won more games since than the team they traded him to (the Knicks). On top of all that, they have great fans and play at an altitude that gives them a unique home court advantage. Denver is an efficient, high scoring team with athletic enough players to win a scoring battle with anybody.
Everybody's rooting for them, but they're still an underdog and will never be taken seriously. The NBA is going through an interesting phase. All the best players are migrating to coastal teams, and there's only a few non-coastal teams that are expected to contend. With the exception of Oklahoma City, which won the lottery with multiple, excellent draft picks, all of the teams people will be following are the coastal superstar teams. Boston, Brooklyn, NY, Miami, Lakers, and Clippers. Denver is not going to get as much press, as much national airtime, and you won't be seeing them on top of any rankings. But they came close to beating the Lakers last year, and that Lakers team was a hair's breath away from beating the Thunder, a Finals team. Denver is a dark horse contender for the Western Conference Championship, and with a few lucky breaks and the logical progression of their young talent, could suprise the Thunder, Lakers, or Spurs and get to the finals.
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