NBA: Ranking the 10 Best Fanbases in the NBA

Dave Leonardis@@FrontPageDaveContributor IIIJune 20, 2012

NBA: Ranking the 10 Best Fanbases in the NBA

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    Every NBA franchise has their own legion of fans, some larger than others. They come in all shapes, sizes, ages and colors.

    However, who has the best home crowd?

    Today, we answer that question by ranking the 10 best fanbases in the NBA. There are several key factors in establishing yourself among the NBA's elite home-court advantages. I scoured through attendance numbers the past few years to see what fans are there through thick and thin and which fans fade away when the going gets tough.

    You have to have a reputation for being loud and rowdy and your home arena can't be seen on national television with half the building empty. Sorry, Hawks fans.

    These 10 fanbases are the guys who call up sports radio stations every game to speak their mind and not just to go on a tangent on how the coach needs to get canned.

    So, without further ado, here's my take on the 10 best fanbases in the NBA.

10. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Much like LeBron James' "decision" in the summer of 2010, this spot was a toss-up between Miami and Cleveland.

    Both teams were at the bottom of the attendance report in the early part of the new millennium before the numbers began to rise during the 2003-04 season. That was the year James came to Cleveland and the Miami Heat drafted a guard out of Marquette named Dwyane Wade.

    Both teams have their share of fair-weather fans. Miami's best attendance years came during their title run in 2005-06 with Shaq and Wade in town as well as the last two seasons with LeBron bringing his talents to South Beach.

    Cleveland, meanwhile, went from dead last in attendance in 2002-03 to ninth the following year, which was LeBron's rookie season. It would be the lowest they would rank in attendance the next eight seasons, as the Cleveland faithful came in droves to be witnesses to the greatness of their hometown hero.

    What gave Cleveland the edge over Miami, however, was last season's attendance numbers. With their former franchise savior gone for good, Cleveland still managed to post the third best home attendance in the league, two spots ahead of a Miami team that included James, Wade and fellow All-Star Chris Bosh.

    Another factor was loyalty. You can tell a fanbase connects with its franchise player when they are so distraught over his departure that they are burning his jersey in effigy less than 24 hours after announcing his decision to leave. Some may use the extreme measures of torching jerseys and rioting as a negative, but it's at least a sign that they care.

    As much as Heat fans loved Alonzo Mourning, nobody was pillaging the streets of Dade County when he fled to the Nets in the summer of 2003. Even now with the team in its second consecutive Finals appearance, there are some empty seats available at Heat home games. You think that happens at Madison Square Garden if the Knicks were in the Finals?

    Cavalier fans were a bit less adamant on attending home games this season after getting a taste of what life without LeBron was going to be like last year. They dropped down to 19th in attendance this year as the team struggled once again.

    With reigning Rookie of the Year Kyrie Irving in the fold and the team holding the fourth overall pick in next week's draft, perhaps those attendance numbers go back up.

9. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    As lively as the Thunder's home crowd has been in these Finals and throughout these playoffs, it's tough to rank a fanbase too high when the city has only had a team for four years.

    Making matters worse for the Thunder's standing among the best fanbases is the fact that the Thunder have never ranked in the Top 10 of attendance since the franchise came over from Seattle in 2008.

    Even this season, with the team having high expectations following last year's surprise Conference Finals run, Oklahoma City finished 13th in home attendance.

    I know the economy's bad and attendance numbers only tell so much of the story when grading fanbases but to rank only 13th when you were the preseason favorite to represent the West? That's a shame.

    There can't be that much going on in Oklahoma City that's worth missing out on the best young scorer in the league in Kevin Durant.

    The surprisingly paltry attendance numbers aside, what helped Oklahoma City make the cut hasn't been their support of the Thunder. It was how the city embraced the Hornets for two seasons while the team was without a home following Hurricane Katrina that got them here.

    From 2005 to 2007, Oklahoma City was the temporary home of the Hornets. The success of the short-lived experiment was enough to convince the NBA to choose Oklahoma City over a slew of other feasible candidates to be the new permanent residence of the Sonics.

    Any time you can manage to coerce an organization to put one of its 30 franchises in Oklahoma over more established sports cities like St. Louis or Pittsburgh, it's a testament to the dedication to the fans that live there.

8. San Antonio Spurs

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    Much like the team they support, Spurs fans fly under the radar when it comes to recognition among top NBA fanbases, but are every bit as strong as the team they represent.

    They are also very attentive, too.

    When head coach Gregg Popovich made headlines following Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals for telling his team he "wanted some nasty," fans were quick to hit the stands for Game 2 with "Gimme Some Nasty" signs.

    Unlike their neighbors in Dallas and Houston, who have the Cowboys and Astros respectively to take away attention from its basketball franchise, the Spurs are the only game in town in San Antonio.

    The Spurs' attendance numbers aren't as great as they were a few years ago when the team finished in the Top 10 in 2008 and 2009, but the Spurs still manage to draw a crowd.

    The true test of loyalty will be coming soon, though. After being able to successfully transition from the David Robinson era to the reign of Tim Duncan, it remains to be seen who Spurs fans will pay good money to see once "The Big Fundamental" hangs them up.

    Duncan is a free agent this summer but, if he chooses not to retire, it would be a surprise if he played anywhere but San Antonio next season.

    For now, Spurs fans are the embodiment of their favorite franchise. They are underrated, unassuming and under-appreciated. The combination of Duncan and Popovich will continue to give fans reasons to cheer and make signs based off of unintentional catchphrases for at least the foreseeable future.

7. Utah Jazz

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    Salt Lake City may not be the first place you think of when you're searching for rabid fanbases, but Jazz fans are among the most loyal and dedicated of any team in any sport.

    In fairness, that's mostly because there's not much to do in Utah besides ski and watch the Jazz. However, fans have filled the stands for years to support their team.

    From the pick-and-roll days of John Stockton and Karl Malone to the Carlos Boozer-Deron Williams era to the current rendition of Jazz basketball led by Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, Utah has been among the league's most successful franchises.

    It shows in the attendance as well. The Jazz have consistently been in the top 10 in attendance and fans really came on late in the season this year as Utah pushed to clinch the West's eighth seed.

    The fact that the team still has drawing power even as longtime fixtures like Stockton, Malone and head coach Jerry Sloan have bidden farewell to the franchise is a huge sign of the team's loyalty.

    Utah might not be the preferred destination for potential free agents, but the Jazz are a young team with a good nucleus in Jefferson and Millsap. The team also has guys like C.J. Miles and Gordon Heyward who are continuing to progress. With a couple more pieces, the Jazz could make some noise in an aging Western Conference.

    With this latest playoff appearance, the Jazz have given their fans a familiar reason to cheer and that's what makes Energy Solutions Arena an increasingly tough place to play for visiting opponents.

6. Dallas Mavericks

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    Anybody who witnessed Mavericks fans swarming the streets during Dallas' victory parade following the team's championship run last season knows the Mavs have one of the most intense fanbases in the game.

    A large part of that is the luxury of having an owner who acts like a super fan. Mark Cuban can be routinely seen courtside, in jeans and a T-shirt, cheering on his team and getting in the faces of referees. Cuban's willingness to be part of the audience and interact with the crowd elevates the overall experience of attending Mavericks home games.

    That may be why the team has finished in the top five in attendance every year for the past decade. Dallas has finished outside the Top 10 in attendance just once since Cuban took over as owner of the team in 2000.

    Another key factor in the team's popularity has been the presence of international superstar Dirk Nowitzki. Nowitzki has been the catalyst of a Mavericks franchise that has seen some big names play along side of him over the years from Steve Nash and Michael Finley to Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion.

    Even after the team suffered playoff collapses year after year, the fans stuck by their team and that commitment led to the ultimate payoff with last year's upset over the Miami Heat in the Finals.

    With Kidd and Jason Terry free agents this summer, the Mavericks could undergo some changes but two things will remain constant for Mavs fans. Dirk Nowitzki will be the leader of the team and Mark Cuban will be courtside making himself seen and heard while the crowd goes insane.

5. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Most fanbases would have given up hope if they had the bad fortune that Trail Blazers fans have been cursed with.

    As if the stigma of drafting Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan in 1984 wasn't a tough enough pill to swallow for older Portland fans, there was the infamous "Jail Blazer" era with knuckleheads like Rasheed Wallace and Qyntel Woods corroding the roster during the late '90's and early 2000's.

    For all their off-the-court problems, the team was still largely successful. However, the team never fully recovered after blowing a fourth quarter lead in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers.

    Portland would manage to rise above all that turmoil and show some promise starting in 2006 when the team drafted Brandon Roy, who would go on to win the Rookie of the Year. The next year, Portland beat long odds and won the lottery and the chance to draft the man they believed would turn around their franchise in center Greg Oden.

    However, if it wasn't for bad luck, the Blazers wouldn't have luck.

    Knee troubles derailed the careers of both Oden and Roy. Roy was at least productive, appearing in three All-Star games before calling it a career last season.

    Oden played all of 82 games in his entire Blazers career and he was waived this past season after the team grew tired of waiting on their oft-injured big man to recover from knee surgery.

    Still, Blazers fans still fill the Rose Garden even as fate continues to break the hearts of Rip City residents. With All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, the team still has promise and the Blazers deserve a significant amount of credit for not abandoning their team even as they fail to catch a break.

    The Blazers finished second the past two seasons in attendance and were no worse than third the two seasons before that. This is with their franchise cornerstone center in a suit at the end of the bench while their All-Star guard continues to fight off the pain of bone-on-bone grinding in his knees.

    Portland may not have the overall sports hardships of a city like Cleveland, but the Blazers' woes over the last three decades are tough for fans of any franchise to stomach. That makes the fact that Blazers fans still pack the house with the faint hope that things will turn around all the more impressive.

4. Golden State Warriors

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    The Golden State Warriors' improbable Western Conference semifinals appearance in 2007 wasn't just a fun story to watch unfold, it was a golden opportunity to see one of the best home crowds in the game in action.

    Many reasons can be attributed to Golden State's upset over the Dallas Mavericks in Round 1 five years ago, but there's no doubt that the energy from the home crowd was one of them. Warriors fans light up the house in Oracle Arena with their bright yellow shirts and their endless amount of excitement.

    The Warriors may not have the same promise as those lovable underdogs in 2007, but that doesn't stop fans from showering opponents with deafening noise in support of their boys.

    You would think that a team that has made the playoffs once since 1994 and that plays in a state filled with sports franchises wouldn't have such a loyal fan base, especially when you see the half-filled crowds in Sacramento.

    You would be wrong.

    Even as the team finds itself routinely in the lottery every year since that magical playoff run, Golden State has ranked in the top 10 in attendance every year for the past five seasons. Even as guys like Baron Davis and Monta Ellis are sent packing, fans still come out to see the Warriors play.

    With the team now building around point guard Steph Curry with guys like Klay Thompson and David Lee, the Warriors may be just one more piece away from making it back to the postseason.

    Health derailed Golden State this past season, with injuries ranging from Curry's bum ankle to the myriad of injuries suffered by recently-acquired center Andrew Bogut. With a little bit of luck avoiding the injury bug and some good fortune with the seventh pick in next week's draft, Golden State's postseason drought could become a thing of the past.

    One thing is for certain, though: Warriors fans will be there no matter what.

3. Boston Celtics

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    Tradition is the word most closely associated with any conversation about the Boston Celtics.

    There's the technicolor highlights of legends like Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Bill Russell, Dennis Johnson. There's the 17 NBA championships, which is the most of any NBA franchise in the league's history.

    There's the construction of the "Big Three" of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, which later became the "Big Four" once Rajon Rondo rose to prominence. There's the old Boston Garden, one of the greatest sports relics in history.

    There's even that horrible comedy "Celtic Pride," starring Damon Wayans and Dan Aykroyd.

    Celtics fans are as much a part of basketball's history as any fanbase in any sport. You can't have this list without Celtics fans on it.

    So, why are they only third on the list?

    Well, as unfair as it may seem, it's hard to campaign for a fan base to be much higher when they share the same city as hockey fans who resort to doing things like this on Twitter.

    It might not be fair to group Celtics fans with the same racists who wrote what they did about Washington Capitals forward Joel Ward after Game 7 against the Bruins. After all, just because a couple of morons display ignorance doesn't mean the whole city is tainted with ignorance.

    However, as's David Aldridge wrote back in 2010, racism is as much a part of the Celtics' past as their long tradition of winning. It's a cross Celtics fans must bear and it's hard to say that chapter is closed when fans of another sport that occupies the same arena are still mentally stuck in the Stone Age.

    Ignorance aside, Celtics fans showed during the Eastern Conference Finals that they can still provide a formidable home court advantage, as evidenced by Kevin Garnett's assessment of the crowd following Game 3.

    The Boston Celtics are a vital piece of the story of pro basketball but, even though the good far exceeds the bad, the bad is hard to ignore. For now, they are an intense fanbase capable of uplifting the players that feed off their energy. They just also happen to be hindered by a few bad eggs.

2. New York Knicks

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    They are arguably the most passionate and vocal fans in the NBA. They are patrons in a basketball cathedral known as Madison Square Garden.

    While they don't have the same illustrious legacy of winning as teams like the Lakers and Celtics, Knicks fans are just as important when discussing the history of basketball.

    The only thing that kept Knicks fans from topping this list is their tendency to turn on their own team. No fanbase is louder when it comes to wanting a coach fired or a player traded, and those demands can start as quickly as a two-game losing streak or a bad fourth quarter.

    To their credit, for the prices Knicks fans have to pay to enter the mecca of basketball known as "MSG," they have a right to be as critical of the product they spend top dollar to see. That being said, it would help if they made up their mind from time to time.

    One minute, they want Carmelo Anthony. The next minute they want him out of town. Some times they cheer for Amare Stoudemire. Other times, they boo him. The overwhelming size of the Big Apple can turn almost anyone into a household name. That kind of ability speaks to the power of the New York media as well as its fan base.

    As Frank Sinatra once said about New York, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. If they love you in New York, you can become an icon like Derek Jeter or Joe Namath. If you draw their ire, you can become a pariah like Isiah Thomas or feel the wrath of thousands of verbal daggers like Reggie Miller did.

    The return of the Knicks to the playoffs has given the Garden a sense of liveliness the arena hasn't had since the 90's.

    When Knicks fans have hope and the Garden is on fire, there is not a more amazing thing to see for fans watching at home or a more intimidating place to play if you're an opponent.

1. Chicago Bulls

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    They are the league leaders in attendance for the past three seasons. The Chicago Bulls have a large fanbase that spans outside the Windy City. That can be attributed to the popularity of Michael Jordan and the fact that so many of today's Bulls fans grew up with those great Bulls dynasties of the '90s.

    Since 2004, the Chicago Bulls have finished outside of the top two in attendance just once. They've finished in the Top 10 every year since 2001, and that includes a five-year stretch where they won more than 23 games once.

    Those that believed that Bulls fans were only along for Jordan era were sadly mistaken as Bulls fans hung on through the Tyson Chandler-Eddy Curry debacle and the Jay Williams tragedy.

    That patience paid off in 2008, when the team landed hometown hero Derrick Rose with the first overall pick. Since then, the team has rose from the basement back to being legit contenders. They were the No. 1 seed in the East last year before losing a tough series to the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.

    This season, they seemed poised for a rematch with King James and Co. before a torn ACL by Rose resulted in Chicago getting knocked out in the first round by Philadelphia. With Rose's recovery possibly keeping him out for most of next season, things might be a little bleak for Chicago in 2012.

    That's just another setback that Bulls fans will persevere through. They've made it through bad coaching changes, disappointing draft picks, careers cut short by injuries and plenty of bad breaks and, yet, the United Center stays decked out in red and black.

    The mark of a good fanbase is their ability to stand tall when times are good or bad. Sure, some Bulls fans may be those who jumped off the bandwagon after Jordan retired, but the majority are those who never even decided to leave.


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