Ranking the Best and Worst Fanbases in the NBA
Let’s face it: Not all fanbases are created equal. Some root for their teams even though they never seem to win or put good players on the floor; others casually jump on the bandwagon when it’s convenient. This isn’t unique to one specific fanbase. Pretty much every sports team has diehards and bandwagon fans. But which are the best and worst fanbases, subjectively speaking? Looking back at attendance numbers over the last 15 years, in addition to other incidents as supporting factors, we ranked the 30 different NBA fanbases from worst to best.
30. Detroit Pistons
Although there are multiple factors at play, the Detroit Pistons are routinely near the bottom of the NBA in percentage of attendance capacity for home games. It doesn’t help that they haven’t been contenders for about 10 years. They made the playoffs just once in the last seven years and battled for the eighth seed in 2016–17.
You could argue that the economic status in Detroit hurts attendance too, but the Pistons actually play their games in the affluent suburb of Auburn Hills. There’s also the ugly “Malice at the Palace” incident — probably the lowest point in NBA history.
29. Miami Heat
The Miami Heat were great at drawing fans when LeBron James took his talent to South Beach for four years. Since LeBron left, fans still show up to support their team. But it goes much deeper than attendance for Heat fans.
Compared to some other publications, we’re actually being generous by not ranking them the worst among NBA fanbases. They show up late and leave early (even leaving before Ray Allen’s three-pointer that tied Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals). We don’t like to throw around the word “bandwagon,” but the Heat logo might as well appear next to it in the dictionary.
28. Minnesota Timberwolves
Minnesota Timberwolves fans don’t have an ugly history like Pistons fans do. However, they do have a history of not showing up to the stadium. Granted, the T-Wolves have the longest active streak of seasons without a playoff appearance (13!), but plenty of exciting, young players on the roster are worth some attention. Most years, the fans fill the stadium at around 70–75% capacity, with their apathy toward the team on full display. That’s pretty woeful.
27. Atlanta Hawks
Even in the 2014–15 season, when the Atlanta Hawks had an outstanding 60-22 record and made a run at the Eastern Conference Finals, the team could only muster enough fan interest to come in at No. 20 in home attendance percentage. Other than that, they land in the bottom portion of the league regularly and fill their stadium at less than 90% capacity. It’s hard to blame the fans when the franchise has such little success, but they still earn their spot on this list.
26. Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies have been consistently good on the court since moving to Memphis from Vancouver back in 2001–02. They made the playoffs in nine out of the last 16 seasons. The Grizzlies also won 50 or more games in three of the last four years, making one trip to the Western Conference Finals. But in what is already one of the smaller NBA venues, seats are regularly left empty. On average, Memphis ranks No. 20 in the NBA in overall attendance over the last four seasons.
25. Brooklyn Nets
It’s not fair to lump the Brooklyn Nets in with the New Jersey Nets; the latter often struggled to find crowds of more than a few thousand people. But in reality, even though the team moved the fanbase, it’s by and large the same. It proves true over the last two years, as the performance of the team fell off a cliff. The Nets are one of the worst NBA teams since the start of the 2015–16 season, and the fans — even in basketball-loving Brooklyn — fill up less than 85% of the stadium.
24. Philadelphia 76ers
Trust the process. That’s what Philadelphia 76ers fans were asked to do when the team underwent extreme rebuilding. The Sixers haven’t won more than 20 games in four years, falling to last in the NBA in attendance percentage over that same period.
But even when they last made the postseason (2011–12), fans generally left the stadium about 20% empty. 76ers fans get a bump for dealing with the rebuild. However, it’ll be a shame if this team turns into one of the best in the East in a year or two and still can’t draw fans.
23. New Orleans Pelicans
It’s not totally New Orleans Pelicans fans’ fault that they fall so low on this list. It’s in large part because their franchise hasn’t been around long. The best season in franchise history was back in 2002–03, when they were still the Hornets and just moved from Charlotte.
In their first 14 seasons, the team made the playoffs six times and won exactly one playoff series. Pelicans fans don’t fall any further because they manage to be in the middle of the pack involving attendance. However, we don’t see a massive, rabid fanbase in New Orleans that identifies with this mediocre franchise.
22. Indiana Pacers
The Indiana Pacers were once one of the most proud NBA franchises, filling the old Market Square Arena every night with fans eager to watch Reggie Miller. But things fell off since Miller’s retirement, with the team missing the playoffs in many seasons. It doesn’t help with fans, who have partially lost interest in the team. In 2012–13, when the Pacers made a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, the team was only No. 20 in attendance percentage.
21. Charlotte Hornets
It’s been a rough go for Charlotte fans, seeing their beloved Hornets stripped away back in 2002, only to be gifted a franchise in 2005, which turned out to be the Bobcats. Yuck. The good news is that, despite dwindling attendance numbers when the franchise was bad, the numbers have gone up a bit since they reclaimed the Hornets moniker and showed some success on the court. It’s been three years since taking back their original name, so we give Hornets fans a pass for now.
20. Washington Wizards
On one hand, the Washington Wizards — good or bad— are consistently in the bottom third in home attendance percentage. On the other hand, Washington D.C. is a tough place to build support for sports teams. So many people aren’t from the area; they merely move there for work. The Wizards have been mostly bad for … really, forever. The 2016–17 Wizards currently have the best winning percentage of any Wizards team going all the way back to 1978–79. Sadly, the team currently ranks No. 27 out of 30 in attendance.
19. Milwaukee Bucks
Since their trip to the Eastern Conference Finals back in 2000–01, the Milwaukee Bucks have been a rudderless ship. They made the playoffs six times in 15 seasons (never more than twice in a row), topped out at 46 regular-season wins, and have not won a playoff series. In that light, it’s amazing that fans show up to their games at all. But they have one of the brightest NBA stars in Giannis Antetokounmpo, who makes falling to the bottom five in attendance pretty inexcusable.
18. Denver Nuggets
The Denver Nuggets haven’t made the playoffs in the last three years, which coincides with them finishing in the bottom five in attendance percentage for each of those seasons. It’s understandable. The Nuggets don’t exactly have a ton of budding superstars, making it difficult to motivate fans to follow a 35-win team. But even in 2012–13, when the Nuggets were a 57-win team, fans only showed up enough to push Denver to the middle of the pack, attendance-wise.
17. Cleveland Cavaliers
Fan attendance is hard to judge with the Cleveland Cavaliers. For the majority of the last 15 years, the Cavs have been at or near the top of the league in this stat. The only dip happened in James’s four-year absence, which is why Cavs fans fall down the list. There’s also the fact that fans lit jerseys on fire when James bolted for Miami, which is also a pretty bad look when you consider how they welcomed him back with open arms in the summer of 2014.
16. Houston Rockets
Fans of the Houston Rockets are hard to figure out. They have a rich franchise history, including two NBA championships in the ’90s, which saw a ton of support from the community. They generally land somewhere in the top 10 for attendance for the last several years.
However, with a fast-paced team that scores a lot of points and actually wins games this year, the attendance dropped off a bit. We chalk it up to a hangover from the disappointing season they had last year, but we’re prepared to drop Rockets fans further down the list if we need to.
15. Phoenix Suns
The Phoenix Suns gave their fans a fantastic run of basketball for about 20 years, making six appearances in the Western Conference Finals and one in the NBA finals. But they’ve had six consecutive seasons without a trip to the postseason. Somehow, their fans still show up to support them at a 90% rate or more. And they do this in an area that has college sports, the Cardinals, the Coyotes, the Diamondbacks, and even MLB Spring Training. Suns fans may not be the greatest in all of sports, but they’re loyal to their team despite its lack of recent success.
14. Golden State Warriors
It’s easy see the many diehard Golden State Warriors fans these days; a three-year run of success will do that. But back in 2011–12, when the Warriors were one of the worst NBA teams and had exactly one playoff appearance in the previous 18 seasons, they still landed in the top half of the league in attendance. It’s nice to see the loyal fans of the Warriors be rewarded with such a fun and successful team, even if it means a bunch of bandwagon fans get to live it up, too.
13. Orlando Magic
Unlike in Miami, fans of the Orlando Magic endure a history of pain and continue to support their team through thick and thin. The Magic have had two great stretches in their history, making back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals appearances and one trip to the NBA finals each time. Yet, both times, they saw their team get unceremoniously torn apart shortly afterward.
Magic fans are in the middle of the pack in showing up to the stadium for a losing team, but they’re near the top in attendance when the team on the floor is worth watching.
12. Los Angeles Clippers
In their bad years — and there are many — the Los Angeles Clippers often fell to the bottom third of the league in attendance. But it’s not easy sharing a building and city with the Los Angeles Lakers, especially from 1985–2011. This time period saw the Clippers make the playoffs four times and win one playoff series, while the Lakers won eight NBA championships. With the Clippers flying high, Los Angeles fans pour into the Staples Center to see them play these days. But we can’t discount a strong segment of diehards, even if they only recently took the paper bags off their heads.
11. New York Knicks
People may not like New York Knicks fans. Many consider them to be annoying or obnoxious — two cliches often uttered about New Yorkers. But you must hand it to Knicks fans; they’ll put up with a lot of nonsense. Since 2004, they dealt with Isiah Thomas, Stephon Marbury, several rebuilds, the Jerome James contract, trading for Eddy Curry, and whatever it is exactly that Phil Jackson is doing with the team. In that period of time, the Knicks made only three playoff appearances. Through it all, Madison Square Garden is consistently filled to capacity. You have to respect that.
10. Boston Celtics
Knicks fans are so passionate, they’ll probably be really upset that Celtics fans rank one spot higher than them. The Celtics have had a nice run recently, opening the door for fans to show up in droves and embrace their favorite basketball team. But it’s easy to forget that, between Larry Bird and Kevin Garnett, there were 11 seasons in a 14-year stretch where Boston was under .500. Even in the worst years, Celtics fans didn’t let their team fall below 90% capacity for attendance.
9. Utah Jazz
The Utah Jazz epitomize a team fighting an uphill battle in a small market. They happened to have an excellent run of success in the ’90s. Since Karl Malone and John Stockton left in 2003, Utah has had up-and-down levels of play. But the fans still love their Jazz. Even in 2013–14, when the team won their fewest games since 1979–80, Jazz fans still funneled into the arena at an average of over 90%. That’s true dedication among a fanbase.
8. Toronto Raptors
Since the Toronto Raptors entered the NBA at the same time as the short-lived Vancouver Grizzlies franchise, their history gets muddled into a conversation about how basketball in Canada was a failed experiment. In reality, the Raptors have been tremendously successful and have built a solid following of loyal fans. They’re currently fourth in the NBA in attendance percentage; they ranked fifth last season and 11th the year before (but at 99.8%). Even James knows the Raptors have great fans.
7. Oklahoma City Thunder
If you went into a coma in 2004 and just woke up today, you’d probably be really confused about why Oklahoma City has an NBA team. It all started when the then-New Orleans Hornets relocated temporarily to OKC for two seasons due to Hurricane Katrina. Packed crowds on a nightly basis showed the league that OKC could support a real NBA team — and that’s exactly what they got when the Seattle Sonics moved there in 2009, bringing Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook with them.
6. Los Angeles Lakers
Maybe all that winning does something different in Los Angeles than it does in, say, Boston or Miami. But for some reason, Lakers fans just aren’t as insufferable as people from New England when their teams win. The Lakers have had a ton of success over the years, winning 11 NBA championships since they first showed up in LA in 1960.
A good example of why Lakers fans are so great: their attendance. Fans packed the arena at 99.7% for Kobe Bryant’s farewell season. In 2016–17, they still fill the Staples Center at a 99.2% rate, even with a team that’s clearly still developing and not ready to contend.
5. San Antonio Spurs
If there’s any group of fans who are spoiled by success in the NBA, it must be Spurs fans. The Spurs have been so good, there’s not even a way to measure their attendance in good years versus bad; they’ve all been good years. Spurs fans routinely show up at the top of lists regarding the best NBA fans, and we’re not going to rock the boat. They may be spoiled by winning, but Spurs fans are some of the best.
4. Sacramento Kings
Sacramento Kings fans show up at the top of a lot of “best of” too, but for different reasons than the Spurs. Sacramento is one of those towns that, had you not grown up knowing they had an NBA team, you’d probably say, “Why do they have an NBA team?” Kings fans are loyal to the bone, even when the franchise is threatening to relocate. Sacramento hasn’t seen playoff basketball for 10 years, but ARCO Arena Sleep Train Arena remains consistently full for regular–season games.
3. Chicago Bulls
Everyone remembers the days of Michael Jordan and the unbeatable Bulls back in the ’90s. However, ever since Jordan walked away in 1998, the franchise performs anywhere from average to downright deplorable. They’ve won five playoff series in 17 years, making just one trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, and they’re currently a laughingstock.
But, including 2016–17 to date, the Bulls have finished No. 1 or 2 in home attendance percentage every year since 2010. They even filled the United Center in Chicago in the lean, post-Jordan days. That’s dedication among fans, even if the team isn’t a contender, which, by and large, they haven’t been.
2. Portland Trail Blazers
The fans of the Portland Trail Blazers are good sports, and that’s probably the best thing we can say about any fanbase. They have a decidedly small market; haven’t won a championship since the ’70s; and haven’t truly competed for one in 16 years. Through all of that, the Blazers find themselves in the middle of the pack in attendance during their worst years and near the top during their best. These fans have a reputation for being some of the best in basketball, and not many will argue with that.
1. Dallas Mavericks
While the Chicago Bulls come in No. 1 or 2 in attendance percentage since 2010, the Mavericks have dominating attendance numbers since 2003. A big part of this involves the arrival of Mark Cuban as the team owner back in 2000. He turned a woeful franchise into one of the best-run organizations in the game; they became 2010–11 NBA champions.
Granted, Cuban inherited a young, marketable roster featuring 21-year-old Dirk Nowitzki, 25-year-old Steve Nash, and 26-year-old Michael Finley. But after making just one playoff appearance in the 11 seasons before Cuban arrived, you can’t blame fans for attributing a giant portion of the success to their outspoken, billionaire owner. The loyalty — and the fact that the stadium constantly sells out — makes Mavs fans the best in the bunch.