Breaking down the categories:
Best of the best
By Greg Boeck, USA TODAY
Seat: New Orleans offers the best for the money
New Orleans was hands-down the closest and best seat for the money ($51) in the league. The seat was six rows off the court, in the corner of the end zone. One aisle away was club seating, which cost $135. You got into the game in this seat as you could almost touch the players as they came through the tunnel to the court.
An affordable fan view from New Orleans Arena.
By David Rae Morris, for USA TODAY
"It's a wonderful value," said Ed McIntyre, 41, of Metaire. "You can't get a much better location. It's a hell of a buy."
The seat, cushioned like most around the league, did have one drawback — no cup holder.
Fans all around the arena, regardless of where their seats are, stand at the start of the game until the Hornets score their first point. The scene is much like students at college games.
Only 11,000 showed for this game Jan. 31 against Memphis, but the fans were into the game and knowledgeable. There was good support for a losing team, especially in a town that reveres football and plays in the French Quarter.
Denver, with a $55 ticket for a seat that also was six rows off the court in the corner of the end zone, was a distant second, with one bonus: It included a food server. My seat in New Orleans did not.
"This seat is a great value for $55," said Alan Yim, 20, of Denver. "The prices haven't gone up since the Nuggets have gotten better. Two years ago I sat behind the Lakers bench for $80, which was awesome. Anywhere else and you'd pay three times that much."
Fan involvement: Sacramento faithful still the Kings
The Sacramento Kings have a banner hanging from the rafters, touting their own fans as "The NBA's No. 1 Home-court Advantage." It's a justified pat on the back.
Kings fans are the most rabid in the league. Sellouts are routine for the only show in town. Even the 12th player is accorded rock star-like attention.
Rich Everts, 49, in a Bobby Jackson jersey and Kings cap, says: "People get crazy. We've gone through losing spells and now a winning spell, but we're always 100% behind the team. You can go to the Bay Area for sports, but in Sacramento this is it. People here pretty much live and die Kings basketball."
In this college-like atmosphere, these knowledgeable fans are into every possession. During a mid-January game against the Portland Trail Blazers, poor Kings shooting took the crowd out of the game in the first half. But the volume turned up before the fourth quarter began at the urging of the PA announcer. "Time for Arco Thunder," he said. Fans responded by standing and making noise. Even the ushers got into the game. So did owner Gavin Maloof, who went to one knee at his courtside seat to cheer. The Kings responded with six points in a row and a win in overtime. The crowd proved to be the best sixth man in the league.
Parking sets Suns apart
The Phoenix Suns have the best deal in the NBA for fans who choose not to use public transportation to get to and from arenas. Parking is cheap ($7) and close (the walk is less than three minutes) to the arena. Traffic coming and going moves quickly, giving the feel of a small town in a major market. Add warm weather to the winter mix, and it's a home run. Parking, often a hassle going to games, sets a positive tone for the night in this town.
Entertainment: Hip Heat, Warriors' 'Time Out'
The Laker Girls live up to their billing, but the Miami Heat team is cutting edge and the best-kept secret in the league.
The Heat dancers are well-drilled and hip, just not as hyped as the famed Laker Girls.
The most unique take in the league in entertainment, however, belongs to the Golden State Warriors. Hence, their slogan: "Warriors Basketball — It's A Great Time Out." In the last three years, they've cranked the volume down on timeout gigs, allowing the game to rule the night.
One regular feature: a live band that plays during selected timeouts and entertains with a mini-concert at halftime. The Temptations once appeared. The music is mostly Motown, 1980s and pop hits that club President Robert Rowell says are "easier on the ears."
The stage is at the top of the lower bowl, in the end zone. Also different: the Internet Cafe, next to the stage, where fans can pop up, get on the Internet for e-mails — and not miss a dunk. "We can't control what happens for 48 minutes on the court, but we can control what does happen for 2½ hours outside the court," Rowell says.
Concessions: Good buys
Atlanta has some of the best prices — from $3.50 32-ounce sodas to $125 team jerseys to free-but-informative programs — and a warm concourse with a walkway named Hawk Way. "It's very colorful and inviting," said Brandi Wilson, 14.
Even the trash cans — basketball-painted openings atop net-like cans — add to atmosphere. Stock market quotes are flashed in one area and up-to-date scores in another.
The concourse, second only in atmosphere to San Antonio, features TVs at every concession stand and numerous ones hanging from pillars in the middle of the walkway.
Food offerings run the gamut, from barbecue to pizza, sandwiches to hot dogs.
A closer look at Eastern Conference arenas
Overall ranking: 2.
Game: Pacers 93, Miami 91 (OT).
Attendance: 18,345 of 18,345.
Fan view: How basketball-crazed are Indiana fans? Even their fans can shoot. A teen thrilled the crowd by hitting five three-pointers in 45 seconds during a promotion. Conseco Fieldhouse is the NBA's most unique building. Step into a huge lobby with old-fashioned ticket windows, then walk up the steps and back in time.
Overall ranking: 3.
Game: Sixers 96, Orlando 86.
Attendance: 17,457 of 20,294.
Fan view: The $50 ticket was only 11 rows from the court behind the basket — in the middle of the toughest fans in the NBA. Philly fans who once booed Santa Claus booed one of their own on this day — a fan who couldn't make a layup during a shooting contest.
Overall ranking: 5.
Game: Pistons 97, New York 88.
Attendance: 22,076 of 22,076.
Fan view: Fan enthusiasm is among the best in the league. On a snowy Tuesday in February, the place was sold out. A local deejay known only as Mason cranks the fans up with his distinctive style. He introduces Chauncey Billups as "Bip Bip Billups" and Ben Wallace as "Ba-Ba-Ba Ben Wallace." Celebrity regulars include Kid Rock, Bob Seger and Tommy Hearns, making Detroit third in star power only to the Lakers and Knicks.
Overall ranking: 7.
Game: Denver 100, Hawks 96.
Attendance: 19,043 of 19,445.
Fan view: Two nice touches distinguish this on-hard-times franchise: The old scoreboard from the Omni that hangs in the concourse, fully functional, and Spirit The Hawk, who makes a flying entrance from the rafters before player introductions.
Overall ranking: 9.
Game: Heat 105, Golden State 96.
Attendance: 19,078 of 19,600.
Fan view: Miami's lights-out player introductions are old hat in the league these days, but the Heat bring a new-age twist with Shaq & Co. shown on the video screen emerging out of a limo with Latin music blaring. Stroll the concourse and there is something for every culture; Thai, Mexican, Colombian and Japanese food are featured.
Overall ranking: 10.
Game: Cavaliers 98, Indiana 86.
Attendance: 20,562 of 20,562.
Fan view: The Cavs sell only one NBA authentic jersey in their team store. LeBron James is king here; his No. 23 is everywhere in the arena from little girls to adult men.
Overall ranking: 13.
Game: Bobcats 94, Denver 88.
Attendance: 11,754 of 23,319.
Fan view: The half-empty arena was mixed with cheers for visiting Carmelo Anthony. A number of fans attended wearing his Nuggets or Syracuse jersey. The expansion team will open a much-needed new downtown arena next season.
Overall ranking: 22.
Game: Bulls 90, Milwaukee 85.
Attendance: 20,042 of 21,711.
Fan view: Bands entertained on every level before the game. The $5, information-packed program is worth the cost. Even better: The Bulls' pregame player introductions, much-copied in the '90s, still bring chills with the famous, "And now, "youuuur" Chicago Bulls!" intro.
Overall ranking: 23.
Game: Golden State 113, Magic 109.
Attendance: 12,121 of 17,283.
Fan view: The scoreboard provided bare essentials, and the video screen flashed out-of-town scores only once during the game. On the plus side: The Magic Dance Team is also the Greet Team, meeting fans on the concourse as they arrive. "Performing for the fans you have met makes it more personal," Dana Weber says. James Frederick, 70, says, "It makes them real people."
10. New York
Overall ranking: 24.
Game: Knicks 110, L.A. Clippers 98.
Attendance: 19,763 of 19,763.
Fan view: Madison Square Garden, one of the NBA's marquee venues, had the feel of a corporate crowd. The influx of tourists with ticket availability in recent down years has added to the watered-down feeling. However, Knicks dancers rate among the best, and flashing closing market prices on the scoreboard make this place different.
Overall ranking: 25.
Game: Atlanta 116, Raptors 112 (OT).
Attendance: 17,890 of 19,800.
Fan view: Stanley Cup banners dominate the arena. This is hockey country, but fan enthusiasm is perceptible. They know their hoops. And why not? Basketball's birthplace is Springfield, Mass., but it was invented by a Canadian, James Naismith.
Overall ranking: 26.
Game: Bucks 105, Atlanta 101.
Attendance: 13,117 of 18,717.
Fan view: The skinny seat with cramped leg room is perhaps the least comfortable in the league. Plane seats are more comfortable. Like their team, the fans were playing out the season. The crowd had no more life than the Bucks.
Overall ranking: 27.
Game: Celtics 90, Portland 88.
Attendance: 13,346 of 18,624.
Fan view: There were almost 5,000 empty seats, but there was a pulse in the arena, where basketball rules over entertainment. By design, the Celtics are the only team in the league without a dance team.
Overall ranking: 29.
Game: Wizards 110, Boston 105 (OT).
Attendance: 14,613 of 20,173.
Fan view: Even during a turnaround season, a small contingent of fans rooted for the visiting Celtics on this night. Also unsettling: Washington hangs WNBA attendance championship banners. Since when do they give out rings for attendance titles?
15. New Jersey
Overall ranking: 30.
Game: Dallas 94, Nets 78.
Attendance: 12,925 of 19,680.
Fan view: The $45 ticket was in the last row of the nosebleed section — at center court. Up here, the NBA isn't larger than life; it's a small man's game. Pulling double duty is Gary Sussman, who serves as the Nets vice president of public relations and public address announcer.
A closer look at Western Conference arenas
Overall ranking: 1.
Game: Houston 116, Nuggets 98.
Attendance: 18,227 of 19,077.
Fan view: My seat, six rows off the court in the corner of the end zone, included a food server. Mascot Rocky is on the "A" list of entertainers, but he's topped in his building by 10-year-old Austin Pawelka, who introduces the Nuggets in a voice that rocks the arena.
Overall ranking: 4.
Game: Suns 118, Golden State 104.
Attendance: 14,272 of 18,422.
Fan view: Top-flight entertainment included The Gorilla, the NBA's top mascot, the dance team and the Dancing Dads, a time-out show featuring a dozen older, out-of-shape men. Ex-player Cedric Ceballos adds to the atmosphere as the hip host with a microphone.
3. New Orleans
Overall ranking: 6.
Game: Memphis 98, Hornets 91.
Attendance: 11,610 of 17,200.
Fan view: This is the only arena where a prayer is read before every game. Owner George Shinn, who moved the Hornets and his pregame prayer ritual from Charlotte, says: "I grew up in the Bible Belt. My mom always taught me to give thanks and be grateful and have faith." New Orleans is primarily Catholic, not Bible Belt, so some don't take to the prayer reading. Louis Shepard says: "This is not the place for that. We have church on Sundays for that."
Overall ranking: 8.
Game: Kings 113, Portland 107.
Attendance: 17,317 of 17,317.
Fan view: Kings fans love their team and raise the roof cheering, which is good because the arena, built in the mid-1980s, provides little else to cheer about. The lack of ample concession stands makes for lines four to five deep. Upper deck seats are hard rubber.
5. Golden State
Overall ranking: 11.
Game: Warriors 107, Denver 97.
Attendance: 15,591 of 19,596.
Fan view: The Warriors provide cutting-edge entertainment with a live band and Internet Cafe among the highlights. Big time-out hit: Bubble Vision, in which fans' warped faces are flashed on the video screen.
Overall ranking: 12.
Game: Rockets 92, Atlanta 69.
Attendance: 9,960 of 17,974.
Fan view: Concession stands offered the usual, plus a Crunch Time Salad Bar, where a salad is mixed while you wait. The Rockets take a step back in time, however, with a card handout with rosters on the back in place of a program.
Overall ranking: 14.
Game: Sonics 122, Utah 105.
Attendance: 16,823 of 17,072.
Fan view: Incredibly, no out-of-town scores are provided, a major disservice to fans. Unwisely, TV screens are positioned behind waiting lines at concession stands. Naturally, there is an espresso bar in the concourse featuring Starbucks — the company's chairman, Howard Schultz, owns the team.
8. San Antonio
Overall ranking: 15.
Game: Spurs 116, Cleveland 97.
Attendance: 18,797 of 18,797.
Fan view: The SBC Center scoreboard is among the best in the league, offering what most others don't — a listing of all players, not just the five on the court, with running totals for points, fouls, assists and rebounds.
Overall ranking: 16.
Game: Trail Blazers 107, San Antonio 99.
Attendance: 15,575 of 19,980.
Fan view: The Blazers treat their fans to a smorgasbord of stats, a rarity in the NBA. At each end of the arena, full rosters of players' statistics were available, featuring points, rebounds, assists and fouls. A hustle board tracks team blocks, rebounds and steals. Another bonus: the sizzle/fizzle board tracking assists, fast-break points, points in the paint, second-chance points, three-pointers, charges taken, dunks, turnovers, points lost on turnovers, missed free throws, technicals, fouls, air balls and goaltending.
10. L.A. Lakers
Overall ranking: 17.
Game: Lakers 99, Nuggets 91.
Attendance: 18,997 of 18,997.
Fan view: The $75 ticket was the lowest-priced ticket in the lower bowl; tickets in the upper bowl range from $10 to $35. There was a buzz in the building, but not like the Kobe-Shaq years. Most entertainment revolves around the Laker Girls, who are promoted on the video screen almost as much as the players themselves.
11. L.A. Clippers
Overall ranking: 18.
Game: Clippers 87, Philadelphia 83.
Attendance: 16,113 of 18,964.
Fan view: Cheers for visiting Allen Iverson were a slap in the face to the Clippers. The team ran out of $5 programs before tip-off, a slap in the face to fans.
Overall ranking: 19.
Game: Golden State 99, Timberwolves 93.
Attendance: 15,074 of 19,356.
Fan view: There was no buzz in the building. One of the biggest responses from the smallest crowd of the season came in the fourth quarter when fans booed their own underachieving team for blowing an 11-point lead to lowly Golden State.
Overall ranking: 20.
Game: Jazz 97, San Antonio 96.
Attendance: 18,325 of 19,911.
Fan view: The Delta Center, like America West in Phoenix and Conseco Fieldhouse in Indiana, is a basketball-only arena that provides an intimate feel. With a balcony that nearly overhangs the court in the upper deck, you feel on top of the action. Not surprisingly, fan enthusiasm is high.
Overall ranking: 21.
Game: Grizzlies 108, Phoenix 97.
Attendance: 16,637 of 18,119.
Fan view: Public parking is limited — and a five-minute hike away. It's worth the walk, however. You feel like you're entering a foyer, not an arena, when you step inside. The concourse is decked with pictures of music greats. Elvis, of course, leads the parade.
Overall ranking: 26.
Game: Golden State 111, Mavericks 107.
Attendance: 19,561 of 19,561.
Fan view: Security was among tightest in the league. Every fan went through an airport-like security scanner. A minus: TVs were on opposite wall of concession stands, making it difficult to follow the game.