The NBA’s Christmas Day slate features five games, four MVPs, three All-Stars making their holiday debuts, two Los Angeles rivals and a partridge in a pear tree. There is something for everyone. Allow me to explain.
Boston Celtics at Toronto Raptors, noon ET (ESPN)
To the avid NBA fan: Boston and Toronto are the two best teams nobody is talking about as contenders.
The Celtics lost Kyrie Irving and Al Horford over the summer, and got better, striking the right chemistry balance. They replaced Irving with Kemba Walker, who embraced a youth movement and genuinely seems to just enjoy partaking in a real playoff hunt. Gordon Hayward has returned to All-Star form (when his bones aren’t being broken), and both Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have taken steps toward stardom. Marcus Smart is one of the most underrated players in the league, and the heart and soul of the team. And coach Brad Stevens has patched together a top-10 defense without a reliable center.
Meanwhile, the Raptors have not become complacent after last season’s title run, instead using Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard’s free-agency exit as motivation to prove they were no one-man show. Pascal Siakam effectively slid into Leonard’s starring role, and Fred VanVleet is playing at an All-Star level, alongside five-time All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry. They have two former All-Defensive centers, and the top eight options in the rotation are shooting a combined 38 percent on 38 3-point attempts a game.
Both teams embody the modern NBA, fielding versatile lineups that offer any number of looks on both ends of the floor, and either roster is a trade away from emboldening their odds to emerge from the East.
To the casual NBA fan: Pose this question: Is it possible to win Most Improved Player twice in a row?
Siakam won the award last season, blossoming from a promising but inconsistent reserve into a vital contributor to a title team, one worthy of both All-Star and All-Defensive consideration. This season, he has transformed into a fringe MVP candidate. In two years, he has gone from a shaky shooter who primarily scored at the rim to one of the NBA’s most efficient high-volume 3-point shooters, all while upgrading every relevant skill each of the past two summers. We went from imagining the possibilities for Siakam to believing he had achieved his potential and back to wondering if he has a ceiling at all.
To the non-NBA fan: Well, here’s one way to light up the room like a Christmas tree: Start the holiday by asking everyone which side of this midday battle between the U.S. and Canada their loyalty lies.
Is it Toronto, the largest city in a nation that just voted 47-year-old Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau to a second term as prime minister amid controversy over multiple images of him in blackface? Or is it Boston, the birthplace of a country that is currently embroiled in an impeachment trial of 73-year-old Republican president Donald Trump entering arguably the most consequential election year in its history?
Trudeau was recently caught on video mocking Trump along with other world leaders. Meanwhile, Trump has called Trudeau “two-faced,” “meek and mild,” and “dishonest and weak.” NBA bragging rights are on the line when the Celtics and Raptors tip off the league’s Christmas Day slate? Which side are you on?
Milwaukee Bucks at Philadelphia 76ers, 2:30 p.m. ET (ABC)
To the avid NBA fan: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ben Simmons are representative of NBA evolution.
Not long ago, 7-footers were back-to-the-basket bruisers who could not switch onto anyone to save their lives. Now, skilled bigs are all the rage. Simmons is a point guard who defends any position for the 76ers, and Antetokounmpo is a position-less phenom who does anything the Bucks ask of him. It should also be noted that both are products of NBA globalization, Giannis from Greece and Simmons from Australia.
They may both be evolutionary point forwards, but they took different paths here. Antetokounmpo is the son of Nigerian immigrants who grew up a street merchant in Athens. Within five years of picking up a basketball, he was a raw talent worthy of a mid-first-round flier. He has taken tremendous strides each year, both literally and figuratively, making himself a league MVP last season and he’s even better this season.
Simmons is the son of an American-born star of Australian’s National Basketball League. He was raised with a basketball in his hands and groomed stateside as an elite prep prospect. As a freshman at LSU, he was billed as the next LeBron James, and the No. 1 overall pick in 2016 delivered the goods from the get-go, averaging damn near a triple-double to capture Rookie of the Year honors for a 50-win Sixers team in 2017-18. His skill set has somewhat stagnated ever since, and Giannis exists as a model for his evolution.
To the casual NBA fan: Is it best to accumulate the most talent or construct a complementary roster?
The Sixers tanked multiple seasons to get here, landing two franchise cornerstones at the top of the draft, and trading the other assets they accumulated in The Process for two more max-level players. But what is here, exactly? They are contenders, and yet there is a fundamental flaw in their construction.
Simmons and Joel Embiid, the two prized picks, are respectively a point guard who would dominate more if he could shoot and a center who would dominate more if he did not. The 76ers chased Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris at the expense of their depth. Butler left in free agency, telling us his Sixers teammates had the talent to make the playoffs but lacked the will to win a title, and they replaced his max salary with another center. Now, they lack shooting and a playmaking wing in a league that practically requires both.
Milwaukee, meanwhile, developed its superstar from the middle of the draft. The Bucks turned “Khris Middleton the trade throw-in” into “Khris Middleton the All-Star.” In a small market that makes attracting top-shelf free agents and budgeting for blockbuster trades all the more difficult, they smartly sought role players who filled the gaps in Antetokounmpo’s game. They won 60 games last season and lead the East again this season, but they too are not without their flaws. They may have invested in the wrong point guard for their future, and they lack star power in a league that requires it far more often than not.
These are the two best teams in the East, and Christmas should give us a hint about which is better built.
To the non-NBA fan: How do you feel about bullies? That’ll get someone’s dander up this Christmas.
In this politically correct cancel culture, Embiid is a man apart. He has tagged opponents as “BBQ Chicken” and “bums.” When Karl-Anthony Towns brawled back earlier this season, Embiid began his postgame news conference by declaring, “First of all, I ain’t no bitch,” and then took to Instagram to add of Towns, “You’ve been a p---- your whole life. That’s why you were treated like a bitch by you know who.” (You know who, presumably, is their shared ex-teammate, Butler.) It is all in good fun until it is not.
At the same time, Embiid is a proud flopping offender. Charles Barkley has told him to “get his fat butt in shape,” and Shaquille O’Neal has questioned his aggressiveness, criticisms he apparently took to heart.
So, is Embiid’s act entertaining or tired? How you feel about bullies might decide which side you take.
Houston Rockets at Golden State Warriors, 5 p.m. ET (ABC)
To the avid NBA fan: Which team would you rather be going forward?
I know, I know. The Warriors have been decimated by injury and free agency, and this is their gap year. But in all likelihood they will have a healthy Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green next season. Then throw in a top-five pick, the development of Eric Paschall and other young prospects, and either D’Angelo Russell or whatever assets he can bring back in a trade. That is still the makings of a contender, one not all that far off from the 73-win juggernaut that launched the Golden State dynasty into another stratosphere.
On the other hand, you have the Rockets, a second-tier Western Conference team this season with two of the last three MVPs on the roster and a trio of high-end role players to complement them in the starting unit. James Harden may be the most productive offensive player of his generation ... in the regular season, and Russell Westbrook has been among the least efficient high-usage players in the league for some time now.
Everything the Rockets have done since acquiring Harden has been designed to maximize his offensive talent (for good reason), until this past summer’s trade. Westbrook does not fit alongside Harden as well as Chris Paul did, but he is more willing to acquiesce to his longtime friend, at least for now. Should the experiment fail this season, what changes next year? Westbrook owns arguably the most difficult deal to move, outside of Paul and John Wall, and he and Harden are due $265 million over the next three years.
To the casual NBA fan: NBA life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
We are two seasons removed from an epic seven-game series between these two franchises, which helped inspire the recent proposal to reseed the conference finals in an effort to pit the best teams opposite each other in the Finals. Now, this is either the worst or second-worst game of the Christmas slate. The Warriors are now tanking, and the Rockets may not be a home playoff seed in the West. In a way, this is an argument against reseeding in the playoffs, because the league’s power structure can turn on a player’s injury or whim.
To the non-NBA fan: Oh, man, do I have a story for you.
Houston general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of Hong Kong protests of China’s authoritarian oppression, setting off a chain of events that may severely impact the salary cap. The Chinese government took offense, severing several business ties with the NBA, and the league worked swiftly to repair its relationship with a Communist regime that pours billions of dollars into the league. As part of that effort, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta publicly rebuked Morey’s statement, and Harden even apologized to China.
The Warriors also found themselves embroiled in the controversy. Outspoken Golden State coach Steve Kerr reserved comment on Chinese oppression in Hong Kong, giving Donald Trump an opening to cast Kerr as “weak and pathetic” after the coach had long challenged the president on other social justice matters.
Los Angeles Clippers at Los Angeles Lakers, 8 p.m. ET (ABC)
To the avid NBA fan: The two L.A. teams are title favorites, taking opposite rebuilding paths to get here.
The Lakers were a train wreck, both on and off the court. The final years of the Kobe Bryant era sent them spiraling into the abyss, straddling a line between trying to appease the superstar’s eagerness to remain competitive and expediting the rebuild that was sure to follow his impending retirement. It did not work.
They landed in the top 10 of the draft order from 2014-19, a run that included three straight No. 2 overall picks. They owed one to the Phoenix Suns as a result of their 2012 trade for a 38-year-old Steve Nash. Another, Julius Randle, watched that entire stretch on his rookie contract and walked at the end of it. And a third, D’Angelo Russell, the Lakers traded in a salary dump of Timofey Mozgov’s albatross contract.
Meanwhile, they landed LeBron James, arguably the second-best player in NBA history, if only because his home and second job were already in Los Angeles. It certainly was not because of the team’s talent level, because he spent almost all of last year pining for Anthony Davis. Sure enough, the Lakers traded the last of their lottery selections — Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and this year’s No. 4 pick — for AD over the summer. And when you have LeBron and Davis, people will come, at least enough to win more games than not.
Across the Staples Center hallway, the Lob City Clippers ran their course. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan failed to reach a conference finals, and it was time for all sides to move on. The Clippers salvaged a sign-and-trade for Paul, coldly dealt Griffin and let Jordan walk over the course of 2017-18.
In return, they had the makings of a still-competitive team, the cap space to chase a superstar looking to join a complementary playoff roster, and the assets to acquire the star partner he required to sign on the dotted line. And there you have it: Kawhi Leonard and Paul George joined one of the deepest rosters in the entire league. Of course, it also does not hurt that both Leonard and George are originally from L.A.
To the casual NBA fan: This is the peak of the player empowerment era.
In the span of two seasons, LeBron, AD, PG and Kawhi all actively chose the Los Angeles lifestyle over other options that might have beckoned players to stay in past eras, whether by loyalty, finances or guilt.
LeBron left Cleveland a second time, four years after suggesting he would finish his career there. Davis requested a trade two years after telling New Orleans he was there to stay, foregoing a super-max extension in the process. George requested a trade from Oklahoma City a year after signing a four-year contract and two years after requesting a trade from Indiana. Kawhi requested a trade from San Antonio a month after saying he wanted to finish his career as a Spur, won a title in Toronto, and then walked at season’s end.
To the non-NBA fan: Who are you in the sibling rivalry?
Are you the popular one with a full trophy case, glamorous fans and a history of Hall of Fame relationships? Or are you the loser with a sordid past who sat at the kids table with Frankie Muniz, pining for a date to the dance, until you made enough money to buy your popularity and convince that girl to fall for your quirks?
You’re either a Laker or a Clipper. (And, yes, I just compared the Clippers to “Can’t Buy Me Love.”)
New Orleans Pelicans at Denver Nuggets, 10:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
To the avid NBA fan: Boy, is it tough to build in a small market.
The Charlotte Hornets moved to New Orleans in 2003 due to poor attendance and a worse owner who tried to swindle taxpayers into fully funding a new arena. They landed Chris Paul with the fourth pick two years later, and built themselves into a competitive team — until he requested a trade to a larger media market, one with the location and means to surround him with championship-caliber talent.
Then, the Pelicans bottomed out and landed Anthony Davis with the No. 1 overall pick in 2012, building themselves back up until he too requested a trade to the big city. We all know how that turned out. Their karmic consolation prize was another potential generational talent, No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson. With the other players they got in return for Davis and an experienced GM calling the shots on the forthcoming draft picks, New Orleans is building again, at least until their next star requests a trade.
Likewise, Carmelo Anthony pushed for a trade from the Nuggets to the Knicks in 2010, a year after making a Western Conference finals run. Denver worked from the middle for almost a decade, patching together a few first-round playoff exits before falling into the back end of the lottery for a stretch.
They took swing after swing in the draft, hitting a few singles and doubles before connecting on the home run in 2014 — Gary Harris at No. 19 and Nikola Jokic, a bona fide MVP candidate, with the 41st pick. They went 1-for-2 on back-to-back seventh overall picks, nabbing Jamal Murray, and then they started to climb. They added a piece here and another there, and they were right far more often than not.
Without the market to attract top-flight free agents, you better be lucky or smart. Or both.
To the casual NBA fan: Are we worried about Zion?
He was billed as the best prospect since LeBron, a 6-foot-6, 285-pound freak athlete whose ability to do just about everything well fits the modern game like a glove, but he has practically been a non-story as he rehabs his third separate knee injury of the calendar year. Part of that, again, is because he landed in New Orleans and not New York, but mostly we have yet to see him play. And we will have to wait a while longer.
The latest injury was originally billed by the Pelicans as not-so-serious, despite the initial timeline of 6-to-8 weeks. As those dates have come and gone, it seems with every update he is a ways away from being a ways away. Despite some calls for Williamson to sit out his entire rookie season, a la Ben Simmons, it appears we will see him at some point in 2020, although he will be load managed on a minutes restriction.
His 30-plus game absence — and counting — is already more serious than any injury LeBron experienced in his first 15 seasons, if ever. You have to at least wonder if the incredible torque that occurs regularly on the joints of a 285-pound wing playing above the rim is sustainable. Pelicans GM David Griffin has insisted that Williamson’s weight and conditioning were not the root cause of his knee injury, but at the same time Griffin accepts that they have to proceed with caution because Williamson’s body type is “a population of one.”
In other words, we just don’t know what will become of Zion.
To the non-NBA fan: These damn millennials, am I right?
If you are the type of person who believes technology has led to some generational regression, which I am not, you could easily be triggered by the young men in this matchup. Where you might think it ridiculous that the Pelicans will load manage a 19-year-old, I see the foresight to protect the face of the NBA’s future.
Where you may look at Nikola Jokic and see an out-of-shape goon satisfied with his current standing, I can relate to a dad bod that allows me to believe I too could dominate the NBA if I were only just a little taller.
Where you might see Lonzo Ball as a bust, I see someone who has improved each season despite a father who publicly held him to an impossible standard and an ex-boss who introduced him as a franchise savior.
And where you might think Jamal Murray’s $196 million max contract is ludicrous for a 22-year-old who has never made an All-Star team and won exactly one playoff series, I see a Canadian kid whose dad demanded stardom and who meets that standard at his best. Then again, Murray did so by focusing on kung fu and meditation rather than cell phones and video games, a decidedly non-millennial thing to do.
Merry Christmas, everyone. The NBA is whatever gift you want it to be.
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