Christmas is nearly upon us, which means celebrating the birth of Jesus, time with family, time away from work and school, and lots of NBA Basketball! In the last few years, it has also meant that I needed to come up with a gimmick to write my first column of the NBA season. As my elementary school music teacher put it, “Some things should never change”, so for this year’s gimmick I will be giving you the 12 Gifts of NBA Christmas.
Battle of the Unicorns
When Bill Simmons wrote his column on “NBA Unicorns” last December, I’m not sure if he knew how popular that phrase would become, or that two of his three unicorns would be squaring off on Christmas day just one year later. Giannis may be absent from the Christmas action this year, but Joel Embiid and Kristaps Porzingis won’t only be playing, they’ll be playing against each other. Regardless of whether you love or hate the unicorn term, it is an apt description of two of the most unique young stars in the game and any NBA fan would be remiss not to take the opportunity to watch them go head-to-head on Monday, especially if you missed Embiid’s coming-out party/evisceration of the Lakers earlier this season (see above).
The Extremely Fun Sixers
Levi and I did a podcast on the Sixers earlier in the year where I claimed that the Sixers were the second most fun team in the league to watch from a pure basketball standpoint. Forty days later, I stand by that claim and highly encourage any casual NBA fans who have not gifted themselves the chance to see this team play to do so. They have been up and down in the win column, which is to be expected for a young team, but the way Embiid and Ben Simmons play basketball along with Dario Saric and the veteran leadership of J.J. Redick is a very enjoyable and aesthetically pleasing brand of basketball independent of the outcome of their games.
America may love underdog stories, but we also love redemption stories. Michael Beasley was the second pick in the 2008 NBA draft, but has flamed out of the league on multiple occasions, largely because of off-the-court issues. He seems to have wrestled with his personal demons and is now an actual contributor for the Knicks with not one, not two, but three 30-point games this season! He also has had the hot hand since birth.
New Pieces in the Cleveland vs. Golden State Game
Cleveland and Golden State have given us a plethora of compelling games and series over the last three seasons, which is enough reason by itself to tune into this one. However, for those of you who need something fresh, there will be plenty of new faces suiting up for the Warriors and the Cavs this Christmas. Swaggy P and Jordan Bell are notable additions for the Warriors, who both might see more action than expected with Steph Curry out and Draymond Green likely on some form of minutes restriction. For the Cavs, we all remember the Kyrie Irving mega-trade from the summer and this will be the first meeting between these two since. It is a bummer that Cleveland’s most prized possessions from that haul (Isaiah Thomas and the Brooklyn pick) won’t be on the court, but even though the Warriors and Cavs will be down a piece or two it will still be interesting to keep an eye on how the two teams match up.
Also, for the first time in a couple of seasons it doesn’t feel like this is just a Finals preview, so we should all savor what could be the end of an era.
Kyrie Irving vs. John Wall
After the aforementioned trade, the narrative around Kyrie, other than whether or not he actually believes the Earth is flat, was how good he could be as the focal point of a team. Roughly four games into the season, that narrative quickly transitioned to, “Is he the most valuable player in the league?” On the other side, John Wall has gotten off to a bit of a slow start and missed some time with injury, but he’s still one of the most athletic and explosive point guards in the NBA. He also never gets his due because a) the Wizards are so rarely on national television, or at least have been that way for most of his career, and b) he came along in a major talent boom at the point guard position.
Adding to this point guard duel is the fact that both of these guys are uber competitive. Kyrie Irving made it a point in each of the last two NBA Finals to shine on the national stage against two-time MVP Steph Curry. Wall, much like Russell Westbrook, is an athletic specimen with a massive chip on his shoulder who seems to want to seek and destroy anyone who has ever been compared favorably to him. If this game is close in the 4th quarter, expect some late game fireworks from these two.
Potential Eastern Conference Playoffs Preview
There is also a reasonable chance that we will see these two guys, plus the rest of their teams, again in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Wizards are currently in a tie for 5th in the Eastern Conference, although it seems more likely that they will move up those standings than down. They are currently only a half-game behind the 4th place Bucks. The Celtics and Wizards gave us one of the few really good pre-Finals NBA Playoff series last season, and a meeting this season has the potential to be even better.
3-Point Celebrations Galore
On Thursday’s podcast, Levi and I unveiled our Dikembe Mutombo All-Celebration team, which featured zero current players. This led Levi to discuss how we were in a relative swoon for great celebrations, but there are still a few current players with strong 3-point celebrations and almost all of them will be featured in the fourth Christmas day game. Melo’s career seems like it’s headed for the end times, but his “3 to the dome” celebrations is one of the subtlest and coolest celebrations. It’s also a pure joy to catch live even if almost nothing else about Melo’s game is pure joy anymore. Additionally, Russell Westbrook has his three-point holsters and James Harden has several celebrations, the best of which is the “stir the pot“.
A Clash of Traditional Bigs
Traditional big men aren’t a dying breed, but they have certainly declined in number, which makes getting to see two of them go at it all the more special. While most of the attention in the Houston vs. Oklahoma City game will be focused on Westbrook, Harden, Chris Paul, Paul George and Melo; do yourself a favor and pay some attention to the battle down low between Clint Capela and Steven Adams. Neither of these guys get much love because they aren’t “stretch” bigs, but they are two of the very best low post guys and worthy of our attention.
For the first time in a few seasons, the NBA has been mum on what teams will be wearing for Christmas day. Some of that may be Nike’s call, but we aren’t sure if teams will be wearing their traditional uniforms or something else. It’s highly possible that many teams will wear their “Statement” uniforms that most, if not all, teams have already debuted. Another possibility is that these teams will debut their “City” uniforms that leaked last month, but have yet to be debuted by anybody. I was a fan of the Christmas-themed uniforms of the last two seasons personally, but it seems like we will be going away from those this year. Either way, we should see at least a few solid uniform options as the Wizards, Timberwolves and Sixers have three of the very best looks in the league. Plus, the iconic looks of the Celtics, Lakers and Knicks will also be making an appearance.
Three of the top eight picks from the 2017 draft will be on the court on Christmas Day, and if it weren’t for Markelle Fultz’s injury it would be four (including each of the top three). I’m not sure if this has ever happened, or how often, but I do know that this is a good showcase for the league to show how bright its future is with this class of rookies. Jayson Tatum has been fantastic for the Celtics, and is still on the court despite dislocating his pinky finger less than a week ago. Lonzo Ball has had some bright moments and some low points, but is already considered the face of the Lakers franchise. Ball hasn’t been the best rookie on the Lakers so far this season, though. That honor goes to Kyle Kuzma, who casually threw up a 38-7-4 in the win over the Rockets on Wednesday night. Frank Ntilikina, the 8th pick in the draft, hasn’t filled up the stat sheet in his rookie season, but he is a strong defender and is giving them roughly 20 minutes per night of quality playing time.
One of my biggest gripes as an NBA fan is that there are plenty of teams and players that the casual fans rarely get the opportunity to watch because they aren’t nationally televised often enough. With five games on Christmas, there are usually at least a few teams playing that fit into this group. That’s not as true this year as it has been in years’ past, but Minnesota and Washington are two teams that stand out. John Wall and Bradley Beal went from being the Eastern Conference’s brightest young backcourt to being full-fledged stars and no one really noticed until last year’s playoffs because the Wizards were so rarely on national television. The Minnesota spurning was slightly more defensible as they had been really bad until this year, but most of us could probably use more Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins and KAT in our lives. Karl-Anthony Towns has been a slight disappointment this season because he hasn’t made “The Leap” that many, myself included, predicted, but the season is still young and Monday would be a prime opportunity for a coming-out party.
Lavar Ball (a.k.a. socks and underwear)
Lavar Ball is like the socks and underwear you find stuffed in your stocking on Christmas morning. You know it’s coming and you don’t really want it that much, but at the end of the day you just do your best to recognize its merits. Ball has been an obnoxious presence in our lives for the last year and a half now and he isn’t going away so we might as well try to appreciate the guy. While I disagree with 90% of what he says and does, I do realize that he seems to genuinely care about his kids and does what he believes will put them in the best position to succeed. Also, this Junior Basketball Association idea of his is actually a pretty decent one. If you don’t believe me, just ask him and I’m sure he’ll tell you.
Cover Photo Courtesy of Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports