FOX Sports NBA Analyst
If your personal sports calendar marks Christmas as the start of the NBA season, don’t worry, I’m here to help fill in what you’ve been missing out on and point you in the direction of what’s on your agenda that day list of (for you) season openers.
The good news: GMs, Scouts, Trainers, and Executives all believe the best is yet to come.
“I would call it one of the best seasons we’ve had in a long time,” said Cleveland Cavaliers coach JB Bickerstaff.
It’s not too surprising that Bickerstaff would be dizzy. The Cavaliers made arguably the only offseason blockbuster move that actually worked for both teams, acquiring All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell from the Utah Jazz. The Cavs are currently third in the Eastern Conference, and if they stay that way, it would be their highest regular-season result since 2017, when they subsequently reached the NBA Finals. The Jazz – intentional or not – was also unexpectedly good, in large part due to 2017 No. 7 forward Lauri Markkanen, whose passivity threatened to take him out of the league. Suddenly he’s HAM, alternately crushing rims and burying 3s.
Among the moves that haven’t worked out so far: The Minnesota Timberwolves take on Jazz All-Star center Rudy Gobert. While the T-Wolves paid a heavy price — five players and four first-round picks — it should cement them as a playoff team, but they currently sit 10th in the Western Conference. The Atlanta Hawks also went openly shopping, acquiring former All-Star guard Dejounte Murray from the San Antonio Spurs for Danilo Gallinari and three future first-round picks. The Hawks are currently seventh in the East.
While the Daubers are down in Atlanta and Minnesota, their struggles have brought the league up to par with the NFL, where 26 teams have three games remaining to make the playoffs. In the NBA, four games separate the top-10 teams in the Western Conference, and the bottom-placed Houston Rockets are just 11.5 games from first.
“It’s one of the most unique seasons we’ve seen in terms of parity,” said a Western Conference scout. “Obviously the West is a crapshoot. I literally think the healthiest team will be favored in the playoffs between the Memphis, New Orleans, Warriors, Suns, Nuggets, Clippers or the Mavericks, assuming each team either stands or makes a positive trade win.”
The East is a bit more tiered, with the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics and Cavs leading the way, and the No. 7 Hawks, No. 8 Indiana Pacers and No. 9 Miami Heat all having near-identical records.
“The season has actually been pretty fascinating, watching some of the best teams go on losing streaks and some of the worst teams going on winning streaks,” said an Eastern Conference scout. “There are no nights off, that’s for sure.”
Case in point: The defending champion Warriors, whose five-game losing streak earlier this season also included losses to the east’s three worst teams in the Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic. There’s no telling how much the Warriors’ early struggles should be credited to a viral video of Draymond Green coldly cocking teammate Jordan Poole at training camp, but it certainly didn’t help.
At the other end of the spectrum are the perpetually unlucky Sacramento Kings, who won seven straight games in November, their longest winning streak since 2005.
The rise of the Kings and the fall of the Warriors are also part of a general shift in the Western Conference. The Warriors and Lakers, two of the last three Conference title winners, would not even qualify for the play-in tournament as of today, while the Kings and Pelicans are firmly anchored in the postseason. And the most compelling matchup on Christmas Day is the nightcap between the Suns and Nuggets.
“A changing of the guard in the wild, wild west,” said a Western Conference scout.
That could also include the hierarchy of star players. LeBron James will be part of the Christmas Day celebrations again, but for how much longer? The 11:30 a.m. PT tip against the Mavericks is the earliest he has participated in since moving to LA. The Lakers appear to be going into the lottery for the second year in a row, especially now that Anthony Davis is out indefinitely with a foot injury.
James’ greatest nemesis of the past decade, Steph Curry, also faces a challenge to relevance. Curry is playing as good as ever, pacing to produce his second 50-40-90 season and post career highs in rebounds and assists per minute — but despite it all, the Warriors were in the lottery before an injury struck his left shoulder fell out.
Individual fame only goes so far.
But the open race for No. 1 and 7-foot French center Victor Wembanyama has yet to materialize. “No Victor Sweepstakes,” said a Western Conference GM. “Teams will probably close late, but nobody does it that early.”
And then there’s the Brooklyn Nets, who were a little bit of everything — good, bad, and, of course, controversial. The good: Their current eight-game winning streak and the game of Kevin Durant, a four-time scoring champion who’s picking up points at a career-high pace (40.3 per 100 possessions – Basketball Reference). The bad: A 6-2 start that cost head coach Steve Nash his job and an eight-game team ban for Kyrie Irving after he posted the cover of an anti-Semitic film on his social media feed and initially refused to speak out to excuse. That prompted Nets owner Joe Tsai, the players’ union and commissioner Adam Silver to openly publicly chastise Irving until he caved in.
All of this has caused the entire league to view the webs with suspicion, unsure if they will explode or implode.
An Eastern Conference GM from the Nets said, “They literally scare everyone to death because you just don’t know what they can do.”
The conference’s defending champions, the Celtics, had their own wave of controversy when head coach Ime Udoka was suspended just before training camp for allegedly sexually harassing several women in the organization. Assistant Joe Mazzulla was employed as caretaker coach. Since then, however, they have shown no sign of a hangover and have won nine straight games at the highest level thanks to the league’s most efficient offense.
The bucks meanwhile have had the keel of equality. They opened the season 9-0 without All-Star guard Khris Middleton, and their longest losing streak is two they’ve once suffered. Giannis Antetokounmpo tells father jokes, takes his time at the free-throw line – sometimes too much time, resulting in multiple missed free-throw attempts – and scores at a career-high pace (31.6). Coach Mike Budenholzer has decided defending corner 3s might be a good idea after the Celtics failed to send the Bucks home in the second round last year. Brook Lopez is a nominee for Defensive Player of the Year. Even Grayson Allen hasn’t been accused of doing anything dirty in months.
Figuring out which team comes out on top is part of the charm of the Christmas Day schedule. The Bucks and Celtics will face each other in the middle of the five-game board for the first time this season. That advantage could be determined by their respective league MVP candidates, Giannis and Jayson Tatum. What to watch for: How much Budenholzer is allowing Giannis to guard Tatum and whether Tatum is backing down after marring an otherwise impressive season of unconvincing performances against some of the Celtics’ most heated rivals (Heat and Warriors) lately.
Who shows up could affect the league MVP race, which is as tight and tied as the team standings. Dallas’ Luka Dončić reappeared as a preseason favorite and appears to have canceled that save yet again, in large part as the Mavs struggle to stay above .500. Overall, however, Christmas Day will feature seven of the top 10 MVP candidates currently on the list NBA.com‘s MVP ladder: Antetokounmpo, Tatum, Dončić, Nuggets center (and reigning two-time MVP) Nikola Jokić, Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant, Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid and Suns guard Devin Booker.
For the casual fan, this last message might seem pretty mundane because it’s not about a specific player or team, but about one rule: travel. NBA umpires are calling it now! This is no joke. The same league that secretly increased the number of steps a player can legally take between dribbles from 1.5 to 3 is cracking down on all manner of improper ball handling and footwork. Carrying the ball, holding the ball in one hand to count before continuing to dribble, was another focus. Sliding the pivot feet, especially in step-back moves, to get behind the 3-point line is a third.
And the whistles weren’t the type to just show we care, like making a call or two to roleplayers early in the game and that’s it. A few weeks ago, 10 travel infractions were called in a game between the Warriors and the Mavericks, including back-to-back calls to All-Stars Dončić and Curry. The Warriors’ chance to equalize or win the game in the dying seconds was wiped out by another travel injury that claimed Curry.
The question is, will the referees continue like this? With a playoff berth or postseason win hanging in the balance, will they have the guts to make the same decision?
“A lot of the best players have these questionable movements to create their shots,” said a Western Conference scout. “Are these calls being made at critical moments in playoff time?”
One of many emerging questions this season. You already have the rest. Let the games begin on Christmas Day.
Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has authored two books, Rebound, about NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with early-onset Parkinson’s disease, and Yao: A Life In Two Worlds. He also has a daily podcast, On The Ball with Ric Bucher. Follow him on Twitter @Ric Bucher.
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