The NBA is developing into a 12-month entity for its loyalists. But for more casual fans, the rhythm of the sports schedule has a way of concealing the league until winter. The beginning of the season is overshadowed by the World Series, and then football demands attention through January.
So the Christmas Day slate — five games this year, ranging in juiciness — is something of an unofficial tip-off for late-arriving fans. Sure, football is at its intoxicating peak, but this is the NBA’s day without the distraction of a bowl game or compelling NFL action.
If you missed the first two-plus months of the NBA season, we’ve got you covered with a dozen story lines that have been fun to follow.
Five minutes into the season, the biggest free agent to change teams last summer snapped his leg — and somehow his team is still thriving. While Gordon Hayward’s status for a late-season return is unclear — and a weekly topic in Boston — Celtics General Manager Danny Ainge’s many moves this offseason appear clairvoyant. Kyrie Irving is proving he can carry a team, and rookie Jayson Tatum is a future star. The Celtics are likely a year away from truly contending for a championship, but the first two months of the year have indicated that maybe no franchise is set up better for sustained success. Except for a team in the Bay Area …
Nothing that has happened so far has threatened the Warriors’ place as the NBA’s nonpareil. Coach Steve Kerr acknowledges it’s tough for his team to get excited for the regular season — not that it matters. The Warriors can flip a switch as if they’re simply asking Alexa to do it for them. Stephen Curry will take his time healing from an ankle injury, and the other three stars should rest if saddled by a mere paper cut or stomach ache. So long as they’re mostly healthy, the Warriors are prohibitive favorites to win their third championship in four years.
After a bumpy start, the favorite in the East is once again the Cavaliers. Despite a hectic offseason and a 5-7 start that caused some panic, Cleveland still has LeBron James, so it’s still the king of the Eastern Conference. James, about to turn 33, is casually delivering another MVP-level season. He has improved as a shooter, maintained his idiosyncratic athleticism and feel for the game and somehow has become an even more imposing physical presence while the league around him continues to get smaller.
Sorry, LeBron, the MVP so far is James Harden, who has the Rockets offense humming at a historic rate. The Rockets have made 16 three-pointers per game (more than half their shot attempts are from long range) as they exploit the sport’s math by an exponent we’ve never seen. New addition Chris Paul isn’t a redundancy, he’s somehow a perfect complement to Harden, both in the way he plays alongside his younger teammate and because he can run the offense while the bearded one rests. Houston still needs to prove its postseason chops, but for now it is the top threat to Golden State.
One super team just beginning to look super is the Thunder. Everyone acknowledged it would take time for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to get comfortable playing alongside Russell Westbrook, whose trademark triple-doubles come with side effects of ball dominance and inefficiency. But the Thunder can’t be patient; its timeline is compounded because of George’s impending free agency and the widespread assumption that he’s headed to Los Angeles. A poor start delegitimized them as a true threat to Golden State, but Oklahoma City won six of seven heading into Christmas.
Maybe we shouldn’t have been so quick to judge those trades. When the Pacers let go of George for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, the move was universally panned. When the Bulls signaled their rebuild by dumping Jimmy Butler for Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen, disapproval was the common reaction. But the young guys in both trades have all performed well (aside from LaVine, who’s rehabbing an injury), and public opinion has shifted decisively.
The Suns nearly burst into flames. The league made it through all of last season without a coach fired. Three games into this season, Earl Watson received a pink slip, his young Phoenix team having been outscored by 92 points in a trio of losses. After that third defeat, point guard Eric Bledsoe revealed he didn’t want to be there (at the hair salon, of course) so the Suns shut him down as the front office publicly explored trade possibilities. The Bucks gave up Greg Monroe and a pick to add Bledsoe and fill their biggest positional need. And the Suns, well, they’re still bad, but they’re less of a laughingstock under interim Coach Jay Triano.
Young freaks are getting scarier. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kristaps Porzingis and Joel Embiid have taken the leap from future stars to Yikes, how do we stop these guys? The sobering answer might be injuries. Porzingis, averaging nearly 25 points, has been slowed by ankle and knee issues — minor but enough to raise the question of whether a 7-foot-3 human can make it through an 82-game season. The 76ers care for the oft-injured Embiid as if he’s a precious piece of art, which isn’t far off if your idea of aesthetics is back-to-the-basket dominance combined with agility and shooting. His performance in a November win against the Lakers — 46 points, 15 rebounds, seven blocks, seven assists — provided a tantalizing glimpse of his ceiling. Antetokounmpo has been healthy throughout his career, and averaging a career best 29.6 points on 54 percent shooting, so teams are still researching that above question about potentially stopping him.
This rookie class is primed to deliver another wave of stars. Top pick Markelle Fultz played a handful of games before a mysterious injury absence, and No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball’s inaccurate shooting has prevented him from living up to unfair expectations. Each might thrive in time, but already, less heralded rookies have emerged as future all-stars. Tatum, Markkanen, the Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, the Mavericks’ Dennis Smith and L.A.’s other first-rounder, Kyle Kuzma, highlight a deep class with plenty other immediate contributors.
The Process is finally bearing fruit in Philly. Not mentioned in the above paragraph is Ben Simmons, a redshirt rookie with one of the most diverse skill sets in the league. The rookie of the year front-runner and potential immediate all-star, has teamed with Embiid and rugged small forward Robert Covington to give long-suffering 76ers fans reason to believe that four years of tanking was worth it. Even after a recent swoon, Philadelphia is in contention for a playoff spot and has the pieces lined up to contend for much more over the next decade.
Injuries to stars are wiping out Western Conference teams … except for San Antonio. The Clippers lost Blake Griffin and quickly unraveled. The Jazz has been without Rudy Gobert and is struggling to remain above water. The Grizzlies went into hibernation after Mike Conley Jr. suffered an injury, then surprisingly fired their coach. It’s tough to win out west when your top player isn’t available. Somehow, the Spurs did it. They have gone 21-8 in games without Kawhi Leonard, and now the popular preseason MVP pick is being eased back into the lineup because San Antonio doesn’t rely on any single player.
Toronto is the most interesting team you probably don’t often watch. The Raptors installed a new offense emphasizing three-point shooting, and they’re mastering it quickly. Coach Dwayne Casey uses a loose rotation of 10 or 11 guys as if he’s running a deep AAU team. (None of the players’ parents complain about playing time, though.) Trust in the bench allows reserves to accumulate crucial reps and starters to stay fresh. The Raps are young, versatile and even ethnically diverse. But you can’t catch them on Christmas because they’re left off the holiday slate every year. At 23-8, they’re deserving of national TV placement.