Grading Every Christmas Day NBA Match-Up

‘Tis the season of giving, and the NBA hath given a lineup of games for public view, so perfectly spaced out as to be able to watch various games throughout the day. Some of the games are clear rivalry games that the NBA is trying to push, whereas others are just individual teams from big markets that the league wishes to put on display. With that in mind, I’m going to go game by game and grade the game quality as well as provide a short blurb about the teams. Here we go!

Bucks @ Knicks: D | Not much to be said about this one. The Bucks have been shaky lately, but the Knicks are so widely devoid of any play-making talent that it probably won’t matter. Even if the Knicks pull off a Christmas upset, it probably won’t be pretty. More likely than that is a good old fashioned blowout courtesy of Giannis.

Thunder @ Rockets: B- | At the beginning of the season this match would have probably seemed like a really good one. Both of these teams started out mysteriously cold, and since then the Thunder have fared better. Houston is still struggling against even middling teams, while OKC is defending at a high level and PG is delivering on offense. I imagine this will be a good game nonetheless, but Chris Paul’s hamstring injury decreases the likelihood that this is a close, compelling game.

76ers @ Celtics: B+ | The NBA is, very clearly, exhaustively, trying to push this rivalry. LeBron leaving Cleveland officially signified that the reigns of the East would fall to the next generation, and in addition to the opening game being the same match-up, it’s clear that this is the narrative the NBA wants for the Eastern Conference. That said, it should be one of the most high-energy games all day, and it’s also very likely to be a close and exciting game. I wish it wasn’t at TD Garden again, seeing as the opening night game as well as the Christmas day game will be at home for Boston which kind of tells me that the NBA wants to push this rivalry, but wants to push Celtics exceptionalism harder. Injuries on Boston’s roster, particularly to their big men, blow this game wide open for Philly, especially because Boston hasn’t seen the Jimmy Butler Sixers yet.

Lakers @ Warriors: A- | The Lakers have begun to get a sense as to what lineups work for them, and the Warriors have finally begun to reach some consistency after reintegrating Steph Curry. Strong defensive teams have slowed the Dubs down and forced them on to suboptimal shots, and when the shots don’t fall like against the Jazz, it won’t take much to overcome them. LeBron doesn’t usually flip the switch this early in the year, but on a big stage and in the every-win-matters West, I think we’ll probably bear witness to the King in his true form. This match-up is an indirect finals rematch, too, which is why I imagine it made the cut for the Christmas games.

Trail Blazers @ Jazz: B | This will probably be an interesting game, but there is significantly less story-line as a basis for its inclusion as a Christmas day game. In reality, it’s just a game between two teams who need a win. Donovan Mitchell’s efficiency has been problematic all year, but the Jazz still sport a respectable defense behind star center Rudy Gobert, who probably doesn’t get enough credit for the impact he has when he checks in. Regardless, the Blazers are currently in the playoffs and the Jazz are a good way’s out of it, but there’s still a perfectly logical route for the Jazz to get in; they just need to win and win now. They can’t afford to have bad nights against other fringe teams like Portland, who are perfectly beatable if things go right. I mean, if you’re competing with the Sacramento Kings for a playoff spot, you’re never really out of it. The Jazz are still in a better place moving forward than, say, the Pelicans, but that’s no reason to be content with an L on Tuesday night.

The games this year follow some pretty clear patterns. The legacy teams who sport a geographic rivalry and were renewed by young talent, the one-man-army versus the people who have bested him the past 2 years, and the rest are filled out with identity-seeking playoff contenders looking to make a statement. Except Bucks/Knicks. That game just plain sucks.

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Who Can Tame the NBA’s Western Conference?

As the 2018-2019 NBA season trudges on, it is becoming increasingly clear who is a real contender and who is not. There is still plenty of stratification that has yet to occur, but in the meantime, many pundits have been asking who they believe is the West’s 2nd best team (presuming the best is still the Golden State Warriors, which is the right assumption in my opinion).

I find this question problematic for a number of reasons. For starters, win/loss record is not always indicative of who the “best” team is. The best team might have the 2nd best record (like GSW last year) and the 2nd best team might have the 4th best record. 

The consensus answer for the West’s second best team at the moment seems to be the Denver Nuggets, who sit at the top of the WC standings with a record of 18-9. While I do think the Nuggets aren’t a bad choice, I disagree with the logic that they are the West’s second best team because they have the best record near 25% of the way through the season. I think there is a much more accurate and interesting way to find out who’s for real in the West: Who is likely to host a first round playoff series? In other words, who will finish with one of the top 4 records in the Western Conference?

The reasoning behind posing the question in this way is two-fold. First, it allows for a lot more room for interpretation of how you determine who is the “best.” Second, with the depth of the Western Conference as currently constructed, you need every advantage you can get, and home court advantage in the first or second round can be the difference maker. Styles make fights, and you don’t want to be taking any risks when you might be playing against Anthony Davis or the deep, deep LA Clippers in round 1. Not necessarily in any seed-based order, here are the 4:

Warriors: The first team that I believe will keep a top 4 spot is obviously the Warriors. I think they likely take the 1 seed, as I don’t think any team can beat their long term win/loss record. Regardless, they are easily a lock for a top 4 seed even with taking some minor injuries along the way. With that said, if Steph Curry were to suffer a season-ending injury (knock on wood) the Dubs could be in trouble. I still think they’d be fine, though.

Nuggets: The second team that I think is taking a top 4 seed is the Denver Nuggets. As I said before, they currently lead the West and look poised to keep on rolling over mid-tier teams. They have racked up impressive wins, and star big-man Nikola Jokic really can do anything except jump. He still shows weaknesses defensively, but the team has stepped it up as a whole in that regard making it less of an issue. They will likely add even more depth as the season goes on, as they look to incorporate Isaiah Thomas as he returns from injury soon, and we still haven’t heard a peep about Micheal Porter Jr. whose status is still pretty unclear as far as this season is concerned. Regardless, the Nuggets are one of the more flexible, amorphous teams in the league. Denver has shown they’re more than a statistical anomaly and shows no signs of slowing down in their current state.

Thunder: The Oklahoma City Thunder, who started out the season painfully sluggish, have displayed that they can do it with or without Russell Westbrook, and this team looks like a defensive bastion as of late. Steven Adams is top 5 in the league in offensive boards, and with weapons like Paul George around the perimeter, that pays dividends. Speaking of George, he leads the league in steals, and continues to show his prowess as a two-way player. Now that they’ve worked the kinks out, the best way to describe the Thunder appears to be one word: consistent. Of course they have their fluke losses like all teams, but for the most part the Thunder eat mid to low-tier teams for breakfast. That alone should be good enough to keep them in the playoff bubble, and the teams’ upside as a whole gives me reason to believe they’ll land in the top 4.

Paul George’s night to night production allows a necessary buffer for the other primary scorers on the team.

Lakers: I did some light research on this one, and last I checked, LeBron James is still on the Lakers’ roster. They have definitely figured out their defense, and since the start of the season have completely turned around on that front. More importantly, the team has figured out which players of their young core function next to LeBron, which is basically the key to succeeding with LeBron. It’s not easy to play on-court with the King, but if they figure it out and stick to their guns from there (the guns seem to be Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma) then they can make waves. Not to mention, even the guys they have that aren’t particularly good fits with LeBron are still solid, athletic players. If they can rest LeBron a few more minutes per night without that throwing the game into the fire, that could go a long way in terms of wins through the rest of the season and into the playoffs. LeBron will turn it on when he needs to, and albeit this may be an earlier time to do so than in years past, nothing is guaranteed in the West right now. Having home court matters way more this year than in his past decade of being in the East.

So, there are my 4, not in any order. I could see any of those 4 in any order being logical at the end of the regular season.

Some notable omissions would be the Houston Rockets who topped the seeds last year. They look stronger, but if they want to even see the playoffs this year, they need to get it together-and fast. 

I think the surprise teams of the Clippers and Grizzlies will stay strong, but I think they will have to falter a little bit, the Grizz especially. They are one multiple-week injury away from a serious losing streak. The Clippers are one of the deepest, most well-rounded teams in the league, meaning they are less prone to regression and more likely to adapt long-term, but I also think they are due for a little bit of cooling off. That said, Doc Rivers is making a Coach of The Year case. 

Aside from those two, who have flirted with top positions thus far this year, everyone else is in the hunt to even make the playoffs. The Spurs, Jazz, Pelicans, and Trail Blazers all have the talent to make it, but cannot spare a single loss. Those are the types of teams that I’d be skeptical of being able to win consistently enough from night to night to clinch a top 4 seed.

Filling the Gaps: Potential Trades for Markelle Fultz

The Sixers were always going to need a third guy around Simmons and Embiid. Not necessarily in the sense of a “Big 3,” but just 3 high level players who work well enough together on the court, yet are capable of producing when they aren’t all together. Markelle Fultz’s destiny with the Sixers was to either develop into that third guy, or to develop into a valuable trade piece in obtaining that third guy. We managed to secure our “guy” in Jimmy Butler in the most Process way imaginable, and we did so without involving Fultz in the deal. At the time that we drafted him, that would have sounded like a perfect outcome. We got our 3 guys, all without giving up the PG that they traded in order to draft first overall, although few could have imagined the reason Fultz ended up being left out of the deal, in that he’s simply not trade-able. However, with the state of his play being as it is, and the extreme lack of professionalism coming from Markelle’s people, it’s about time the Sixers move on. They no longer consider him a part of their long-term plans and have been shopping him on a trade market, which makes sense in all honesty. This core has a window, and it’s completely fair that the team doesn’t want to sit around with their thumb up their ass, wasting Jimmy Butler’s precious healthy prime years, waiting for this kid to get it together and attack his issues head on. With all of that said, here are some potential trades for pieces that fill out the roster in a way that gets them off Fultz and into the future of contending for titles.

For Kyle Korver: The case for Kyle Korver can be made in that he’s a veteran, he’s an all-time great shooter who can play off the ball. He has a favorable contract moving forward over Fultz, yet they’re close enough in salary that this trade could likely be made straight-up, if Cleveland is in. The glaring flaw in this deal is that Korver is a complete minus defensively. The one corollary I’d add is that the Sixers have enough players who are good 1-on-1 defenders that it could be feasible to play him and not sacrifice too much in that regard. It would certainly be a better trade for the regular season than the playoffs, as Korver’s defensive limitations are truly exposed in the post-season more than ever, and that brings questions to how valuable this trade really is in the Sixers’ championship aspirations.

For Kentavious Caldwell-Pope: The nice part of the KCP trade is that he is a much more fluid defender than some of the other available trades. He’s also a much less consistent shooter, which might defeat the whole purpose of bringing him on as the Sixers simply need a solid 3-ball shooter who isn’t a statue on defense (is that too much to ask?). KCP is on a pretty favorable deal at 1 year, $12 million as he becomes trade available on Dec. 15th of this year. He would have to be made a trade for later on, but it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world as he’s easily one of the more flexible options out there, and he can be resigned next year for maybe a more team-friendly deal then that’s great; if he doesn’t, there’s no hard commitment from a cap-space perspective.

For Trevor Ariza: The idea behind the Ariza trade is that he’s the perfect 3-and-D guy. He was an integral part of the Rockets’ system both offensively and defensively last year, and is the least concerning come playoff time. The downside of this trade is he is on a 1 year, $15 million contract in which he first becomes available in January, much later than the team likely wants to wait. He could also become a waiver signing later on, but if the team wants to secure him fast they could give up more salary balance like Bolden or Jackson, and possibly a scrap heap draft pick? Who knows. The timeline for Ariza makes the least sense since it’s very possible he could be signed without a trade, and since his trade restriction ends so much later than is ideal. He’s the best fit by far, though, as he’s a solid 35% 3 -pt shooter and 42% field goal shooter, on top of his strength as a system defender.

Unfortunately, as is usually the case for the Sixers, nothing is clear or ideal for trading Fultz. I, more than most possibly, am completely ready to put this drama and nonsense behind us even if it takes paying a small price to get off of him. The team just doesn’t need to hang around waiting for more developments in a story that’s gone 2 years with no significant movement, and continues to cause headaches for everyone involved.