Stars, snubs and rivalries: Why we can’t wait for NBA on Christmas Day

NBA

The NBA has unwrapped an early holiday gift.

The league’s Christmas Day schedule is set — The Athletic was first to report the lineup — and as always, it’s jam-packed with rivalries, superstars and potential playoff previews.

In the Eastern Conference, the Philadelphia 76ers will hit Madison Square Garden to face the New York Knicks, while the Milwaukee Bucks will visit the Boston Celtics in a rematch of their seven-game conference semifinal thriller.

In the Western Conference, LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers are set take on Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks, the defending champion Golden State Warriors will welcome the Memphis Grizzlies to the Bay and the Phoenix Suns will battle two-time reigning MVP Nikola Jokic, a healthy Jamal Murray and the Denver Nuggets.

Which teams and stars will shine brightest? Who should have been included on the NBA’s biggest regular-season stage? Will the Lakers be in the playoff hunt on Christmas Day?

You’ll be able to catch all the action on ESPN, ABC and the ESPN App. Until then, our NBA Insiders are answering some of the biggest questions surrounding the league’s Christmas Day slate.


1. Which Christmas Day matchup would make the best conference finals showdown?

Tim Bontemps: Bucks-Celtics. We saw how good Warriors-Grizzlies was last season, so that would be a fine answer, but the top choice has to be Milwaukee and Boston. Not only was it a classic seven-game series last season, but both teams should be better this time around: Boston for the experience of reaching the NBA Finals plus adding Malcolm Brogdon and Danilo Gallinari, and the Bucks for getting healthy and having Khris Middleton back. Sign me up for seven more games.

Andrew Lopez: Bucks-Celtics. Maybe I’m a little biased because I covered this series last season, but it was such a fun matchup before Milwaukee tired out toward the end. The Bucks didn’t have a healthy Middleton for that series, so his return adds another element. (Milwaukee also picked up Joe Ingles and MarJon Beauchamp.)

Kevin Pelton: Bucks-Celtics. As fun as the young Nuggets and Grizzlies getting shots at the veteran Suns and Warriors will be, the showdown of East juggernauts is the clear choice. Boston and Milwaukee went seven games in the 2022 playoffs despite Middleton’s absence. With the Celtics loading up this summer, I’d love to see the two teams play at full strength.

Jamal Collier: Grizzlies-Warriors. Sure, give me seven games of Bucks-Celtics, but I’m a sucker for watching a young team try to unseat the proven veterans. Memphis trying its hand at Golden State for a second straight season, with a trip to the Finals on the line, is the kind of stuff the great rivalries in NBA history are made of.

Bobby Marks: Is it too late for Golden State to play the LA Clippers (sorry Memphis)? If not, it must be Phoenix vs. Denver. Back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic and a healthy Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. should contend for one of the top seeds in the West. Despite a flameout in Game 7 to Dallas, Phoenix returns the same starting five from the team that won an NBA-best 64 games in 2021-22.


2. What’s one Christmas Day matchup not featured that you’d like to see?

Marks: Brooklyn Nets at 76ers. I understand the reluctance of putting Brooklyn on Christmas Day because of the uncertainty surrounding Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. But Ben Simmons‘ return to Philadelphia would be enticing to kick off the five-game schedule.

Pelton: Nets at 76ers. KD or no KD, pairing the teams that completed a massive trade in February (sending James Harden to Philadelphia and Simmons to the Nets) for possibly Simmons’ first trip back to Philly as an active player, would have been more highly anticipated than 76ers-Knicks.

Collier: Sixers-Miami Heat. I know the Knicks hosting a Christmas Day game has become a tradition, but I’d much rather watch New York take on a team like Chicago. That leaves room for the Philly-Miami rematch from last season’s Eastern Conference semifinalists — to go along with Milwaukee-Boston — especially considering Joel Embiid‘s injury in the playoffs removed most of the drama from that series before it got started.

Lopez: The majority of the matchups look very promising, but I would have liked to see the Atlanta Hawks take the Knicks’ spot against Philly. Other than that, the only other matchup I would prefer is maybe if the NBA wanted to feature its young talent in one of the games. The world might not be clamoring for an Orlando Magic vs. Oklahoma City Thunder showdown on Christmas Day, but a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup of Paolo Banchero vs. Chet Holmgren would be fun to watch in an early slot.

Bontemps: Minnesota Timberwolves-Clippers. LA is the NBA’s deepest team, has an excellent coach in Tyronn Lue and — provided Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are healthy — will be the favorites to win the West. As for Minnesota, I think the Wolves will win 50 games for the first time since Kevin Garnett’s prime, and they have one of the NBA’s most charismatic young stars in Anthony Edwards. “Ant-Man” is just the kind of player who should be on the Christmas Day stage. And like Ja Morant and the Grizzlies this year, I could easily see the Wolves getting the Christmas Day call next year if they have a breakout season.


3. Which player will score the most points on Christmas Day?

Marks: Harden, with 45. I have already gone on record saying Harden will have a bounce-back season and be in the conversation for MVP. Going off on Christmas Day against a less inferior team in New York will only strengthen that.

Pelton: Embiid, with 38. Embiid, the league’s leading scorer last season, had a combined 64 points in back-to-back matchups against the Knicks during Harden’s first week with the 76ers. In the first matchup, Embiid went to the free throw line an incredible 27 times. Newcomer Isaiah Hartenstein offers more size defending Embiid in the post, but given Hartenstein averaged 4.9 fouls per 36 minutes last season, he is unlikely to keep Embiid from the charity stripe.

Collier: Embiid, with 41 points. I’m predicting another MVP-caliber season from Embiid, who hasn’t played on Christmas Day since 2019, and he has the right matchup to deliver a statement game. If Embiid comes into the season with “Christmas at the Garden” circled on the calendar, watch out.

Bontemps: Morant, with 50. We know Morant is a showman. We also know the Warriors, like for the vast majority of the West semifinals once Gary Payton II was injured, don’t have a weapon to slow Morant down. So let’s say Morant, making his Christmas Day debut, does something truly special and goes for a half-dollar with the basketball world watching.

Lopez: Murray, with 41. The 25-year-old guard was in the middle of his best season in 2020-21 before he tore his left ACL and was forced to miss the rest of that campaign and the Nuggets’ entire 2021-22 season. With a home game on Christmas against the Suns, Murray will have a chance to show off to a national audience. Let’s go with 40-plus points while he ties the NBA Christmas Day record with eight 3-pointers.


4. LeBron is slated to play in a record 17th Christmas Day game. Which player competing on Christmas this year has the best chance of eventually breaking the all-time mark?

Bontemps: While the trendy answer here could be the player James is facing, Doncic, I’m going with Jayson Tatum. Tatum has played on the holiday in all six of his NBA seasons and is 24. (It’s worth noting it will also be Jaylen Brown‘s seventh Christmas game). It’s hard to see anyone chasing down James, but Tatum — an established superstar on a big-market club — has the time and the recipe.

Collier: Doncic. The Mavericks and Doncic are already playing in their third straight Christmas Day game. Doncic is 23 years old and already one of the league’s brightest young stars and easily one of the most watchable. So you can likely pencil his team in for a game on Christmas for the foreseeable future, which will give him a shot at breaking James’ record.

Lopez: Tatum, who is entering his sixth season and is set to play in his sixth Christmas Day game. Tatum plays for a franchise that is frequently featured on Christmas Day — only the Lakers and Knicks have played more on Dec. 25 than Boston — and there’s no reason to think Tatum or his team will slow down anytime soon.

Pelton: Tatum is actually ahead of James’ pace. (James was about to turn 27 when he played on Christmas for the sixth time). Considering the Celtics have been holiday fixtures — this will be their 12th Christmas game since the current five-game slate was adopted in 2008 — Tatum has a chance to keep racking up appearances as long as he’s in Boston.

Marks: James’ record is safe. Stephen Curry will play his ninth Christmas Day game, but the Warriors guard will turn 35 in March and will likely fall short of the mark. Doncic has youth on his side, but can we be sure Dallas will be a consistent championship-caliber team in the future?


5. Fill in the blank: The Lakers will be in ____ place in the West on Christmas morning.

Marks: Fourth. This is not a misprint. I will put on my fortuneteller hat and predict Russell Westbrook buys into coach Darvin Ham’s vision, Davis stays healthy and James plays like an MVP throughout the first 10 weeks of the season.

Collier: Seventh. Hopefully LeBron and AD will be healthier, but they’ll be dealing with a lot of the same issues as last season, with an oddly constructed roster around them in an improved West.

Pelton: Seventh. Because national TV games are back-loaded in the schedule and the Grammys are returning to Los Angeles, the Lakers’ early schedule should be favorable. As a result, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them comfortably above .500 at that point, health permitting. The real test for the Lakers will come after the calendar turns to 2023.

Lopez: Eighth. There are so many questions for L.A. right now. How is Westbrook going to look? How will Anthony Davis‘ shoulder hold up? How is the team going to mesh with Ham? So let’s play it safe here and jsay the Lakers will be middle of the pack.

Bontemps: Eighth. The Lakers are, even with a healthy duo of James and Davis, clearly outside the West’s top six. It’s very difficult to overcome having roughly 60% of the roster on minimum contracts. Those players are available for minimums for a reason, and it speaks to the lack of depth the Lakers have across the board. Could they finish higher? It’s possible, especially if James and Davis both play 70-plus games. But Davis has done that twice in 10 NBA seasons, and James has begun to have injury issues.


Bonus! Fact or fiction: The NBA needs to bring back the Christmasthemed jerseys.

Collier: Fact. The first names on the jersey went hard. More creativity (and less sleeves) please.

Lopez: Fact. Absolutely, but only under one condition: Leave the sleeved jerseys in the closet — please.

Bontemps: Fiction. These jerseys are gross. No thanks.

Marks: Fiction. Do we really need another alternate jersey!?

Pelton: Fiction. They’re the Christmas sweaters of NBA jerseys.

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