NBA Christmas Day 2015 Schedule: Game-by-Game Preview and Analysis
Christmas is to the NBA what Thanksgiving is to the NFL. An annual tradition since 1947, Christmas basketball has crested in popularity along with the sport itself. Once one of the rare occasions the Association appeared on national television—a large majority of the audience probably remembers NBA Finals games being on tape delay—it's now an all-day extravaganza.
The NBA expanded its Christmas slate to five games for the 2011-12 season and hasn't looked back. The Association released its 2015-16 schedule on Wednesday, and this year, games will once again begin at noon and likely not end until well past the midnight hour. The lulls in action are few and far between—perhaps enough to offer one or two salutations to family members as you ignore them for all the action.
The day kicks off with budding superstar Anthony Davis traveling to Miami for a matchup against the Heat, continues with a Finals rematch during the marquee 5 p.m. time slot and then finishes in the evening with five teams that could knock off the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers this spring. Oh, and the Los Angeles Lakers are hanging out there too for some reason.
With that in mind, let's take a look at a preview for each matchup on the docket.
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New Orleans Pelicans at Miami Heat (Noon ET, ESPN)
Heat-Pelicans is a rather random matchup. There is no rivalry, no animus here. They're not even in the same conference. Given the fact that neither is considered a championship contender, the NBA's taking a bit of a risk going away from the standard New York/Brooklyn environment.
On the other hand: This could be awesome.
The logic here is infallible. Anthony Davis is the NBA's next marketing monster. He may have already supplanted Kevin Durant as the heir to LeBron James' Best Player Alive throne and should be in store for another mini-leap at age 22. Something like a 26-12-3 stat line is well within the realm of possibility come Christmas Day. The Pelicans should also be much luckier with the injury bug after having their starting lineup play together for only 13 games.
Moreover, Miami and New Orleans are largely similar in terms of their roster composition. Both are highly dependent on their starters. The Pelicans have six legitimate players who could start for NBA teams and then a series of 10 men they're asking to play key bench roles. The Heat have one of the league's best five-man starting lineups followed by...yikes.
Either Amar'e Stoudemire or Mario Chalmers will have to be Miami's best bench player until Josh McRoberts proves his health or Justise Winslow emerges as a difference-maker. Having watched Stoudemire and Chalmers play basketball in the last 12 months, that's not exactly ideal.
The Heat are in largely the same spot they were a year ago; if any of their starting five goes down for an extended period, it's going to be tough sledding.
The same thing goes for New Orleans, which is a 50-win team if fully healthy but a borderline playoff team if it can't stay healthy. The NBA will have its fingers crossed that all parties involved are only wearing suits to the game and not at it.
Chicago Bulls at Oklahoma City Thunder (2:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
Sometimes narratives just write themselves. Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose are two of the three players not named LeBron James to win the NBA MVP since 2007-08 (Stephen Curry being the other). Both suffered debilitating injuries in the subsequent season that put their trajectories on hold.
Rose is heading into Year 4 of his recovery process. He's played a grand total of 61 games over the last three seasons, 51 of which came a year ago. While a massive uptick in on-court time, Rose was far from the same player and underwent a meniscectomy in February that will probably lead to pain for the rest of his career. Even the most optimistic Bulls fan would acknowledge that we've seen his peak.
Thunder fans (and fans of the 20 or so teams that will vie for his services next summer) hope Durant isn't headed toward a similar fate.
The 2014 MVP suffered a Jones fracture in his right foot last October and has undergone three separate procedures since. This isn't the career-threatener like Joel Embiid's navicular bone fracture, but it's concerning. Jones fractures typically heal well; that Durant's has not is something we should all keep in mind going into this season.
"I had my days where I'm like, 'Man, this isn't getting any better, I'm sick of working out, I've been working out for a year, I'm ready to play.' It was kind of like cabin fever almost," Durant told ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne in Las Vegas.
The Thunder and Bulls organizations will be the source of ongoing scrutiny all season. Both jettisoned coaches with admirable regular-season winning percentages for unproven guys plucked from the college ranks, doing so in the name of organizational synergy.
Tom Thibodeau's toxic relationship with Bulls management has been well-documented, as has management's solid relationship with his replacement, Fred Hoiberg. Similar writing was on the wall for Billy Donovan to take over once America's favorite punching bag, Scott Brooks, got the boot in OKC.
Both of these fanbases expect to be competing for Finals berths. It'll be interesting to see where their superstars and their teams are in that process come Dec. 25.
Golden State Warriors at Cleveland Cavaliers (5 p.m. ET, ABC)
The Cavaliers who show up on Christmas won't be the ones from the Finals. At least they hope not. Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving should be on the court. If his nonexistent free-agent market is any indication, perhaps J.R. Smith will be nowhere near it. Cavaliers general manager LeBron James helped coax veterans Mo Williams and Richard Jefferson to town on discounts, and Anderson Varejao should be a viable contributor off the bench.
The 2015 Finals Cavs were like a low-budget indie film propelled by the undeniable star power of its lead actor. The 2015-16 Cavs are a Marvel movie packed to the brim with superstars and carrying the price tag of a small country's gross domestic product.
The Warriors are a largely similar bunch. Out went David Lee in a series of cost-cutting moves that ultimately landed them Jason Thompson, a valuable bench contributor type who also costs millions less. The rotation is otherwise unchanged, as Draymond Green's new five-year deal was Golden State's only major move of the offseason.
Of course, retention is usually a smart move when you're discussing one of the best regular-season teams in NBA history. The Warriors and Cavs should be at or near the top of their respective conferences on Christmas. Cleveland is well past the growing-pains stage it endured early in 2014-15, especially after Love and James hashed out whatever tensions they had before the former re-signed.
In some seasons, the midday game is more about storylines than actual basketball. In 2015-16, we'll have both in what might be a Game of the Year candidate.
San Antonio Spurs vs. Houston Rockets (8 p.m. ET, ESPN)
The Old Man Spurs reclaimed their Best Team in Texas mantle this offseason with their LaMarcus Aldridge coup. On paper, they're perhaps the best team in basketball.
Aldridge is a win-now star who will ease the offensive burden on Kawhi Leonard, who for all his skills works best as a second or third option on that end. His signing also extended the shelf life of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili for at least one more season, helping push them a bit more into the background in the process.
Also in the background: the Houston Rockets, the only Texas team that actually made it out of the first round in 2015. The Rockets have a right to feel slighted. Between them and the Hawks, I cannot remember a time in history when two conference finalists came into the subsequent season with less hype—especially after neither got discernibly worse during the summer.
Assuming he stays out of trouble, Lawson fills the Rockets' biggest weakness while allowing Patrick Beverley's role to shift from below-average starter to bench menace. Rookies Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell are also developed enough to be sneaky bench contributors if minutes open up.
The Rockets remain a clear fifth place behind San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Golden State and the Clippers. But they're a legitimate Finals threat. James Harden is one of the best half-dozen players on the planet. Dwight Howard is one of the league's three best centers. Terrence Jones, Trevor Ariza, Donatas Motiejunas, et al. are players who have defined roles and play them well.
Maybe the Spurs are a better team on paper. Just don't be surprised if Houston uses the Christmas Day stage to remind everyone which of these teams was two wins away a Finals berth last year.
Los Angeles Lakers vs. Los Angeles Clippers (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
For a brief period in early July, it appeared the Clippers had returned to full Clipperdom. Their new logo drew roughly 2.5 million Microsoft clip art jokes on Twitter. DeAndre Jordan, a flawed player but nonetheless a foundational piece, left them to sign with the Dallas Mavericks. The criticism of Chris Paul and Doc Rivers' managerial skills was hitting an apex.
And all the while the Lakers were emerging as a contender for LaMarcus Aldridge, per Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski.
We all know what happened next.
Jordan's last-minute waffling turned a disaster into a coup, as his decision to re-sign with L.A. helped launch the Clippers from the worst NBA offseason to perhaps the best.
Their bench, once filled with borderline D-Leaguers, is now a legitimate threat. Lance Stephenson is the NBA's most interesting reclamation project. Paul Pierce took a discount to return home. And Josh Smith left his friend Dwight Howard to back up Blake Griffin. Add in Pablo Prigioni, Cole Aldrich and Wesley Johnson, and there are six new players in L.A. who could contribute.
The Lakers came into July with Aldridge dreams and left with a Roy Hibbert reality. For the third straight summer, big dreams on the opposite halls of the Staples Center came crashing down. They acquired Hibbert's massive contract into cap space, added Lou Williams as part of their weird push to collect each of the NBA's wing gunners and landed Brandon "The Brand" Bass.
Other than adding D'Angelo Russell, a left-handed Brandon Roy clone in the making, the Lakers have nothing tangible to show for their offseason. So, for the third straight year, the narrative of this matchup remains the same. The Clippers remain the New Lakers while the Lakers get used to their new reality at the bottom of the NBA's standings.
It's not quite the Clippers-Warriors donnybrook we got last season as a capper, but it'll do given the excellence of the other four contests.