NBA Christmas Day 2019 Schedule: Game-by-Game Preview and Analysis
We already knew the NBA's Christmas Day matchups before the official announcement Monday.
That doesn't make it feel like any less of a gift on the full NBA schedule.
LeBron James and Anthony Davis will do battle with Kawhi Leonard, a man they recruited heavily to be their teammate in July.
The winner of Bucks-Sixers could wind up determining the No. 1 seed in the East come April. Rockets-Warriors is a heavily remixed version but still Rockets-Warriors. The Pelicans and Nuggets will see their young superstars get the Christmas spotlight for the first time, while the Raptors and Celtics provide what could be a first-round playoff preview.
Here's a look into major talking points for each matchup
Clippers vs. Lakers
Los Angeles is the center of the basketball universe this season. The Lakers struck first by essentially sending a decade's worth of building blocks to the Pelicans for Anthony Davis, and the Clippers struck back in an even bigger way in July.
Not only was their acquisition of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George a landscape-shifting basketball move, but it also served as a major blow to the Lakers, who waited out the free-agency period to try to land the Finals MVP. The Lakers had to quickly shift and fill out their roster around Davis and LeBron James with a group of leftover free agents who were not part of the early signing bonanza.
It's fair to say the Lakers did the best they could under the circumstances. Danny Green waited things out and got a fat two-year contract coming off the best shooting season of his career. Davis helped convince a motivated DeMarcus Cousins to take a one-year contract in hopes of reviving his stock. The Lakers also added professional basketball players like Jared Dudley and Avery Bradley, whose best days are probably behind them but can still contribute in their roles.
The Lakers acquired Anthony Davis, but the Clippers won the summer. It's the Clippers, not the Lakers, who are considered favorites coming out of the West. We don't talk enough about how the Lakers added LeBron and AD in consecutive summers and somehow feel like their roster is a disappointment—and it's all because of the Clippers.
That's a rivalry befitting two marquee spots on the NBA calendar. Lakers-Clippers will be part of NBA opening night and headline the Christmas Day matchups.
These two teams are more intently focused on May and June than December. Loads will be managed, defensive rotations will be lax and both teams may play down to their competition on some nights. This will not be one of those nights. The Battle for L.A. is the biggest storyline of this NBA season, and the rivals will want to stake their claim to the throne under the brightest regular-season spotlight.
Bucks vs. Sixers
It's possible we'll see a pair of conference finals previews Christmas Day. Clippers-Lakers will be dependent on seeding in a loaded West; neither team appears likely to go all-in on regular-season glory, so it's possible they wind up on the same side of the bracket.
The Bucks and Sixers, barring a major injury, are the runaway favorites in the East. Milwaukee will look to atone for a disappointing end to its storybook 2018-19 season. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Co. were two games away from sweeping their way to a potential championship before drowning in a sea of Kawhi buckets.
Antetokounmpo returns this season with a renewed focus, to the point he's already informed Bucks fans to stop calling him MVP. He told ESPN's Ohm Youngmisuk:
"There's a lot of things I can improve on. First of all, [I have to] look at myself before I look at anybody else. Try to self-improve as much as possible. There are a lot of things that I got to work on in my game.
"A lot of people say, 'You are the MVP, you are one of the best players in the league, you are so dominant.' But I think I can get better. I think I am at 60 percent of my potential, as good as I can be. I just want to be better. If I am in the same situation again [in the conference finals], react better, play the game better, play better, execute better."
The Sixers lost Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick this summer and somehow got better and deeper. Their Butler sign-and-trade brought back Josh Richardson to replace Redick at the 2, and they signed Al Horford to slot into the 4 and create the NBA's biggest starting lineup. No player in the Sixers' starting five is shorter than 6'6". Richardson is the only player who isn't 6'9" or taller.
Mike Scott, Kyle O'Quinn, James Ennis, Raul Neto, Trey Burke and Zhaire Smith will carry the responsibility of the bench, which is still shaky but better than last season's unit.
The Bucks are weaker than last season after losing Malcolm Brogdon; the Sixers are stronger but dependent on the health of their starting lineup. There appear to be no teams within a mile of them at the top of the conference. This could eclipse Clippers-Lakers as the most intense game of the day.
Pelicans vs. Nuggets
With this game, the NBA is throwing a bone to the League Pass lurkers—and those who simply want to see Zion Williamson yam while they're downing yams.
The Pelicans are in a better position than most teams with a No. 1 overall pick after adding Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart in the Anthony Davis trade and keeping Jrue Holiday. If they were in the East, they'd breeze into the postseason. But in a Western Conference where it took 48 wins to get into the playoffs last season, Williamson will excel in moments next season rather than find team success.
Casual fans who don't pound the League Pass pavement aren't going to be able to check in every night in a league where almost a third of the league thinks it can win a title.
Giving Zion this spotlight also makes it clear the NBA views him as the next young, marketable face of the league. There's a reason Luka Doncic and Trae Young are at home on Christmas while Zion will be on national television. The guy with more than $100 million heading to his bank account before ever playing in an NBA game deserves all the shine he's getting.
The Nuggets are the best team in the West that no one seems ready to acknowledge as perhaps the best team in the West. Nikola Jokic is an NBA MVP sleeper pick. He seemed to come into his own as a scorer during Denver's postseason run, averaging 25.1 points, 13.0 rebounds and 8.4 assists while canning 39.3 percent of his threes.
Some of that was because of a massive minutes spike, but Jokic seemed to understand his responsibility as one of the best players in basketball as the playoffs progressed. After taking 15 or fewer shots in four of the first five games of the playoffs, Jokic took at least 15 shots in the next nine games and had 25 or more on four occasions.
All that said, the Nuggets—like the Pelicans—are a team outside the glitzy national market radar.
That the NBA gave these two teams this spotlight is fun and in keeping with recent years, where "NBA Twitter" tends to get a hipstery game. This will be the Blazers-Jazz of this year's Christmas slate. We might even get to see Jokic-Williamson head-to-head matchups if Zion runs some small-ball 5.
Rockets vs. Warriors
Like all things Warriors, this matchup features a ton of change. The rivalry that existed here over the last two playoffs is either no more or heading toward a different chapter. Kevin Durant has his foot in a brace out in Brooklyn. Klay Thompson won't be remotely close to returning by Christmas, even by his own optimistic projections. D'Angelo Russell is slotting into Thompson's role. Chris Paul is gone, and Russell Westbrook is in his place.
This is like when a popular TV show undergoes massive cast changes after a main character leaves. We're going to get a firsthand look at whether this is more Steve Carell leaving The Office or Shelley Long leaving Cheers.
The Warriors will either be in the midst of a surprise push toward the top of the West thanks to an MVP-caliber season from Steph Curry or a middle-of-the-pack also-ran having buyer's remorse for a Russell max contract. There doesn't seem to be much in-between.
Even with Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston out of the mix, Curry and Draymond Green have been to five straight Finals. They're not going to wilt away in the post-KD world—and in fact may be motivated to get out to a hot start to prove their run isn't over. Green especially looked unlocked during the Warriors' playoff run.
Adding Russell was a calculated risk for a team desperate to not lose Durant for nothing. He's a 23-year-old All-Star who is also on his third team in five seasons—and will probably be rerouted to a fourth next summer once Thompson is healthy.
The Rockets will probably realize Chris Paul did a whole lot more than shout orders into people's ribcages. The Westbrook-Harden mix will be at its most precarious during the playoffs—much like the Harden-Paul mix—but they'll probably have long learned Russ doesn't do much well without the ball in his hands.
Westbrook and Harden played together when they were at two very different points in their careers. They're the two highest-usage players in the entire league now; an adjustment period (and some minutes staggering) will be necessary to make this work. By Christmas, we should be seeing the fully formed rhythm of what the Rockets become.
Putting Draymond Green and Westbrook in the Christmas spotlight almost guarantees a couple of technicals and some angry cross-court glares. That's worth sitting yourself in front of a tinsel-covered TV alone.
But don't expect a continuation of the classics these teams tended to give us the last two seasons. The parts are different, and the stakes have vastly changed.
Celtics vs. Raptors
The first matchup on the slate will feature two franchises in a state of flux—ones that may be in the midst of a real transition by Christmas. The Celtics were title favorites with a burgeoning superstar in Jayson Tatum a year ago and a guy drawing Kawhi Leonard-type buzz in Jaylen Brown.
Neither Tatum nor Brown progressed as expected last season.
The Celtics lost Kyrie Irving and Al Horford this summer and replaced them with Kemba Walker and Enes Kanter. Irving does everything better than Walker on a basketball floor besides get along with his teammates, and Horford to Kanter is one of the biggest positional regressions made by a playoff team over the summer.
It's possible Tatum will have taken his star turn by December. There was a clear tugging between Irving and the young players on the roster, and it's possible they'll blossom next to Walker, who has drawn nothing but raves for his relationship with past teammates.
The Raptors are playing out their post-championship honeymoon phase. Sure, they would have loved for Kawhi to re-sign and cement his status as a Canadian basketball deity. But they're the defending champs for the first time in franchise history and return a team that knows it's going to be blown up over the next couple of years.
Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol are all going to have their phones on standby waiting to hear whether they've been traded. All three are impending free agents who could make a difference on contending teams. It's possible one of them will be gone by Christmas. An unlikely version of this team that stays together all year could compete in the 4-6 range in the East, assuming everyone stays healthy.
Pascal Siakam's out-of-nowhere leap last season gave Raptors fans some hope for a post-Kawhi star, but that might be asking a little much. Siakam is already 25, and he would need to take another seismic step forward to be a true foundational piece. It's possible he will; Kawhi's departure leaves a scoring gap someone has to fill for the Raptors to stay competitive.
A head-to-head on Christmas might wind up being a litmus test of where both teams stand at the season's first major tentpole.