The NBA has built a Christmas Day empire by featuring the league’s top teams and players on Dec. 25. It’s become an honor to play this day, and those in the league recognize the accomplishment of getting on the schedule. Fans see it too, annually expecting to see the NBA at its regular-season best.
That’s why matchups like today’s noon contest between Chicago Bulls (10-16) and Brooklyn Nets (9-18) – teams with a combined .358 winning percentage – stand out.
Of course, the NBA couldn’t have known these teams would struggle so much when creating the Christmas schedule.
The Bulls endured Derrick Rose’s growing pains as he returned from injury, only to see him hurt again. Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler have missed significant time, too (although both will be in the lineup on Christmas, as is Kirk Hinrich).
The Nets have also lost their top player, Brook Lopez, for the season. Even before that point, the team floundered under first-year Jason Kidd. Deron Williams, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett have all looked old and have also dealt with injury.
These teams were supposed to be good, playoff squads for certain. Instead, they’re outside the playoff picture looking in.
So, that leads to the question, when was the last time teams entered a Christmas Day matchup with such a bad combined record?
Orlando Magic (7-22) and Cleveland Cavaliers (9-19), a combined .281 winning percentage, in 2003
The Cavaliers were a team on the rise. They’d won 17 games the year before and would go onto win 35 this season, 42 the next year and 50 the following year. They just hadn’t climbed far enough by December to be competitive in the playoff standings.
The Magic were also supposed to be climbing the NBA ladder. The season before, they made the playoffs as the No. 8 seed and led the top-seeded Detroit Pistons 3-1 before blowing their advantage. Instead of building off its strong playoff series – in terms of overall play, not how it ended – Orlando won its season-opener then lost 19 straight to begin this season. After firing Doc Rivers, they’d come around slightly, but they remained a bad team.
Though the NBA probably expected – or at least hoped for – better teams, this game was never really about the teams.
It was about the individual matchup: LeBron James vs. Tracy McGrady.
LeBron was a rookie, already a national star, and McGrady had made the last two All-NBA first teams. If Kobe Bryant had staked claim as the NBA’s top wing player, it was only a matter of time until these two were duking it out for No. 2. So, why not begin the discussion just 29 games into LeBron’s professional career?
In that regard, the matchup more than lived up to its billing.
LeBron had 34 points and six assists, but McGrady had 41 points and 11 assists to lead the Magic to a 113-101 overtime victory.
So, perhaps it’s not fair to judge this game on the team’s records, because it was about the individual stars. In that case, omitting this one, the Bulls and Nets are the worst teams in a Christmas Day matchups since…
Cleveland Cavaliers (5-20) and Atlanta Hawks (11-17), a combined .302 winning percentage, in 1984
I can’t figure why this game was ever placed on the Christmas Day.
Neither had much hype entering the season – for good reason.
I guess the Hawks had won 40, 43 and 42 games in the three seasons prior, but they’d lost in the first round each year. Perhaps, the NBA saw a team ready to take the next step, but Atlanta didn’t do that until the following two years, winning 50 and 57 games. In 1984-85, the Hawks were just a run-of-the-mill bad team, going 34-48.
The Cavaliers were a team on the rise – 15 wins to 23 wins to 28 wins entering the season. And even though they kept climbing, finishing the year 36-46, they were digging themselves from too deep a hole to be relevant.
And if it was about the individual matchup – Dominique Wilkins vs. World B. Free – that disappointed, too. Wilkins scored 19 points on 9-of-22 shooting, and Free had 16 on 5-of-17.
Still, everything else going wrong, this was a competitive game, Cleveland winning, 109-106.
And maybe that offers some hope for Bulls-Nets. No matter how bad the teams are, Christmas Day has a way of bringing out their best.
Whether that’s the case today or night, at least know you’re seeing history. Christmas Day matchups this bad come around only once a generation of player.