Five things to watch when NBA takes over Christmas Day

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Christmas Day: The unofficial start of the NBA season.

It’s not really, we are about 40 percent of the way through the NBA season already. In the marathon of the NBA season, we’ve already run more than 10 miles. The teams have already started to sort themselves out and we have a pretty good idea who is making the postseason — 13 of the 16 teams we saw in last year’s postseason were already in playoff position last Christmas Day (and that follows the pattern we see most years).

Still, for many fans, Christmas Day is the day they start to really pay attention to the NBA. The league office knows that, so the NBA puts its best foot forward, scheduling in its biggest names — Stephen Curry, LeBron James, James Harden — and its best teams. Plus the Knicks.

No matter how closely you’ve been following along so far, are five things to watch for in Christmas Day spectacular.

1. Watch Giannis Antetokounmpo dunk all of the New York Knicks. Giannis Antetokounmpo is an unstoppable force this season when he puts the ball on the floor and drives, getting 59.6 percent of his shots at the rim. He is on pace to shatter the NBA record for dunks in a season: Antetokounmpo has 130 dunks in 30 games (4.3 dunks per game average), and the record is held by Dwight Howard at 266. Antetokounmpo is on pace for 347.

The Knicks have the second worst defense in the NBA and no good rim protection.

You see where this is going, right?

If the vote were held today, Antetokounmpo would be the MVP. He’s the leader of a Bucks team forcing its way into contention, averaging 26.2 points (on 58.3 percent shooting), 12.8 rebounds, and 6 assists a game — the only other player to average 26/12/6 for a season was Oscar Robertson in 1962. That’s the definition of elite company. Antetokounmpo’s critics will point to his lack of a consistent jumper, but that doesn’t matter when you can get to the rim at will.

One other thing to watch in this Christmas Day opener: What Bucks’ coach Mike Budenholzer is doing that has made him the early Coach of the Year frontrunner. Under Jason Kidd, the Bucks played an isolation-heavy, throwback 1990s style offense. Budenholzer modernized Milwaukee’s attack — five out, plenty of shooting, open the floor up and create driving lanes for the Greek Freak. It has given the Bucks the second best offense in the NBA so far this season. On the other end of the court, Budenholzer put in a system that has the big man dropping back and protecting the rim, has the wings playing smart and more conservative, and Milwaukee has the fourth best defense in the NBA this season. Budenholzer has radically changed how the Bucks do things, shaped it to the personnel on hand, and made the team a contender.

2. The NBA’s best rivalry: LeBron James vs. the Golden State Warriors (hint: this is the best game of the day). Traditionally the prime spot on Christmas Day is reserved for a rematch of the previous NBA Finals… which this essentially is. Golden State and Cleveland have faced off in the last four NBA Finals, but with all due respect to Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, and everyone else in wine and gold, this rivalry has really been LeBron James vs. Golden State. Which is what the Lakers vs. Warriors continues.

This is a game of interesting matchups. Usually, the Warriors throw a combination of Draymond Green, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson to matchup on LeBron James, but will that change against the Lakers. Can Lonzo Ball be a pest when guarding Stephen Curry? Will the deep Laker bench be able to exploit the thin Warriors? And then there’s the biggest question of all: How focused will the Warriors be? When the Warriors are dialed in, when they are running a Curry/Durant pick-and-roll they are almost unstoppable, but they can coast for long stretches. You would think on Christmas Day against their rival that would not happen but…

3. James Harden vs. the NBA’s best defense (Oklahoma City). After an at-times ugly 11-14 start to the season, the Houston Rockets have won 6-of-7, pushed a couple games above .500 and moved into a playoff spot. They have done that on the back of James Harden getting back to an MVP-level play — he’s averaged 37.6 points per game shooting 41.3 percent from three, with 9.2 assists and 6.2 rebounds a game in his last five games. Even if he does travel sometimes to get those numbers.

Harden will go up against the best defense in the NBA. Look for Paul George, who has been the Thunder’s best player this season (and is asserting himself in a way he did not a season ago), to be matched up on Harden for key stretches of the game. Drive past PG13 and the human brick wall of Steven Adams is waiting. The Rockets have played better of late, but this is a big test to see if this recent run is for real.

4. Watch Kyrie Irving and the Celtics take a test. After a run to the Eastern Conference Finals last season without their two biggest stars, expectations were sky high for Boston this season. Add Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, Marcus Smart and the rest and the Celtics were supposed to run away with the East. It hasn’t worked out that way. Guys have struggled to accept their roles, Hayward has not been himself, and the Celtics are good at 19-13 (with the second-best point differential in the league) but not dominant, not living up to expectations. Fair or not.

A recent eight-game winning streak seemed to change that, except they followed it up with a couple ugly losses (including to lowly Phoenix). Then they got their first test of how far they’ve come and lost to the Bucks.

Now comes the 76ers, a team Boston knocked out of the playoffs last season, but one that has added Jimmy Butler (although that hasn’t gone perfectly smoothly either) and has Joel Embiid playing at MVP discussion level. These are the kinds of games we expect the Celtics to win, but can they? Has Boston finally started to find itself, or are the problems a little deeper? (After this the test continues with a difficult three-game road trip to Houston, Memphis, and San Antonio.)

Historical note: The last time these franchises met on Christmas Day it was 1961, and Tom Heinsohn scored 45 points in a Celtics’ victory.

5. Enjoy the unpredictable Damian Lillard, Jusuf Nurkic pick-and-roll. Portland just remains a fun team to watch, with the backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum able to light any team up on any given night. They are just fun. But of late, Lillard and big man Jusuf Nurkic have shown real chemistry, both on the pick-and-roll, and some other actions.

The pick-and-roll is their bread and butter.

“It’s not predictable as, I guess, just a straight up pick-and-roll because I can hit him and get the ball back. He can roll,” Lillard recently told NBC Sports Northwest. “I can flip to CJ. There’s so many other options. I can hit him, cut backdoor, he can throw it to me, not throw it to me, go into something else. There’s so many different actions that we can get into out of it, so that’s why I think it’s going really good.”

However, on Christmas the Blazers go up against a Jazz defense that may not be living up to the standards of last season but is still very good when Rudy Gobert is on the court. These teams played on Friday night and Utah held Lillard and McCollum in check on their way to an easy 120-90 win. Don’t expect Lillard to be held down again, but this is not going to be some easy Christmas dessert for the Blazers if they want a win.

Brooklyn Nets going gray with stylish newly redesigned court

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The Brooklyn Nets already had one of the sharpest court designs in the NBA.

However, they felt it was time for an upgrade — and they went gray.

It’s bold, not traditional, I’m curious how it looks on a broadcast, but the new look kind of works. It feels very Brooklyn.

Zach Lowe of ESPN had a story on how this all came together.

But [General Manager Sean] Marks wanted change, to put his artistic imprint on the franchise he has helped reinvent, and he had a radical idea: a gray floor meant to evoke blacktop courts, the streets of Brooklyn, and the borough’s “industrial vibe,” he says. Gray has been on the fringes of the team’s Brooklyn-era palette, including on the alternate Brooklyn Dodgers-themed uniforms they wore in past seasons.

Everything Marks and the Nets’ creative team toyed with from there centered around gray. It was a risk — an unknown. The NBA says it has never had an all-gray court, though a few teams — the New Orleans Pelicans, Denver Nuggets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Milwaukee Bucks, and others — have shaded enlarged logos and landscapes into sections of their floors…

There was no pushback. The league liked the idea right away, Marks says.

With Kyrie Irving trying to lead an intriguing young core — and Kevin Durant maybe coming back before the playoffs — the Nets are going to be a team to watch this season. We’re going to see a lot of that gray floor, we’ll see how it grows on us.

Nets reportedly not likely to sign Carmelo Anthony, who still waits for his shot

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NBA training camps open next week, and Carmelo Anthony will be… on a couch somewhere.

Actually, probably in a private gym in New York working out and staying ready for the day the phone rings. However, he will not be in an NBA gym with an NBA team.

One place he had been rumored to go was Brooklyn, where Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were reportedly pushing for him. That, however, is not happening, reports Shams Charania at The Athletic.

After losing Wilson Chandler to a 25-game suspension, Anthony and players such as Dante Cunningham, Lance Thomas and Luol Deng emerged as viable options to sign. There’s been a sense around the Nets that players are hopeful to bring in Anthony, but the trust belongs with the front office.

However, the Nets are very unlikely to sign Anthony as of now, league sources told The Athletic.

It appears more likely that the team will decide to sign players it has worked out over the past few weeks, such as Thomas and former Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Clippers forward CJ Williams, sources said. The Nets have two roster spots left.

Executives around the league think there is a place for Anthony in the NBA. As has been written here previously, people I’ve spoken to about him say something along the lines of “he absolutely could still play in the league, he’s just not a fit with us.” After how things ended in Oklahoma City, and then went last season in Houston, they question if he will accept and off-the-bench scoring role. Anthony has said he would, his people have pushed that he would, but people are not sold.

Anthony’s going to get his shot, and maybe still in Brooklyn. It will be somewhere. But like Dwight Howard with the Lakers this season, this is his last shot — play a role, play hard, get it right or nobody is taking a chance on him again.

 

Report: Andre Iguodala, Grizzlies reach agreement, he will not report to training camp

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Andre Iguodala was traded to Memphis in a cost-saving move during the Warriors’ wild offseason. The franchise was upfront about the possibility, Iguodala is a smart man who understands the business of the league, there are no hard feelings.

However, he doesn’t want to play for Memphis. The Grizzlies don’t just want to buy him out — unless he’s leaving a lot of money on the table, which he will not do — they want to trade him for picks or a young player coming back to help their rebuild.

That left the sides at an impasse, but they have reached an agreement that allows Iguodala to not report to training camp and instead keep working out on his own, reports Chris Herrington of the Daily Memphian.

Andre Iguodala will not attend Grizzlies’ Media Day on Monday nor report to the team’s training camp under an arrangement reached between the two sides, according to team and league sources.

Iguodala will remain on the Grizzlies roster, likely well into the season. However, the team agreed the veteran can continue private workouts at a location of his choosing while Memphis pursues trades involving the former Golden State Warrior and NBA Finals MVP.

This almost certainly drags out into December, and likely much closer to the Feb. 6 trade deadline. On Dec. 15 the players who signed contracts this summer can be traded, opening up the trade pool. By then, contending teams — or, teams that fancy themselves contenders — will have a better sense if they could use Iguodala off the bench to boost a playoff run. And if they have the players and picks to get a trade done.

Iguodala talked about his situation in Memphis with NBC Sports Bay Area’s Monte Poole over the weekend.

“We’re trying to figure out things on both sides. They’re trying to figure out some things, and I’m trying to figure out some things. As of today, we’re on the same page. Camp opens the next week. We’ll see. We’re on the same page, though.”

“At this point, the only buyout that makes sense — if I’m speaking on someone else’s behalf, thinking as an agent — is you don’t leave money on the table,” he says. “Especially in this league. Because you’ll never get it back, no matter what people say. Negotiations are a tactic, so you’ve got to be careful how you approach it, or how you verbalize what you would do going forward. But you can’t leave anything on the table.”

Iguodala is in the final year of his contract, worth $17.2 million this season, and he wants to get paid. The Grizzlies want to jumpstart their rebuild. The best option for both sides is just to wait it all out, which is what they have decided to do.

For now. Expect Iguodala rumors to start ramping up around Christmas.

Andre Iguodala tells the story of how he knew he would get traded this summer

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Andre Iguodala is a smart man, a veteran who gets the business side of basketball.

Which is why he knew he was likely getting traded this summer, especially if Kevin Durant left.

Iguodala told Monte Poole of NBC Sports Bay Area how he knew it would go down, and the inside joke he had with his wife that came true.

“But I have a sense that something is going down; Bob Myers and I are pretty cool. We have our conversations, so we’re on the same page. It was, ‘It might happen, but it might not. Most likely, it will. So, we’ll see.’

“So, I’m texting my wife, telling her I’ll probably get traded because I think it’s 100 percent sure, even though everyone else is saying, it’s only a chance. Then, once KD (Kevin Durant) left, I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’ll probably get traded. They’re probably going to do a sign-and-trade, so they can get something back, to at least get assets for him.’ No one was thinking that. But I was thinking they’ll want to get assets back because they can’t just let him go. And they’ll probably move me as well. So, she asked me where I thought I would go. I said, ‘I don’t know, I’ll probably end up in Memphis or some s–t.’

“She says, ‘For real?’ I was like, ‘Maybe. But probably not. I don’t know.’

“The next day, I got the message. It was Memphis. I fell out laughing.”

Iguodala remains a member of the Memphis Grizzlies, for now. Iguodala would like a buyout and to get to another contender, but he doesn’t want to leave a lot of money on the table because, as he told Poole, he would never get that money back. Memphis, on the other hand, would rather trade Iguodala in an effort to get a pick or player back that can help their rebuild. The Grizzlies are not going to be down with a buyout unless there are significant savings. Iguodala says that both sides are “on the same page.” We’ll see if the good vibes continue once training camps open next week.

Whatever happens, it’s going to be weird not seeing Iguodala in a Warriors uniform next season. He was the glue that helped hold the Warriors together and win three titles, seeing him in Grizzlies’ blue will just look strange and out of place.