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.

Gregg Popovich: “The system has to change. I’ll do whatever I can do to help.”

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Gregg Popovich was always going to speak out on the protests and anguish in our nation right now — and those thoughts were never going to fit in 280 characters.

Popovich, coach of the Spurs and USA Basketball for the Tokyo Olympics, called up Dave Zirin of The Nation and laid the blame for a lot of what we are seeing on President Trump and the White House. Below is simply a taste:

“The thing that strikes me is that we all see this police violence and racism, and we’ve seen it all before, but nothing changes. That’s why these protests have been so explosive. But without leadership and an understanding of what the problem is, there will never be change. And white Americans have avoided reckoning with this problem forever, because it’s been our privilege to be able to avoid it. That also has to change…

“It’s so clear what needs to be done. We need a president to come out and say simply that ‘black lives matter.’ Just say those three words. But he won’t and he can’t. He can’t because it’s more important to him to mollify the small group of followers who validate his insanity. But it’s more than just Trump. The system has to change. I’ll do whatever I can do to help, because that’s what leaders do. But he can’t do anything to put us on a positive path, because he’s not a leader.”

Popovich’s voice carries a lot of weight, both as a leader of men, and as a former Air Force officer who underwent intelligence training and specialized in Soviet studies. He has never been shy when speaking about his feelings on President Donald Trump (read his entire quote at The Nation, he focuses on the president), but in this case, he speaks for many Americans of all walks of life, and of all ethnicities, who see a leader who stokes divisions rather than seeking to unify and heal.

Many NBA players have spoken out in the wake of George Floyd’s death and a number of them have led or participated in protests around the nation. What Popovich said speaks to a lot of what those players are feeling and saying themselves.

NBA coaches and teams have stepped up with statements, as have team owners — including Michael Jordan — saying this cannot be about just words, there needs to be action toward change. What that action will look like in three months, or six, or a year, is an excellent question. But this time, around the NBA (and maybe around the nation), there seems to be a real sense they do not want this message and momentum to fade.

 

Jerami Grant: Not leaning toward taking $9,346,153 player option with Nuggets

Nuggets forward Jerami Grant
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The Nuggets have their starting point guard (Jamal Murray), shooting guard (Gary Harris), small forward (Will Barton) and center (Nikola Jokic) locked up a combined 11 more seasons.

The big question comes at power forward.

Paul Millsap will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Michael Porter Jr. has shown promise. And Jerami Grant holds a $9,346,153 player option for next season.

Jerami Grant on “Posted Up with Chris Haynes,” via Quenton S. Albertie of Nugg Love:

I’m definitely not leaning towards picking up the player option.

Grant appeared bound for a raise. He’s a good finisher who active seeks opportunities at the basket and has improved his 3-point shooting. His versatile defense is valuable in any system. And he has the track record of hard work that should make teams comfortable investing in the 26-year-old.

But the NBA’s coronavirus-caused revenue decline presents a major variable. We’ll have to see where the salary cap lands. If the wrong teams have space, Grant could be stuck with just the mid-level exception, which – depending on the cap – could be less than $9,346,153.

In any cap environment, Denver has optionality. Millsap is still solid, though at 35, it’s unclear how many more good years he has left. Porter is exciting, though he’s still raw, and health remains a concern. Another impending unrestricted free agent, Mason Plumlee plays in plenty of two-center lineups with Jokic.

The Nuggets – who just traded a first-rounder for him – surely want to keep Grant. But they have other options, which gives them leverage.

Grant’s leverage comes with declining his player option and exploring unrestricted free agency. He’s setting that stage now.

Report: One last push for NBA to return with all 30 teams

Thunder owner Clay Bennett
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The NBA has 30 teams.

Some teams don’t want that forgotten as the league heads toward resuming with just 22 teams.

Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe of ESPN:

Near the end of the NBA’s Board of Governors call on Friday, Oklahoma City Thunder owner Clay Bennett delivered an impassioned soliloquy on why the league and owners needed to consider the competitive and financial plights of smaller market teams that could be left out of the season’s summer resumption in Orlando — and the potential symbolic power of all 30 teams gathering there to play as one united association.

As the NBA moves toward a plan of inviting 22 teams re-start a truncated season in late July, sources told ESPN, Bennett spoke of exhausting ways to accommodate non-playoff teams still wanting to play. He wondered: was there a way to safely bring all 30 teams?

The inequities facing smaller markets had to shape the league’s thinking, Bennett suggested. Nine months without games – March to December — could have an impact on developing players, cultivating sponsorships and selling tickets in markets where franchises struggle to gain a hold.

For those teams left out of the playoffs, there has already been dialogue on the possibility of mandatory summer training camps and regional fall leagues of four-to-five teams that could bridge the lengthy gap between seasons, sources told ESPN. Those are ideas many teams consider vital, and there’s an expectation that the NBA will raise possible scenarios such as these with the Players Association, sources said.

The financial elements of the plan are significant for the league too — with the 22-team format worth several hundred million dollars more in revenue than 16-team straight-to-playoffs plan would, sources said.

The irony: Bennett moved the Thunder to small-market Oklahoma City from larger-market Seattle.

Get past that, and he has a point: Ideally, all 30 teams would finish their seasons. That’s how the season was originally designed. It’d be nice if it could be completed that way.

But it’s also important not to become consumed by that goal in the face of other – sometimes competing – concerns.

The more teams playing, the higher the risk of coronavirus spreading. It’s that simple. In the NBA’s setup, maybe there’s negligible safety difference between 16 teams and 22 teams and 30 teams. That’s worth exploring. But increasing the number of teams increases the risk.

Of course, increasing number of teams also increases revenue. Just as 22 teams will draw more money than 16 teams, 30 teams would draw more money than 22 teams (if safe). That can’t be ignored.

It’s not as if this is a huge departure from normal, though. At this point in the season, many teams begin several months without meaningful games. Fix the tanking issue in normal times. Especially now, it seems absurd to recall teams just for games the organization prefers to lose.

This also isn’t simply a market-size issue. The Knicks, Warriors and Bulls are among the teams outside the top 22. Sure, there’s room for consideration for teams that aren’t resuming. But it’s not as if they’re just small-market teams left to wallow.

Plus, an extended period without basketball is an all-too-convenient concern all of a sudden. Where was that rallying cry while owners held lockouts? Owners canceled games to serve their greater objectives then. It’s a reasonable consideration now, too.

Mandatory summer training camps won’t help eliminated teams sell sponsorships and tickets. Those camps might not even have much value in team building. With contracts generally shorter now, so many players are heading into free agency. For impending free agents on finished teams, protecting their health is most important – not practicing with a team they won’t necessarily stay with.

There are no perfect answers here. NBA commissioner Adam Silver must decide on the least-bad option. It’s perfectly fine if that doesn’t include all 30 teams.

How many teams will make 2020 NBA Playoffs?

Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan vs. Kings
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The NBA could resume with 16, 20, 22 or 30 teams. The league is weighing playing more regular-season games, jumping straight to the playoffs, holding a play-in tournament and even drawing for a group stage. The most important thing is finding the proper format for this unprecedented season interrupted by coronavirus.

But that still leaves a question: How will playoff inclusion be determined?

Importantly, that affects which teams participate in the lottery. The whole point is to give every non-playoff team and only non-playoff teams a shot at the top picks in the draft.

A few notable streaks are also on the line:

San Antonio and Sacramento are in that tightly grouped 9th-12th range in the Western Conference (with the Pelicans and Trail Blazers). Phoenix has the league’s 21st-best record.

The postseason could simply include just the normal 16 teams. But the alternative formats open other possibilities.

It appears most likely 22 teams will resume, though it could be 20. Either scenario could include a play-in tournament – with an unspecified number of teams. Maybe four, maybe six, maybe some other number. Though the name – “play-in” – suggests those teams wouldn’t be considered playoff teams unless advancing, that’s not an official designation. The first NCAA Tournament games each year are commonly called play-ins. But teams that lose those games are considered to have made the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA has formally called that round “Opening Round,” “First Round” or “First Four.” The NBA could do something similar.

Though momentum has appeared to stall for a group phase, that format posed the most uncertainty about which teams would be deemed in the playoffs. Would all 20 participating teams? Just eight teams would advance to a tournament (the equivalent of the second round of a normal playoffs). Would only those eight be considered playoff teams? Would the league designate the third- and fourth-place finisher in each group as playoff teams after the fact to reach 16 postseason teams? It’d be weird to “make the playoffs” only after getting eliminated.

But the NBA has had plenty of variance on this throughout its history.

We’ve grown accustomed to 16 teams making the playoffs, the system in place since 1984. But in 1984, there were just 23 teams. So, nearly 70% of the league made the playoffs.

The league has since expanded to 30 teams. So, just 53% of teams make the playoffs now.

Only two periods have seen a lower proportion of the league make the playoffs. From 1971-1974, just 47% of teams (8/17) reached the postseason. From 1981-1983, just 52% of teams (12/23) reached the postseason.

It wouldn’t be ahistorical for the NBA to include more than 16 teams in this year’s playoffs.

Here’s a history of the percentage of teams that have made the playoffs each year (blue). The orange lines represent how that would compare to various scenarios this season – 8, 16, 20 and 22 postseason teams:

Obviously, eight playoff teams would be a major outlier. But having 20 or even 22 playoff teams wouldn’t.

Like with many issues right now, the NBA had latitude and must just decide where to draw the line.