The NBA has turned Christmas Day into the most important date on its regular season calendar. For many casual fans, basketball season begins that day, with them beginning to shift their focus to the hardwood as the NFL’s regular season winds down.
That is what makes the NBA’s Christmas Day schedule this year, which was released Wednesday, such a missed opportunity.
Sure, there are compelling games among the five-game slate. Having the Philadelphia 76ers play the Boston Celtics, two massive markets with entertaining teams bursting at the seams with talent, makes complete sense. So, too, does having marquee attractions in the defending champion Golden State Warriors and stars including LeBron James, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and James Harden all take the stage.
But it still is far less than what it could have been.
Let’s start with the first game, the Milwaukee Bucks facing the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Yes, having Giannis Antetokoumpo playing on a big stage is a good call. But the Knicks? That’s another story. Despite largely being a wreck for two decades, the Knicks have remained a staple on Christmas Day simply because they play in New York, and bring a large audience as a result.
Now, to be fair, the Knicks do seem to be providing some light at the end of the tunnel. The team’s two draft picks this offseason, Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson, were impressive at summer league last month in Las Vegas, and they are well-positioned to have max cap space next summer to lure another star free agent to the Big Apple.
But Kristaps Porzingis, the team’s star player, almost certainly won’t be playing after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in February. Most people within the league think he won’t be back until next February, which would be right in line with recovery times for recent returns from ACL injuries. With him, the Knicks would struggle to be relevant. Without him? They are destined to be one of the NBA’s worst teams.
So why grant them some of the most precious inventory the NBA has at its disposal? Because of where they play? It’s lunacy. And, in doing so, it does a disservice to the league’s successful attempt to turn Christmas Day into a prime way to showcase its product.
The obvious omission from the Christmas schedule — having Kawhi Leonard’s current team, the Toronto Raptors, play his former team, the San Antonio Spurs — is also undoubtedly a market-based decision. While Toronto is one of the largest cities in North America, because it is outside of the United States, its television audience isn’t factored into American television ratings. There is no other reason to explain why a team that won 59 games last year and added one of the league’s most talented players wouldn’t be made a central component of the league’s Christmas slate.
Even some of the games that are attractive are missing an element that would make them better. James facing the Golden State Warriors on Christmas for a fourth year in a row isn’t surprising, but it also isn’t compelling. The Los Angeles Lakers will be fine this season, but not a championship contender. And while having Donovan Mitchell, one of the league’s brightest young stars, playing on Christmas is an inspired choice, having his Utah Jazz host the Portland Trail Blazers leaves something to be desired.
What should the schedule have been? The one matchup the league nailed, the Sixers facing the Celtics, should have led the slate, followed by the NBA Finals rematch that the NBA has placed in the second slot each of the past four years — though replacing the Cleveland Cavaliers should have been the Houston Rockets, who pushed Golden State to the brink in the Western Conference finals.
Next up would be the Oklahoma City Thunder visiting the Los Angeles Lakers, where Paul George and Westbrook — the Southern California natives who both chose to sign long-term to remain in Oklahoma City over the past 12 months — will face the revitalized Lakers with James at the helm, followed by the Raptors traveling to face the Spurs for Leonard’s return to San Antonio. Capping off the night, would be Mitchell and the Jazz hosting Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans, who happened to sweep the Blazers from the playoffs last spring.
That would be a day featuring five compelling games with emerging young stars and captivating story lines. More importantly, it wouldn't include the Knicks.
Oh, well. Maybe next year.