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We at Ball Don’t Lie have been knee deep in basketball since the 2016-17 NBA season’s start — previewing all 30 teams, tackling the top 25 storylines and covering everything else that’s happened since — but we understand casual fans don’t fully dive in until Christmas. That’s why we’re bringing you a series we’re calling NBA Season’s Greetings. Consider it a refresher course on the free agents, coaches, trades, rookies and potential award winners that have shaped the league thus far.
Your appreciation of the league, clearly, is in place. Now it’s time to lend that knowledge to those who need it most – family members who have yet to dip a toe into the NBA thus far.
For many, the NBA’s season begins with its Christmas Day slate of nationally televised games, and that’s just fine. If you’ve been reading this site routinely since October, when the 2016-17 season actually started, thank you very much for your support!
With that in place, basketball diehards shouldn’t move to chide those who are just warming up to NBA action on Christmas, in the same way you wouldn’t want to be taken down a peg for only starting to pay strong attention to your favorite baseball team after the NBA Finals and your favorite NHL team on slow NBA nights, or for losing interest in your 2-4 NFL team around the time the NBA tips off.
It’s natural to only focus in on the NBA for six months out of the eight-month season, while copping to the idea that two months is quite a bit of time, and those who’ll be perched in front of the TV on the 25th might need a little catch-up help.
This is where you come in. These can act as your starting notes for the expected discussion with someone who shares your last name or, worse, a dinner table with you on the holiday. And, should you doze off at some point during the NBA’s 13-hour slate on Sunday, just print this column off for the relative (who you wouldn’t trust to read it on your phone, anyway) who is only now realizing that 2016-17 is afoot.
We start, as one always should, with Golden State.
You probably won’t have to remind anyone watching the Warriors’ mid-afternoon game against the Cleveland Cavaliers that the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in last summer’s NBA Finals. Most remember as much, and the ABC broadcast will no doubt remind you of it several times during the course of the pregame action.
What you will have to do is toss off a resigned “it’s an internet, Twitter, sort of thing” when your relative asks you why you’re laughing at your own shoehorned “the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals” joke. You’ll also have to take the same approach when you add a “nice” after someone tells your father the thermostat is set to a certain temperature in the high 60s, though you probably shouldn’t try to sneak in that “it’s about ethics in Grinch-ing journalism”-aside. It’s a little dated.
The Warriors, by Christmas, will have owned the NBA’s best record for a full month. The team is second in offense (more on that later) and second in defensive efficiency – a pace point you’ll make for the 12th consecutive Christmas, as Golden State ranks in the middle of the pack in points allowed per contest. And, again, try to insist that a team averaging well over 117 points per game isn’t yet another sign that the Mike O’Koren-less NBA just doesn’t play defense anymore.
(Although they don’t call traveling. Your couchmate will have another mate in Warriors coach Steve Kerr when it comes to that subject.)
Even with all the light illuminating Kevin Durant’s move from Oklahoma City to Golden State, there are still strong stretches of play during Golden State games – when they suddenly whip it over to a lanky, big forward towards the end of a possession – where you realize that, holy lord, the Golden State Warriors have Kevin Durant, now. Even two months into the season, it truly remains astonishing, and it remains something to marvel at.
Durant has fit in exceedingly well, averaging 25.7 points per contest with 8.4 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 2.8 combined steals/blocks (including one on former teammate Russell Westbrook) in just 34 minutes entering Thursday night. Absolutely nobody thinks Durant is in the running for league MVP, though, despite the fact that he’s mixing an ungodly True Shooting Percentage with a usage rate that borders on the 30s (read: makes a lot, despite the fact that he shoots a lot). The same goes with Stephen Curry, working at about 25 points and six assists, who suffers the same fate in the wake of a little Warrior Fatigue.
The loss of center Andrew Bogut, who has barely made an on-court peep in Dallas, has not hurt the Warriors too badly. The fears of being forced to create a new generation of Andre Iguodalas and Shaun Livingston, due to the NBA’s salary structure, are best left for next Christmas.
For now, the Warriors look as fearsome as you’d expect them to be. They signed Kevin Durant.
They’re also well on their way to earning a spot in what could be the first back-to-back-to-back NBA Finals pairing in league history. It’s a scene nobody (including your uncle) was clamoring for back in 1979, when the Seattle SuperSonics and Washington Wizards were holding the NBA hostage with two consecutive Finals “duels.”
Mindful of this, the Cavaliers have rested LeBron James at times this season in order to prepare him for what surely will be his seventh-consecutive trip to the NBA Finals.
Only Bill Russell worked through a similar streak, back in the 1960s, in an era where the end of the regular season was only met with a short jump over the rest of the Eastern Conference and into the Finals. LeBron passed Russell’s career total of playoff games played midway through the 2015 postseason, at age 30, and he has designs on playing the Shiva, Destroyer of Worlds-role in Cleveland for several more years.
Due to this instinct, the Cavaliers have decided to sit James in several contests this year that you, the diehard in what is definitely a Christmas move, has mostly forgotten. Games against Indiana and Memphis, both Cavalier losses, both on the second half of back-to-backs.
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The NBA has slowly taken steps to eliminate those sorts of leg-killing scheduling quirks, and while it’s true that James’ predecessors had to play plenty of back-to-backs (and even back-to-back-to-backs) while flying commercial in years past, the league is playing better than ever and it would appreciate it if you’d allow the Cavs to sacrifice some stardom in November and December (in games most weren’t watching) for fresher legs during both a Christmas showdown against Golden State and this June’s expected re-rematch in the ABC-drawn NBA Finals.
Unless your relatives want play that looks like this …
… they should be happy that the NBA will be starting its season earlier than normal, starting in 2017-18. Those who have NFL fantasy teams or a stake in that fall’s MLB playoffs won’t have their lives altered in the slightest prior to taking on far better basketball (and, perhaps, a greater sense of security that your ticket to see LeBron and the Cavaliers on January 9 will actually result in seeing “LeBron and the Cavaliers”) throughout the regular season and postseason.
You’re not going to convince your relatives to stop kvetching about the sit-downs for stars, though, because they listen to the radio and, we’re guessing, watch cable television. You can at least give them something to chew on prior to the expected gripe that will come after the Cavs and Warriors finish their afternoon contest.
What’s the point of watching the league, if Warriors vs. Cavaliers III is such a certainty?
You could toss in a pot-shot about that relative taking in far, far too many snaps of Thursday’s Giants/Eagles game, or that sterling Cardinals/Seahawks matchup from that same Sunday afternoon, or you could go high when they go low. You’ve become familiar to that particular custom in recent months, we’re presuming.
One could focus in on Russell Westbrook’s move to become the first NBA player to average a triple-double since Oscar Robertson accomplished the same feat for two seasons from 1960 through 1962. Whether treated as a novelty or a push that we should be documented at every possible instant, the fact that Westbrook is pushing 31 points alongside nearly 11 assists and 11 rebounds a contest after two months should act as astonishing enough for anyone with a pulse.
Westbrook’s Thunder weren’t exactly knocked to the dustbin following Durant’s departure, either, as they’re one of several Western teams that remains an impossibly tough out in what you and your relatives will agree is yet another year of disproportionately great basketball staying mostly stuck West of the Mississippi River.
The Los Angeles Clippers ran with the league’s best record for a while there, though their run will be hamstrung a bit by Blake Griffin’s recent move to get a knee operation in sooner rather than later. The Houston Rockets, under new coach Mike D’Antoni, started off the year with the promise of boffo stats, and that whimsy helped lead to a strong team start and the respect of the league, something that should sustain with James Harden’s killer overall play (he’s threatening to become the first player to lead the NBA in points and assists per game since Nate Archibald pulled off the feat in 1973) in spite of center Clint Capela’s worrying fibula setback.
The man whom Capela replaced, former superstar Dwight Howard, has not found life easy in leading a hoped-for Eastern also-ran in his hometown of Atlanta; following a 9-2 start to the season, the Hawks have gone 5-13 entering Thursday. Another “hoped-for,” the Toronto Raptors club that hasn’t been able to topple the Cavaliers in many games that matter (and they’ve lost all three pairings with the champs so far this season), but the Raptors are working with an offense that, if sustained, could prove to be legendary. They’re scoring better than the Warriors, thus far.
And, in case you missed it, the Warriors signed Kevin Durant.
The San Antonio Spurs have gotten along just fine in their first season without Tim Duncan since That One Year That Dominique Wilkins Played For San Antonio. Kawhi Leonard’s star turn has rolled on, and while the addition of Pau Gasol has proven for some uneasy defensive moments at times, the team has worked with just about a top-five defense and offense since the settlement of the season’s opening pangs.
The fabulous Memphis Grizzlies and Charlotte Hornets? You’re just going to have to keep those teams to yourself on Christmas Day, though your relatives might want to hear about why the Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo (as helmed by Fred Hoiberg) experiment is failing miserably in Chicago.
Nobody at the dinner table should be laying any bets in advance of the breakup of the Warriors/Cavaliers Finals, but that hardly means the league is any less compelling. Grumps might preach as much, but all you have to do is sit them down in time to watch the actual games.
Which, thankfully, should continue unabated past 2017, as the NBA’s owners will not lock out the league’s players next year.
The league and its players, getting it in before even Aunt Carrie decides to cut the cord, decided to take advantage of expected largesse from the league’s newest television deal and commit to a new collective bargaining agreement. Agreeing to opt-out of the old CBA prior to a nearly immediate settlement on a new one will stave off what could have been a 2017 lockout. Considering the soul-canceling ethos that works behind most of the league’s 30 team owners, this is no small feat. Save that aside for yourself, though, because you used up all those one-percent rants on the 2014 and 2015 Christmas meals.
In addition to lengthening the calendar season, the league will make it harder for stars to be enticed into joining new teams, though in talking to your uncle, you should be light in your praise for that in the seconds before you’ll be forced into yet another “but that’s un-American”-defense when revealing that the NBA did nothing to amend its unofficial “one and done”-rule for would-be preps-to-pros stars.
This means that your family won’t get to cheer on four years’ worth of unpaid labor for its favorite NCAA stars as it did in years past, but as with most things, the inertia in approaching the one-and-done law acts as a compromise of sorts.
Still, unlike the troubled times in 1998 and 2011, the league will not lose any games, and your voice won’t be worn hoarse in correcting those that called the league’s labor disagreement “a strike.”
What will hopefully run you hoarse, though, is a stellar set of Christmas Day games.
The nervy Boston Celtics and improved New York Knicks will begin the day, followed by that boffo Warriors/Cavaliers reunion. Chicago will take its act to San Antonio next, as the Spurs attempt to avenge their lone road loss of the season. From there, you get to watch Russell Westbrook go at a still-learning Minnesota Timberwolves team as helmed by the fiery Tom Thibodeau. The Clippers and Lakers finish off the night, allowing you to get one more anecdote about pace-adjusted stats and Chris Paul’s ranking amongst the NBA’s all-time greats prior to falling asleep. Visions of sugarplums, and all that.
It’s time to welcome all fans back to the ranks. There’s quite a bit to see, here.
More from our NBA Season’s Greetings series:
More NBA coverage from The Vertical:
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