The 5 most interesting players of the NBA Christmas Day slate

This year’s NBA’s Christmas Day showcase is teeming with talent. The slate features the last four NBA champions, as well as three more teams that have recently made the NBA Finals and a few other perennial powers. We’ll see six Most Valuable Player winners, 11 of last season’s 15 All-NBA selections and nearly 30 players who’ve earned an All-Star berth — plus several more who might be mere weeks away from receiving their first. (We see you, Tyrese Maxey and Jalen Brunson.)

The powers that be at the league office don’t have a crystal ball when they’re making the schedule, so we miss out on a couple of teams off to hot starts — the soaring Timberwolves, say, or the exciting, young Thunder. By and large, though, it looks like the NBA’s Christmas lineup will offer plenty for fans to feast on: rivalries old and new, bona fide legends and new stars to get more familiar with … and, with any luck, a handful of games that stay tight late, treating those who’ve popped in between eggnog and dessert to a reminder of just how awesome highly competitive NBA basketball can be.

As we get set to tear open the presents and cut into the fruitcake, let’s take a look at the five most interesting players — to me! — in the 2023 Christmas quintuple-header, with one from each game. We begin with someone trying to author a miracle on … well, not 34th Street, but I think we can consider “7th Avenue between W. 31st and W. 33rd Streets” close enough:

Julius Randle, Knicks

To be clear: I still find the Bucks and their still-buffering superstar duo of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard very interesting. But after writing about them last month, and reading plenty of discussion of the state of their two-man game and their search for defensive consistency — which, BTW, Milwaukee still ranks near the top of the NBA in scoring efficiency while figuring itself out, and ranks 13th on defense since toggling back to drop coverage in the pick-and-roll — I found myself focusing more on the other All-NBA forward in the matinee.

Here is the list of players who have made multiple All-NBA teams since 2020: Antetokounmpo, Lillard, Chris Paul, Jayson Tatum, Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid, LeBron James, Luka Dončić, Nikola Jokić, Stephen Curry … and Julius Randle.

Here is a brief musical accompaniment to that list:

I will admit: That feels uncharitable! Like, you don’t whoops your way into a pair of All-Star nods and All-NBA picks. You earn your way onto those ballots by being good enough and productive enough, often enough, to stand out in voters’ minds. And Randle — who has played more minutes than anybody but Mikal Bridges since 2020 — has done that.

When you filter that quantity by quality, though, stacking up the production of those luminaries over the last three-plus seasons and sorting it by a variety of advanced metrics — value over replacement player, box plus-minus, win shares per 48 minutes, effective field-goal percentage (which accounts for 3-pointers being worth more than 2-pointers), true shooting percentage (which factors in 2-point, 3-point and free-throw averages), etc. — chances are, you’re going to find Randle at the bottom of the list.

With the possible exception of Paul, who’s nearly a decade older than Randle and has begun his transition into a lower-minutes reserve, the rest of the guys on that list don’t exhibit nearly the degree of volatility and variance in on-court results that Randle has displayed — both between seasons, with peaks in 2020-21 and ’22-’23 sandwiching a thumb’s-down valley in ’21-’22, and even within them. Randle missed 70 of his first 96 shots this season, a frigid start that played a large role in the Knicks losing four of their first six games … and then he promptly began scorching, averaging more than 25 points, nine rebounds and five assists per game on 51% shooting over the next six weeks.

He can set fans’ teeth to grinding when he insists on slowly jab-stepping and surveying in search of another midrange jumper. (Only 16 players have finished more possessions out of isolation than Randle this season, according to Synergy Sports Technology.) He can also be the drive of a top-flight offense when he trades in stepbacks for downhill attacks, picks up the pace to move the ball to teammates more quickly, and fights for deeper position to create better passing angles out of the low post. (The Knicks have scored like a top-five offense with Randle on the floor this season — and maintained a top-10 clip even when he’s played without Brunson.)

He can produce monster games against top competition, like when he popped for 41 against these Bucks a couple of weeks ago …

… and he can underwhelm when it matters most, as evidenced by the 2021 and 2023 postseasons, when he shot a combined 34.4% from the floor with a negative assist-to-turnover ratio. (In fairness, Randle was playing through a nasty ankle injury this past spring.)

That’s a pretty fascinating spot to occupy: good enough to play a leading role in propelling a moribund franchise back to competence and relevance; not good enough, though, to consistently box with gods.

“Until further notice, the Knicks go as Randle goes,” my colleague Ben Rohrbach wrote last month. “And that lands them somewhere south of seriousness.”

But it also lands them somewhere north of the crawl space they’ve skulked in for most of the past two decades — in the fight for home-court advantage in the East, a legitimate threat to win a playoff series, dependably good with the chance to get even better. While everyone keeps waiting for Leon Rose and Co. to finally land their white whale on the Great White Way, whoever that might be, it’s maybe worth acknowledging both Randle’s role in that climb, and the ascent he’s made himself. After all: He made the friggin’ list, right?

Klay Thompson, Warriors

Curry’s an incandescent eternal — the special kind of jaw-dropping that can make you care about minutiae like pregame warm-up routines and off-ball relocation. Jokić has cemented himself as a playmaking visionary with gifts so vast that you might see something wholly new every time he surveys the court. The greatest shooter of all time, the greatest passing big of all time, two of only 15 players in NBA history to win MVP more than once; their mere presence arrests our attention.

Thompson, though, pulls my focus because he’s going through one of the most dramatic stages in an athlete’s career: the existential crisis of a proud player raging against the dying of the light.

Flash back one year: December 14, 2022. Curry hurts his shoulder during a loss against the Pacers. Golden State’s a game under .500, still flailing through the “two timelines” experiment, and now without its centerpiece, looking to be in real trouble. So Klay averages 26 a game for the next few weeks, shooting 38% on more than 11 3s per game, Atlas-shoulders the offense with 54 on 39 shots to steal a win in Atlanta, helps them go 6-4 during Steph’s absence.

Flash forward a month: Curry goes down again, this time injuring his left leg against Dallas just before the All-Star break. Golden State’s a game over .500, eighth in the West, clinging to play-in position and looking to be in real trouble. So Klay does it again: averages 27 a night for the next few weeks, shooting 46% on more than 12 3s per game, helps them go 7-4 during Steph’s absence.

Yes, Thompson running out of gas in the postseason played a major role in the eventual end of the Warriors’ title defense. But without what he did before that — grabbing the wheel and keeping the Warriors steady when Steph was hurt, when Draymond Green had broken the trust, when Andrew Wiggins was away, when nothing else seemed right; turning in his first career 300 3-pointer campaign after missing two entire seasons to a torn ACL and a torn Achilles — Golden State might not have even gotten back to the playoffs.

So you could understand why — in the midst of uncertainty over his contract status, in the grip of a horrid start to a season that he’d begun with such optimism — Thompson bristled at a question about how much he and the similarly struggling Wiggins valued coach Steve Kerr’s patience.

“What, do you want him to bench me? Or bench Wigs?” Thompson snapped at Tim Kawakami of The Athletic. “… Sometimes you earn these things, like patience and time to find yourself. I think history is on our side when it comes to that stuff.”

Another handful of underwhelming games later, on the night when Green earned his latest suspension, the patience ran out. Having shot just 2-of-10 from the field through the first 3.5 quarters, Thompson took a seat on the bench during crunch time of Golden State’s loss to the Suns — a decision that the five-time All-Star later acknowledged frustrated him because “I’m friggin’ competitive.”

And, like a friggin’ competitor, Thompson has responded, thawing himself out by at long last relocating his flamethrower:

After shooting 59-for-172 (34.3%) from deep through his first 22 games, Thompson made 23 of his next 46 triples (50%), scoring 20 or more points in four straight games for the first time all season. The shots are still screaming off his fingertips as soon as the ball touches them, but they’re also coming more frequently in rhythm, in the flow of the Warriors’ motion offense and transition game. It’s less like he’s chasing what he used to be and more like he’s remembering that he’s still capable of being it.

Or, if not it, then at least something different than what he was these first two months. At age 33, after the devastating leg injuries and lost years, Thompson won’t be the All-Defensive Team-caliber perimeter stopper he once was, or the occasional rim-pressuring driver that he developed into over years of at-times-adventurous ball-handling. He might not even be capable of the kind of short-burst heroics that helped keep Golden State’s title defense alive last year. But this mid-December scorch suggests he’s not dead yet.

The fall comes for every great, but with any luck, the pride can still come first. Maybe this is it — the year that Klay’s run as a star in his own right comes to an end. If he goes out, though, I’m betting that he’ll go out shooting.

LeBron James, Lakers

OK: I recognize that it’s not exactly “discovering an off-the-periodic-table element” to highlight one of the most decorated, celebrated and flat-out famous basketball players ever — someone who, as Tom Haberstroh recently argued, has managed to pack four separate Hall of Fame résumés into one career.

But clichés become clichés for a reason, you play the hits because people like to dance, and things don’t have to be clever to be correct. And it seems to me inarguable that LeBron still having a legitimate claim to being a top-10 player — and, if you catch me on the right night, with the right drink in my hand, a top-five player — in his 21st season, a week away from his 39th birthday, is one of the wildest things about a league replete with enthralling stuff.

It would be impressive enough if LeBron was just scoring more, producing more, and doing it all more efficiently than any player who’d ever laced them up at his age. (All of which, of course, he is.) But this dude is in the top 15 in points, assists, steals, clutch scoring, paint scoring and defensive field-goal percentage allowed … like, among everybody. He’s in or around the top five in box plus-minus, value over replacement player, player efficiency rating, estimated plus-minus and multiple other advanced metrics.

The oldest player in the league leads the league in fast-break points, because it’s an immutable law of physics that an object in motion stays in motion unless it’s acted upon by an unbalanced force. And brother, I’m here to tell you that LeBron is the force that acts on you and leaves you unbalanced, not the other way around:

The most accomplished interior scorer of the 2000s has continued his evolutionary migration out to the perimeter while still remaining a beast in the paint, posting the third-highest 2-point shooting percentage of his career and the second-best 3-point mark. James has become one of the game’s smartest defenders, a menacing free safety with the experience and IQ to diagnose absolutely anything an offense can show him, and hands and feet quick enough to destroy it. And while he doesn’t have the wherewithal to be full-tilt dominant every night without eventually feeling some repercussions — he missed Thursday’s meeting with the Wolves, citing ankle tendinitis and fatigue in a road-heavy run of schedule — he’s still capable of taking complete control of a game in a way that few other players have ever been able to replicate.

Take, for example, the second quarter of Los Angeles’ blowout win over the Pelicans in the semifinals of the in-season tournament:

In just over nine minutes of work, James:

  • Serves as the screener in the pick-and-roll, acts as a short-roll dive man, and creates a wide-open corner 3;

  • When Cam Reddish doesn’t take it, he gets the ball back and calmly dots the eye of ace perimeter defender Herb Jones;

  • Drills 3s on L.A.’s next two trips, capped by a transition pull-up from 30;

  • Back-cuts a ball-watching Jose Alvarado for a layup;

  • Switches out onto C.J. McCollum and scares him into smoking a layup;

  • Works off the ball, sprinting off a screen to attack Dyson Daniels on the move, bullying his way to an and-one;

  • Hits the gas off a defensive rebound and slices through the entire Pelicans defense for another transition layup;

  • Beats Zion Williamson to the spot to take a charge, his third of the game, forcing a turnover and sending the big fella to the bench with his third foul;

  • Hits the gas again after a missed free throw, steamrolling Brandon Ingram and getting himself to the line.

When the quarter started, the Lakers were down by one. At halftime, they were up 13, with James scoring or assisting on 24 points in the second — as many as the Pelicans, en masse, had in the frame. They played the second half solely as a matter of course. The game was over right there.

Anybody can decide to try to take something apart. Few have all of the knowledge, tools and skills to actually do the job, as efficiently and cleanly as possible. That’s who LeBron is as 2024 nears: the game’s preeminent craftsman.

Dismantling a Celtics team that boasts the East’s best record promises to be a tougher task. Under the bright lights of another marquee showcase, though, I’m not sure there’s anybody you’d trust more to do it — or anybody you’d rather watch try.

Joel Embiid, 76ers

There are many reasons why a Sixers team that seemed in disarray two months ago is breathing down the necks of the Celtics and Bucks for the East’s top spot. There’s Maxey blossoming into a full-fledged top-25 player and new coach Nick Nurse introducing more motion and diversity into the offense. There’s the end of the James Harden era returning not only refilled draft-pick coffers, but also a brand of wing depth not seen in Philadelphia in ages, and a new low-usage, high-efficiency veteran 4 in Nicolas Batum who has been an absolutely perfect fit. (Philly’s post-Harden starting five, with De’Anthony Melton alongside Maxey and Batum at power forward, has been the best five-man lineup in the NBA, outscoring opponents by a laughable 33.3 points per 100 possessions.)

All of it, though, rests on the broadest set of shoulders on Broad Street — the ones belonging to a dude who won MVP, and then came back even better.

Maybe it’s an eagerness to clear the taste of ash out of his mouth after yet another second-round flameout, another missed opportunity to write the first declarative postseason statement of his career. Maybe it’s a desire to prove that, while Harden deserved praise for the pick-and-roll facilitation that set the table for his first MVP, most of the credit belonged to the guy who finished all those plays.

Or, to put a more virtuous lens on it, maybe he wants to pay the favor that Harden did him forward to Maxey, helping a teammate he’s fond of level up to a new stratosphere. So far, so good: The list of high-usage players averaging 25 points and five dimes with a true shooting percentage north of .600 is 10 names long, and it features five MVPs, four other dudes who’ve made All-NBA First Team … and Maxey.

Or maybe the motivation’s a little simpler. Maybe it’s greatness begetting greed.

"I have a pretty good chance [at another MVP]," Embiid recently told ESPN’s Tim Bontemps. "I mean, if I have a chance to be in the conversation, why not? I want it all. I'm not shy about it. I'm not going to sit here and be like, 'Oh, I don't care about this.' Anything that I can get my hands on, I want it."

Embiid has shown his work, spending the opening months of the season getting his hands on damn near everything.

He’s leading the league in scoring for the third straight season, averaging a career-high 35.1 points in 34.1 minutes per game, putting him on pace to become the first player since Wilt Chamberlain more than 60 years ago with more points than minutes. He’s pulling down a career-best 11.8 rebounds per game, too. The Sixers grab 73% of available defensive rebounds with Embiid on the floor, which would be the league’s second-highest rate for the full season — one reason why they’re just outside the top five in defensive efficiency.

Another big one? The other team takes way fewer shots at the rim and way more shots from midrange with Embiid on the floor. That makes sense, considering he’s holding opponents to 51.2% shooting at the basket — seventh-stingiest out of 99 players to defend at least 75 up-close shots, according to Second Spectrum tracking.

Perhaps most notably, though, Embiid’s dishing a career-high 5.9 assists per game and turning in the highest assist rate of any big man this side of Jokić. He’s reached that new plane of distribution, thanks in part to the Nurse-led reorientation of the attack away from siloed rock-pounding; the Sixers are finishing about 2.5 fewer possessions per game out of isolation this year than last, according to Synergy, with significant shifts toward more dribble handoffs and quick-hit off-ball cuts.

A lot of it, though, stems from hard-earned, tangible growth in the 7-footer’s spatial awareness, patience in handling double-teams and understanding of how to make defenses wrong for trying to force the ball out of his hands:

Whether you find Embiid’s gift for foul-drawing a demerit on his record or a feather in his cap likely depends on which team you’re rooting for when you’re watching him. Either way, know that when you’re watching him, you’re watching an all-time destroyer operating at a level we’ve never seen him reach — a gentle reminder that, so long as you don’t lose the thread in this season of giving and go full Gordon Gekko, sometimes a little bit of greed won’t hurt anybody but the defense.

Luka Dončić, Mavericks

I’m going to level with you, gang: This section was going to be about Kyrie Irving, and how he’s been exactly what Dallas had hoped for — a high-efficiency, low-turnover complement who can push pace and keep the offense afloat when Luka hits the bench — but then he got hurt. Then it was going to be about Bradley Beal, and the early returns on his fit next to Kevin Durant and Devin Booker … but then he got hurt. (Again.)

And then it was going to be about Dereck Lively II, and how stunningly excellent he’s been as an immediate-impact rookie rim-runner and defender — Dallas has outscored opponents by 7.1 points-per-100 with him on the floor and been outscored by 4.2 points-per-100 with him off it — but then he got hurt. And I just wrote like 2,000 words about Point Book, and I didn’t want to just copy/paste my “Holy crap! check out how great this older guy is!” chunk about LeBron for KD. (Although: Holy crap! Check out how great this older guy is!)

Curse you, basketball gods. Why must you give me your toughest blurbing challenges?

I don’t know, man. Need to figure things out. Maybe I need to take a step back.

[comically oversized lightbulb appears above my head, like in a cartoon]

The stepback has always been the keystone to Dončić’s game — the most frequent and flamboyant intersection of his stealth superpower of deceleration, his predilection toward super deep launches (only six players have taken more shots from 28 feet or beyond) and his Joker-esque delight in setting a defender on fire just to send a message. This season, though, he’s slamming it into reverse more frequently and more effectively than ever.

Through 26 games, Dončić has attempted 153 stepback 3-pointers, according to NBA Advanced Stats shot tracking data — an average of 5.9 per game, by far a career high, nearly two per game more than last season. And, much to the chagrin of the defenders tasked with covering one of the game’s most overwhelming offensive engines, he’s also hitting them at a career-best clip, shooting 40.5% on those downshifting daggers.

When you’ve got a guy who’ll lull you to sleep with those Harden-esque dribbles and can do this when you don’t stay attached to him …

… and who’s shooting 77% at the rim and 53% from floater range when you do crowd him and make him take it inside — where, if you’re able to wall him off, he’s also liable to just do some wild-ass stuff like this

… well, I’m just not too sure how you defend that without petitioning for rule changes that allow you to use, like, a harpoon. Or a camouflaged snare trap. Or four additional dudes. Or something.

Turns out, most NBA defenses aren’t so sure, either. Luka sits second in the NBA in scoring, behind only Embiid, and fourth in assists, behind Tyrese Haliburton, Trae Young and Jokić, and at the head of the table for a Mavs squad that’s knocking on the door of the top five in offensive efficiency.

I’m not sure exactly what Frank Vogel’s middle-of-the-pack Suns defense has in store to try to slow down Dončić. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion, though, what kind of present Luka plans to give his old pal Book in the Christmas slate’s nightcap.

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