The five most interesting players of the Christmas Day slate

The NBA’s Christmas Day showcase tends to serve as a reintroduction to the league for viewers who’ve been focused more on other stuff through the first two months of the season: college football, the NFL, the fate of American democracy and the digital town square, things like that. Most of those folks will focus primarily on the marquee names in a five-game slate that, even with a couple of superstars on the shelf, will still feature as many as 10 players who have won MVP or might get votes this season.

That’s understandable: The talent at the top of the league is ludicrous right now. But there’s plenty of intrigue if you look a bit lower down the call sheet, too — and, for a certain kind of fan, digging into that can be at least as fun as highlighting the titans climbing each rung on the MVP ladder.

(It’s me. I’m Certain Kind of Fan.)

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 Christmas quintuple-header, in terms of the questions they face and the possibilities they unlock. We begin in a place with an infamously positive relationship to Santa Claus: the City of Brotherly Love.

James Harden, 76ers

Coming out of the mouths of most players, "I'm one of the people that changed the game of basketball," would sound like hollow, hysterical hyperbole. When Harden says it, though, as he did during a revealing recent sitdown with Yaron Weitzman of FOX Sports … well, you kind of have to acknowledge that he’s right.

Harden didn’t invent the stepback 3-pointer, or the sidestep 3-pointer, or hunting mismatches to attack in isolation. He did, however, launch a sort of one-man industrial revolution for those concepts, introducing a systematic and streamlined process for mass-producing them at a scale never before seen in the history of the sport.

Whether creating it to get a shot off, erasing it to draw a foul or dragging defenders out into it to torture them, Harden weaponized and colonized space. His ability to efficiently exploit the new frontiers he found turned him into the kind of sun around whom offenses, rosters and entire organizations orbit.

These Sixers don’t revolve around Harden; a blue-white supergiant who wears No. 21 sits at the center of their universe. The question facing Harden: If it means improving his odds of capping his individual résumé with the grand team prize that has eluded him, can “one of the people that changed the game of basketball” — now age 33, with more regular season and postseason minutes on his body over the past decade than anybody besides LeBron James — change himself?

In some respects, the wear and tear have given him no choice. At his Houston peak, Harden could blitz past any defender in the league and get to the cup at will. Now, whether due to age, the effects of a hamstring injury that has now lingered for parts of three seasons or the newfound complication of a foot sprain that shelved him for a month, he has neither the same burst off the starting line or acceleration once in motion. He’s averaging five fewer drives per game than he did five seasons ago, scoring fewer points off them than he has in a decade and attempting shots at the rim at the lowest rate of his career.

During his chat with Weitzman, Harden chalked that up in part to the Sixers’ roster construction, and that’s fair. (That was supposed to be Montrezl Harrell’s job, but the eight-year vet hasn’t had much vertical pop; through 26 games, he’s got zero alley-oop dunks.) But the issues precipitating Harden’s at-rim decline show up at the point of attack, too: He’s blown by his defender on just 3.1 drives per 100 possessions this season, according to Second Spectrum — down from 11.3 in 2018-19, and less than half the rate he managed last season, even after an offseason in which he reportedly recommitted to his health and conditioning.

What’s most compelling about Harden now is how he’s responded to losing a few miles per hour off his fastball by showing sharper command of his off-speed stuff. Harden used to leverage the threat of the drive to open up the stepback, and vice versa; now, he uses his footwork and strength to generate looks in the midrange he once avoided like hot lava. A career-high 34% of Harden’s shots this season have come between the rim and the arc; he’s converting them at a very strong 46% clip.

That, plus league-average long-range accuracy and the elite playmaking touch that has him flirting with the league lead in assists, combine to make this version of Harden — if not “diminished,” then perhaps “altered” — a legit All-Star, still a top-20 player by some statistical reckonings, and both a high-end running buddy for Joel Embiid (the Sixers are outscoring opponents by 11.6 points per 100 possessions when they share the court) and a capable caretaker when the big fella sits (they’re plus-2.6 points-per-100 when Harden plays without Embiid).

Which is exactly what Philly needs him to be. Embiid’s going to be Embiid. Tyrese Maxey, when healthy, can provide complementary scoring punch. Tobias Harris has found new comfort as a catch-and-shoot threat; while backup center remains a question (Doc, please, play BBall Paul), the Sixers appear to boast better depth than they’ve had in years. Harden, though, remains the swing piece, the question left unanswered: Can the person who changed the game, and who changed his game, now change the biggest games at the biggest moments to get the Sixers home?

Christian Wood, Mavericks

Adding Wood — a versatile offensive big man who can punish defenses above the rim, beyond the arc and driving to the basket — was Take Two at giving Luka Doncic a pick-and-roll partner after the Kristaps Porzingis experiment went awry. It was also an attempt at replacing the offensive talent that Dallas lost when Jalen Brunson signed with the Knicks. But for all Wood’s gifts on the offensive end, he’d never anchored even a decent defense. And head coach Jason Kidd — who’d led the Mavs to their first Western Conference finals since 2011 largely by installing the foundation of a top-10 defense to pair with Doncic — didn’t trust that Dallas would prevent as many points with Wood in the middle as it would allow. So Kidd promptly installed 34-year-old JaVale McGee as the Mavericks’ starting center.

When McGee struggled mightily at the start of the season and Dallas needed a lineup shake-up, Kidd turned not to Wood, but to the trusty Dwight Powell. Only after McGee flamed out, Powell suffered a thigh contusion, and security blanket Maxi Kleber (Wood’s most frequent frontcourt partner) shredded his hamstring did Kidd finally slot Wood into the starting lineup. Wood has responded by averaging 20.5 points and 13.5 rebounds over the last three games, shooting 45% from the field and 35% from 3-point land, and blocking six shots — including a swat of Jaden McDaniels that helped seal a win on Wednesday:

That’s the rub, right there: Can Wood seize this opportunity and play well enough defensively to earn Kidd’s trust and prove he deserves a longer look in the first five?

Dallas scores a blistering 122 points per 100 possessions when Doncic and Wood share the floor — head and shoulders above Boston’s full-season league-best offense. Wood’s ability to serve as an elite roll man and catch-and-shoot threat, as well as a capable release-valve isolation creator, makes him both a beautiful fit next to Luka and the rare Maverick who might be capable of lightening his offensive workload. Kidd says he wants to find ways to reduce the creative burden on a player who’s first in the NBA in field-goal attempts per game and average time of possession, second in usage rate and assist rate, and fourth in touches per game; what better way to do that than by maximizing his minutes alongside a big man who can actually go and get a bucket his damn self?

The answer’s simple: Because even if the offensive production seems to demand it, the defensive downside is the kind of thing that keeps coaches like Kidd up at night. Opponents have shot 62.7% at the basket when Wood’s the closest defender — a middling mark among players who’ve guarded at least 100 up-close tries. He’s committing five fouls per 100 possessions, his most since he had a cup of coffee in Charlotte a half-dozen years ago. Dallas allows 115.2 points-per-100 when Wood plays the 5 with Doncic on the court — bottom-five territory.

Even with Dallas desperately needing an offensive jolt, the bet here is that if Wood doesn’t show he’s a dependable back-line defender, Kidd will go back to Powell as soon as the Mavs are healthy enough to bear it. If that happens, and if Wood’s not enough of an offensive ace to help keep Dallas’ offense afloat when Luka rests … well, then the question of what comes next for the 27-year-old becomes pretty interesting.

Wood’s set to hit unrestricted free agency unless he and the Mavs agree on a contract extension — which, as luck would have it, he becomes eligible to receive this weekend. Given the uncertainty surrounding how Kidd has deployed him this season, and the chance that Wood could strike it rich as a prime-age offensive weapon on the open market this summer, an extension might not be likely. Which, according to Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report, has other teams “monitoring what the Mavericks intend to do with” Wood, and whether he could be on the move ahead of the Feb. 9 trade deadline, lest Dallas risk losing an important rotation player and valuable asset for nothing for the second straight summer.

How Wood performs, and how Kidd responds to it, might then impact the fate of the season for an incumbent conference finalist; the size of the payday and eventual NBA role for one of the league’s most curious enigmas; the standing of a front office desperate to surround its superstar with a championship-caliber supporting cast; and the possibility that, with another summertime swing and a miss, a top-five player in the world might start considering his options. No pressure.

Dillon Brooks, Grizzlies

Ja Morant is the headliner — the playmaking phenom, the straw who stirs the drink, throws it in your face and hits the Griddy on his way back to the bar. Desmond Bane is the fail-safe — the capital “S” Shooter and ascendant playmaker who makes you pay for loading up when Morant drives and helps keep the Grizz lethal when Morant sits. Jaren Jackson Jr. is the rim-protecting, ceiling-raising linchpin who makes Memphis’ defense championship-caliber.

If you’re talking about Memphis’ bellwether, though — about the player who straightens his teammates’ spines and puts sneers on their faces, the one who sets a tone for refusing to back down even before the Grizzlies were on the way up — Brooks is your man. The one whose chest X-rays show a DMX video’s worth of Dog In Him.

“Yeah, he’s a bit of a psycho, eh?” teammate Steven Adams recently said of Brooks, according to Drew Hill of The Daily Memphian. “But it’s good. We need it. You don’t want some vanilla dude all the time.”

There are valid critiques of Brooks that you could raise. About how his unshakable confidence can sometimes curdle into a staggering number of abysmal jumpers, especially considering he’s been one of the league’s least accurate high-usage players for years. About how his tendency to play on the edge produces lots of fouls (though those are down a bit this season) and sometimes dangerous plays — like when he injured Golden State’s Gary Payton II during the playoffs, which you’d imagine will make him Public Enemy No. 1 at Chase Center on Sunday.

“Vanilla,” though, isn’t one of them. “Villain” works better. “One of the NBA’s best defenders” has a pretty nice ring to it, too.

Out of 189 players who’ve logged at least 500 minutes this season, Brooks ranks 11th in average matchup difficulty, according to The BBall Index’s game charting. He’s one of only three players to rank in the 90th percentile in matchup difficulty, on-ball defense and coverage aggression, joining Quentin Grimes of the resurgent Knicks and Sacramento’s Davion Mitchell. (With Stephen Curry sidelined, you might expect Brooks to guard Jordan Poole; then again, Klay Thompson did have a lot to say about the Grizz after Golden State won the championship. Either way: Expect the matchup to get nasty.)

While Grimes and Mitchell primarily check opposing guards, the 6-foot-7, 225-pound Brooks has the size, strength and demeanor to be Taylor Jenkins’ top choice for every opponent’s most dangerous scorer — from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and De’Aaron Fox to Kevin Durant, Zion Williamson and Khris Middleton, whom he absolutely stuffed in a locker in Memphis’ recent blowout win over the Bucks. And, criticisms of his shot selection aside, Brooks does all that while offering value pressuring the rim — he’s producing points on 73.5% of his drives, a top-15 mark among players averaging at least five drives per game — and averaging nearly 18 points and three assists per game as a competent complementary option for a top-10 offense.

All of that puts Brooks in an interesting position in the months ahead. The Grizzlies own the NBA’s No. 3 net rating despite Bane missing 18 games, Jackson missing 16 and their expected starting five playing a grand total of zero possessions together. Just get healthy and they might be good enough to win the West right now, even without making a move before the trade deadline. If they do look to upgrade, though, Brooks — with his priced-to-move $11.4 million salary and expiring contract — might be the spot they’d target.

Unless, of course, they offer him the biggest extension they can — starting at 120% of his current salary, which amounts to a four-year, $61.3 million deal — to keep the good vibes rolling. Even if they do, though, might Brooks look around at a 2023 free agency class light on perimeter talent — especially if Harden, Middleton and Jerami Grant work out new deals to stay put — and see what kind of offers he might get as the top two-way wing on the market? Contract years can unfold in a lot of different ways; if Brooks can keep up his strong two-way play by showing out in a big national showcase, his could wind up proving fascinating.

Brook Lopez, Bucks

I think we’d all agree that the most interesting thing Brook could do Sunday would be performing a little soft-shoe number on the parquet at TD Garden, now that twin brother Robin has helpfully informed us that Brook assayed the role of Officer Krupke in “West Side Story” as a lad. Even if he doesn’t, though, the garrulous goliath’s play has been surprisingly compelling in and of itself. Here’s ESPN eminence Zach Lowe, arguing that, 10 years removed from his one and only All-Star selection, the 34-year-old Lopez merits consideration for another:

Ever since he got to Milwaukee, the case for Lopez’s value has rested primarily on the degree to which his specific skill set allows Mike Budenholzer to unlock Giannis Antetokounmpo. And considering the staggering degree to which Antetokounmpo has blossomed since Lopez arrived — All-NBA First Team every year, two MVPs with two other top-four finishes, one of the greatest Finals games in NBA history and Milwaukee’s first title in 50 years — y’know, fair enough. But viewing Lopez solely as a load-bearing structure overlooks the fact that he’s always been pretty damn good in his own right: a former top-10 pick and post-up monster who averaged a shade under 20 points per game on 50% shooting for eight years before recasting himself as a more modern 3-and-D big man.

A Bucks team dealing with a slew of early injuries has needed Lopez to tap back into that offensive game, and he’s answered the call. The raw numbers don’t blow you away: 14.6 points, six rebounds and 1.2 assists in 30.5 minutes per game. But Lopez is producing them by blending old and new. He’s finishing plays out of the post twice as often as he did last season, and more efficiently than he has in ages; after some offseason tweaks to the form on his jumper, he’s also shooting a career-high 40% from 3-point range on more than five attempts per game.

He’s producing more points per shot attempt than ever while also serving as one of the NBA’s most valuable defenders (and my pick for the league’s best through the first quarter of the season). Nobody contests more shots per game than Lopez; he leads the NBA in total blocks and blocks per game, and is tied for first in block percentage. His impact extends beyond swats, too: Opponents attempt way fewer shots at the rim with Lopez patrolling the lane, and when they do, he’s holding them to 53.6% shooting, the ninth-best mark among 68 players to defend at least 100 shots at the basket, according to Second Spectrum tracking. The Bucks are absolutely suffocating when Lopez, Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday play together; they’re still elite, though, when Lopez mans the middle without Antetokounmpo or without Holiday, and still a near-top-five outfit in a small sample without either.

Add that up and you’ve got — in the eyes of a number of advanced statistical metrics, at least — a top-25-to-35 player who has played the most minutes on the team with the NBA’s best record. All-Star cases have been built on a hell of a lot less; a big performance on Christmas would only help bolster Lopez’s. A little soft-shoe probably wouldn’t hurt, either.

Chris Paul, Suns

Around the same time that 37-year-old LeBron James debuted an ad campaign in which he emphatically defeats a version of Father Time who looks suspiciously like Aquaman in an existential decathlon, 37-year-old CP3 premiered one where he’s barely eking out wins against sprightly older gentlemen on the race-walking circuit. This feels instructive.

Dudes who are 6-foot-9, 250 pounds, and among the most jaw-dropping athletes the sport has ever seen have a much larger margin for error than dudes who go 6-foot and a buck-seventy-five. A “declining” James can still physically overpower just about the entire league, put up 27-8-7, and look like the best player on the floor most nights. Paul can’t, which means every 3-for-11 outing makes you wonder if we’re accelerating toward the finish line for one of the best to ever do it.

Only six point guards age 37 or older with a usage near Paul’s level have ever finished above zero in value over replacement player. The target comp remains John Stockton, the player whose career has unfolded most similarly to Paul’s; Stockton earned his 10th All-Star selection in his age-37 season, and kept playing at a high level for three seasons after that. But while Stockton’s shot stayed steady throughout his final years, Paul’s has begun to wobble. He’s shooting below 40% from the field for the first time in his 17-year career, including a career-worst 41.8% inside the arc.

That Paul barely ever shoots at the rim anymore isn’t anything new — he’s taken fewer than 10% of his shots from point-blank range in the last four seasons — but he’s pressuring it less now, too. Paul’s averaging only 8.4 drives per game, the lowest of any year for which the NBA publishes tracking data; he’s passing out of those drives nearly 55% of the time, the highest share in that span.

Combine the struggle to consistently beat defenders off the bounce and finish inside with the fact that Paul’s shooting just 39% from midrange, and you’ve got a recipe for a shot profile that shifts way back beyond the 3-point line, because those shots are just easier for him to get off. The problem: Paul has made just 35% of his open or wide-open threes over the past two seasons, according to’s shot tracking, and he’s been streaky, with 15 of his 28 triples this season coming in just three games.

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - MARCH 27: Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns handles the ball against James Harden #1 of the Philadelphia 76ers during the first half of the NBA game at Footprint Center on March 27, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Chris Paul of the Suns handles the ball against James Harden of the 76ers during the first half of an NBA game at Footprint Center on March 27, 2022, in Phoenix. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

That has emboldened defenders to go under the ball screens he uses more often than they have in years — a bet that Paul won’t be able to make them pay by splashing threes, and that they’ll be able to beat him to the spot before he can get past them off the dribble. So far, the wager’s paying off: Phoenix is scoring just 0.831 points per chance when the defender goes under a screen set for CP3, according to Second Spectrum.

None of this means that CP3 has lost his race-walk with Uncle Time. He’s still averaging 9.1 assists per game, fifth in the league; still creating more points per possession via assist than anybody but Tyrese Haliburton; and still ranking among the league leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio. The clutch shooting that’s been his calling card for years has fizzled thus far, but Paul remains a genius playmaker and defensive signal caller who can still contribute in a meaningful way — the smartest guy in whatever gym he walks into, until whenever he decides to leave.

But the Suns didn’t trade for and re-sign Paul to “contribute in a meaningful way.” They imported and retained him to elevate them to championship status. That’s the intended structure in Phoenix: Devin Booker is the stone-cold superstar; CP’s the All-NBA leader; Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges are stars in their roles; everyone else slots in around them.

If this is what Paul is now — a heady table-setter who averages 12 and 9 on below-average shooting, closer to the 40th-best player in the league than top-15 — then the Suns need more from elsewhere to make up for it. Without it, the structure’s going to crumble whenever Booker’s not available. And it has: After the Suns outscored opponents by very healthy margins when Paul played without Booker in their first two seasons together, they’re getting blitzed by 5.9 points-per-100 in CP3/no-Book minutes this season, nearly as bad as the 9-22 Rockets’ full-season net rating.

That might not sustain. Paul’s jumper might heat up as the weather gets colder. More consistent aggression and a couple more buckets a night from Ayton, Bridges or a healthy Cam Johnson could bridge the gap. Maybe James Jones finds help outside the organization, whether by at long last dealing Jae Crowder or dipping into that full cupboard of draft picks to hunt bigger upgrades to pair with Booker, who’s presently playing the best ball of his career.

Whatever comes next, expect the pathologically competitive Paul to keep scratching, clawing and searching for ways to compensate for the edges he’s lost. Without them, he might not be that far away from having to focus on his foot strike, hand position and hip swing; the NBA, after all, is no country for older, smaller men.

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