NBA Christmas Slate Full of Gifts

The holidays have become synonymous with family, giving, spreading and cheer and also, for basketball fans, the NBA. Every year the NBA hosts a five game slate on Christmas, and when the schedule is as good as it is this season it serves as a wonderful Holiday gift to basketball junkies everywhere. From individual match-ups to a rematch of the last three NBA finals, the 2017 slate has something for everyone. It will provide a day full of meaningful and fun basketball. Let’s take a look at the match-ups and what to look out for on Monday:

New York vs. Philadelphia

The Christmas day slate kicks off with a game featuring two of the more fun (surprisingly) teams to watch so far this season, as the Knicks and the Sixers face off at Madison Square Garden. Philadelphia has Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid who are one of the most talented duos in the entire league. Embiid’s been day-to-day with some back soreness, but should be good to go for Monday’s contest. Philly is the best rebounding team in the league (48.4/game) and 3rd in assists (26.2/game) which is spurred by the passing of their two young superstars. The Sixers have struggled mightily in the month of December, as they have dropped 9\nine of their last ten contests. Monday represents a good chance for them to get out of their funk and get some positive momentum heading into 2018.

On the other side the Knicks are surging as they have won six of their last ten games, and stand as one of the most improved teams.. While he still has growing (game wise, hopefully for everyone else not height wise) to do, Kristaps Porzingis has at times played at a superstar level so far during this season. Porzingis and Embiid (as long as he plays) is going to be an extremely fun match-up to watch of two of the best young and versatile big men in the league. It also needs to be mentioned that Michael Beasley has been on a tear of late and is one of the most fun guys to watch over the last two weeks, like his 18 point 4th quarter against the Celtics earlier this week. While this is the first game between the two Atlantic division foes, the Knicks have the slight edge, especially if Embiid is not playing at 100%.


Cleveland at Golden State 

The rematch of the last three NBA Finals, and potentially again in 2018, square off for the first time this season on Christmas Day in the Bay (fingers crossed this is the only rhyming within the article). Both teams have been on hot of late. The Warriors have won 11 of their last 12. and the Cavs are winners of 19 of their last 21 games after overcoming a slow start. Both teams will not be at fll strength. The Cavs will be without their top two point guards in Isaiah Thomas and Derrick Rose, and the Warriors will be down Zaza Pachulia, Shaun Livingston and potentially Draymond Green, although he was given the green light from the Warriors medical staff last night. While it will certainly be a better and hopefully healthier match-up come June, there is still a lot of reasons to watch the game on Xmas afternoon.

For starters LeBron has been as dominant as he has been at any time in his career. He is a leading MVP candidate along with James Harden, and is shooting 57% from the field and 41% from 3. Kevin Love has quietly been having one of the best seasons of his career, and has been huge in his role as the second option for Cleveland. As far as the Warriors are concerned they are back to business as usual. Curry and Durant are both averaging 26.3 points per contest, with Klay Thompson chipping in almost 21 a game. Draymond Green has given them the same versatility on both ends as always, and rookie Jordan Bell has been giving the team great minutes with Pachulia out and injured. The Warriors are the better team and at home, so I expect them to win, but this is the best match-up of teams during the whole Christmas day lineup.

Washington at Boston

John Wall and Kyrie Irving will serve as by far the best point guard match-up on Christmas Day, but the two teams are on opposite ends of the playoff picture a third of the way into the season. While the Celtics have been struggling as of late, losing five of ten, they still hold the best record in the Eastern Conference and stand as the lone viable threat to take out the Cavs out East. The Wizards have not quite been as good as they were thought to be going into the season, but so far they still lead their division. John Wall has struggled with some injury issues thus far, and it has played a huge factor into the Wizards slow start. Marcus Morris will miss the game for the Celtics and is the only player ruled out thus far for Monday evening.

While Wall has struggled both on the court at times, and off the court with injuries this season, Bradley Beal has continued to develop into one of the best shooting guards in the league. Otto Porter and Kelly Oubre both continue to improve and give Washington quality depth out on the wing. Getting Wall healthy and playing back at the level we all know he is capable of is imperative in getting the Wizards trending back up the Eastern Conference standings. Meanwhile, the Celtics are trying to right the ship a little bit at home on Christmas. While everyone has been talking about Kyrie Irving and rookie Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown has started to show signs of putting it all together, which is a proposition that should scare everyone in the NBA. Celtics should win this game at home, but Washington desperately needs to add some big wins to their record, which should have them coming in hungry and ready to go.


Houston at Oklahoma City

There is no match-up on Christmas day that features two teams on polar (no Xmas pun intended) opposite ends of the spectrum than Houston and OKC. Houston has the NBA’s best record (25-6), the player leading the MVP race (James Harden) and Chris Paul, who when healthy has still yet to lose a game in a Rockets uniform. Oklahoma City has struggled to find any consistent chemistry between superstars Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, but a solution may be on the verge of developing as they have started to string some wins. Chris Paul and Clint Capela are day-to-day and could play, while Luc Mbah a Moute is the only player definitely out for Monday’s contest, and the Thunder come in to Monday with a clean bill of health.

While Westbrook has struggled from the field, mightily at times, this season he is still on the verge of averaging another triple-double (23.6 points/9.5 rebounds/9.9 assists per game) and has been punishing rims seemingly every night (Side Note: if you do not already, please do yourself a favor and follow @World_Wide_Wob on Twitter, he posts highlights every single night). Paul George and Carmelo Anthony struggled to get acclimated early, but are starting to find their place within the OKC offense, which can potentially make them a nightmare match-up in the Western Conference playoffs. While the Rockets have dropped their last two contests, they have been off to an incredible start and look every bit a contender out West. James Harden has been playing at an MVP level, Chris Paul is unbeaten when healthy this season and Eric Gordon has been a great piece both in the starting lineup and coming off of the bench. Clint Capela continues to improve and offers Mike D’antoni something that he has never previously had on a contender, a rim protector. This may end up being the most exciting game of the entire day.

Minnesota at LA Lakers

Monday’s lineup rounds up with a game between one of the most improved teams in the league and one of its youngest and most fun teams to watch. The Timberwolves lead the Northwest division with a record of 20-13 and feature one of the games best inside-out combos in Jimmy Butler and Karl Anthony-Towns. The Lakers have been inconsistent, but with two of the best rookies in the league the future is looking extremely bright for the Lakers. As far as injuries are concerned both teams could be down one player for Monday’s game, Nemanja Bjelica for Minnesota and Brandon Ingram for the Lakers. While this game may lack the firepower of the earlier games, there are still some sure fire reasons to watch Monday night on TNT.

Tom Thibodeau has to be pleased thus far with how the Wolves have been playing, but has to see that there is still a ton of room to grow. Butler has been getting used to playing with Thibs again, but is starting to find his groove, while young centerpieces Towns and Andrew Wiggins have shown flashes, but need to continue to get better year-in and year-out to have this team reach their full potential. Making the playoffs would be a win for Minnesota this season, but they will have to continue to grow to work on winning a series or two in future seasons. The Lakers have struggled, and coach Luke Walton voiced his displeasure after a loss to Portland on Saturday night. The team is very young, and despite their struggles has to be encouraged by the Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram and the strides that Lonzo Ball has made over the last few weeks. Is this the best Christmas Day match-up? Far from it. Is it worth staying up and being a little tired at the office on Tuesday (for those who work this week)? Absolutely.

Basketball becoming a huge part of Christmas Day has been a huge victory for NBA and basketball junkies everywhere. The schedule is loaded, and there should be 12+ hours of basketball to package with your family and other Holiday joy this season. Feel free to join the discussion in the comment below, or on Twitter (@thehoopgroup or my personal handle @dgunnerhg). Most importantly Happy Holidays to you and yours, and hopefully 2018 turns out to be your best year yet!

Retiring Kobe: The Best of Number 8 and 24

It was announced today that the Los Angeles Lakers will honor Kobe Bryant on December 18th prior to their match up against the Golden State Warriors. The Lakers will retire both 8 and 24, the two numbers worn by Bryant during his time in LA. Bryant will become the sixth player to have two different jerseys retired, joining Julius Erving, Pete Maravich, Earl Monroe, Oscar Robertson and former teammate Shaquille O’Neal. Prior to the announcement that both would be etired, the internet had fun speculating which number would be hung in the Staples Center. Each number represents different points in Kobe’s career; let’s take a look at some of his best moments in both numbers.

#8

Bryant wore 8 from his rookie year in 1996 through the 2005-06 season

81 Point Game vs Toronto

On January 22, 2006, Kobe Bryant torched the Toronto Raptors for 81 points in a Laker win. 81 points set the second most points scored in an NBA game behind Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 points. What many people forget is that this was a close contest for much of the game. Only in the 4th quarter did the Lakers proceed to pull away for a 122-104 victory. Not only was it one of the most prolific scoring efforts in NBA history, it wasn’t in a blow out, lopsided win.

2004 NBA Finals

The 2004 Finals is one that Laker fans like to forget during that span of winning. Alongside Hall of Famers Shaq, Gary Payton and Karl Malone, Kobe and the Lakers were upset in five games by the Detroit Pistons. The lone Laker win in that serious, however, was a bright spot for Kobe. He scored 33 points and had 7 assists. He also buried a clutch three-pointer that sent the game into overtime. It was a forgotten series in LA, but on a personal level, but it was still vintage Kobe.

1997 Slam Dunk Contest

Kobe Bryant took part in the 1997 dunk contest as a Rookie in the NBA. Kobe Bryant won the 1997 dunk contest and became the youngest player to ever win the event. While a dunk contest title doesn’t separate the good from the great, fans do like to see the best in the game compete during All-Star weekend. For Kobe, this became another similarity he shared with MJ. His dunks weren’t too shabby either.

2000 NBA Finals

Game 4 of the 2000 NBA Finals showed the emergence of the Mamba’s clutch gene. His partner in crime fouled out in overtime of a crucial Game 4, leaving Kobe to take the reigns and lead the Lakers to victory. With the score 112-109 in favor of LA, Kobe would score three of his team’s final four buckets, helping the Lakers take a 3-1 series edge on the Indiana Pacers. In what would become a career of clutch moments, 2000 was just the beginning for Kobe.

#24

In 2006, Bryant switched to number 24, which he wore for the rest of his career

2010 NBA Finals

Bryant’s fifth and final NBA title was classic Kobe through and through. While Game 7 wasn’t one of his best shooting games in the series, like always, Kobe found a way to win. Kobe scored 10 of his 23 in the 4th quarter, tallied 15 rebounds and helped erase a 13 point deficit to win a second straight NBA Final and Finals MVP. It was the perfect “find a way to win” performance from Bryant, something we saw many times from him in his career.

61 Points at MSG

Like many NBA players, Kobe loved playing under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden. Also like many players, Kobe would go on to dominate the Knicks with a memorable performance, dropping 61 points in a 2009 win over New York. The world’s most famous arena, saw a famous performance. Bryant made 18 field goals on 31 attempts and shot 88% from the stripe that night. His 61 passed Bernard King’s Garden record, but would later be broken by Carmelo Anthony in 2014.

2009 NBA Finals

2009 was a big year for Kobe personally. It was the first championship post Shaq and proved to those that doubted him that he could win on his own. He and the Lakers would make light work of the Orlando Magic, dominating them in five games. Bryant would get his fourth ring, but first Finals MVP, averaging 32.4 points, 7.4 assists, 5.6 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. Shaq had gotten his ring without Kobe three years earlier, now Kobe would get his without Shaq.

One Final Game in the Staples Center

Some may argue that this is not one of the Mamba’s best moments, but I think it’s perfect. Did Kobe need 50 shots to score 60 points? Sure, but for one last night, basketball fans got to remember the real Kobe. Leading up to his last game in 2016, Kobe struggled with injuries from 2013-2015. He was a shell of the assassin he used to be. But on April 13th, in his last game ever at the Staples Center, Kobe scored 60 points in a 101-96 win over the Utah Jazz. 60 points was the most points scored in a game that season, and Bryant became the oldest player to score 60 or more points in a game. It was the perfect way for Bryant to walk into retirement: a winner.

Kobe Bryant is one of the most decorated players in NBA history. He’s one of the best winners of his game’s generation and one of the best players to play in the NBA. There was nothing like the seeing Kobe get that snarl on his face, and proceed to pick an opponent apart. While it may look a bit funny of a player to have two separate numbers retired by the same team, Kobe Bryant certainly has had enough memories in each to warrant this decision.

The Solution to Superteams

Ask any fan what the two most exciting words in sports are.  You’ll probably get some answers that vary by person and allegiance – “Jets win!”, “Krzyzewski retired!”, and so on – but at a certain point, they’ll say “Game 7”.  This year, the NBA playoffs featured two game sevens:  Jazz vs. Clippers in the Western Conference first round and Wizards vs. Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.  But unless you are a fan of one of these four teams, these game sevens weren’t all that exciting.  They were formalities to see who would be slaughtered by the Warriors and Cavs.

The main storyline of these playoffs was not about who would be in the Finals, a foregone conclusion.  The storyline became “are super teams good for the NBA?”  One popular narrative is that super teams aren’t new, that the league has always been top heavy.  While it’s true that the NBA has traditionally had less parity than football and baseball, the outcome has never seemed more inevitable than it was this year.

Some argue that super teams have been around much longer than when The Big 3 formed in Miami

Look back at some of the legendary dynasties.  During the Bulls’ first three-peat, they beat the Lakers in what was considered a coin flip series in the 1991 Finals, needed 7 games to beat the Knicks in the 1992 Eastern Semifinals, and were down by 4 points to the Suns, without the ball, with one minute left in game 6 of the 1993 Finals.  Without a miracle comeback they would have faced a game seven in Phoenix.  The 1996 Bulls were head and shoulders better than the rest of the league – but to win their 1997 title, they broke a 2-2 series tie with the Jazz with a 2 point win in the “Flu Game.” They then won game 6 by just four points.  In 1998, game 6 versus the Jazz was eerily similar to game 6 five years earlier versus the Suns. Bulls down three with less than a minute left, they came back and avoided having to win a game 7 on the road.  Out of their six titles, only the 1996 one could be considered inevitable, and it still took six games for the Bulls to top the SuperSonics.

The Lakers and Celtics combined for eight titles during the 1980s, but they always had each other to ensure that there was some suspense throughout the year and the playoffs.  Usually, the Rockets, 76ers, or Pistons kept things interesting as well.  Out of those eight championships, all of the Finals’ went at least six games.  The “Heatles” dynasty of the 2010s never materialized.  Each time a LeBron James team has won a title, they needed to win a game 7 at some point to do so: 2012 vs the Celtics, 2013 vs the Spurs, and 2016 vs the Warriors.  Besides the 1996 Bulls, the 2001 Lakers are the only other team that was truly untouchable by the rest of the league.

As good as Isaiah Thomas and the Celtics were this season, no one considered them serious contenders for a 2017 NBA Championship

Last year, the moment Kevin Durant signed with the Warriors, objective observers knew it was much more probable than not that the Finals would end with the Warriors beating the Cavs, most likely in 5 games.  During the season, there were other compelling stories. Russell Westbrook’s quest to average a triple double, the 5’9” Isiah Thomas leading the Celtics to the one seed in the east, and the development of budding superstars such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Nikola Jokic.

But the inevitable Finals match-up loomed over these stories.  They were interesting, but they ultimately didn’t matter when in the back of my mind, I knew that these teams and players had no chance of making real noise in the playoffs.  This is a problem.  Maybe the NBA feels differently, as the ratings for these Finals were sky high.  But with Warriors vs Cavs Part III in the books, with no end in sight, people will start to tune out from the regular season and the early rounds of the playoffs.  No matter how many people watch the finals, this isn’t a good model for the NBA.  The salary cap is supposed to promote competitive balance, but obviously the current system doesn’t work.  The good news is that there is a simple solution to prevent these type of super teams from forming: increase the maximum contract.

Many say that the only reason the Warriors had the cap space to sign Durant is because Steph Curry was on the books for just $12 million.  This is partially true, but the real culprit, if you agree that super teams are bad for the NBA, is the maximum salary.  Coming off of his 9th year in the league, Durant was only able to make up to 30% of the salary cap, or approximately $28 million.  In order to afford that, the Warriors had to trade Andrew Bogut.  But if Durant was able to make anything close to what he is actually worth – in the $55 million ballpark with a salary cap of $94 million – the Warriors would never have had a chance to sign him.

Take a look at the other two All-Stars on Golden State.  When Klay Thompson and Draymond Green were eligible for extensions, they were only eligible to make 25% of the salary cap.  Thompson is locked up through 2019 on a team friendly contract averaging about $17 million per year, while Green is on a practically identical contract through 2020.  It doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out that with maximum salaries at 25, 30, and 35 percent of the cap, teams will continue to be able to afford 3 or 4 stars.

The max contract also makes it easier for stars to accept even less than their max.  Assume LeBron would be worth about $70 million if there was no max contract.  It would be extremely difficult for him to take, say, $35 million so that his team could sign other stars.  It’s much easier to take a few less million when his contract is artificially capped around $30 million than it would be to leave tens of millions on the table.

The salary cap is supposed to promote competitive balance, but the max contract actively detracts from this attempt at parity.  The Players Association is very much in favor of the max contract, as it creates a much higher median salary.  But if the NBA is serious about having more teams in the championship mix, they need to look at either eliminating or increasing the max salary.

Lonzo Ball Entertains Against Sixers, Cavs

Lonzo Ball stole the show and shut down the doubters in his standout showing for the Los Angeles Lakers against the Philadelphia 76ers Wednesday.

It’s been one of the few times Ball has made headlines without help from his mouthy father, LaVar.

Shocking.

Nothing seemed to phase the former UCLA Bruin. And that was with LeBron James sitting court-side, eyes glued to the most talked about second overall pick.

Dropping 36 points, eight boards and 11 assists, Ball showed up in the clutch. The rookie gave his Lakers the go-ahead bucket that landed his team with a 103-102 win … the biggest and-1, three-point play of the summer league.

Most importantly, Ball did it with unselfish play. And he did it with poise, looking more like a seasoned veteran on the big stage than a rookie.

Ball wowed watchers with his well-rounded play. And that’s with his ugly jumper. I’m just being honest.

He silenced the media with his studded performance. Despite it being an exhibition match, Ball played up to speed in the league playoff contest, bringing his Lakers back from a 14-point deficit. He went off in the second half after having a mediocre first-half performance.

This kid is something to watch. He’s playing beyond expectations and making waves without LaVar behind it all.
Thank God.

Ball’s performance Wednesday proves his ability to progress. In his first pair of games, Ball seemed hesitant to shoot, attempting to score with long (ugly) jumpers. He wasn’t afraid, however, to get dirty in the paint, all while making the right team-first decisions. He worked wonders off the dribble.

His ability to score isn’t his strength, but he showed he’s still a threat to shoot. It’s all signs of good things to come. While we are still talking about summer league, he’s not going to have much of a problem fitting in to the Lakers scheme. We can expect even more good things to come, only making the summer league even more hyped up.


12:42:33 AM

Lonzo Ball records triple-double as Lakers drop Cavs

Ball followed up Wednesday’s performance with another stellar stat line, leading the Lakers over the Cleveland Cavaliers, 94-83, to advance on to the quarterfinals round Thursday night. He racked up 16 points, a dozen rebounds and 10 assists en route to his triple-double.

Ball continues to show his worth on both ends of the court in a full team effort. Kyle Kuzma led the Lakers with 20 points while Vander Blue tallied 18 for the victors.

Though he continues to impress, Ball was just 2-for-10 from beyond the arc. He’ll have to improve his long-range ball, but his progress in the paint continues to give him upside on the floor.

More than competent shooters around him makes his style a good fit. Blue and Kuzma were 7-of-11 and 7-of-14 from the field, respectively.

The Lakers face the Brooklyn Nets in quarterfinal action, Saturday.