Christmas Day is the best time of year for NBA fans. For years, the sport has dominated that day, hosting five-game slates with some of the regular season’s most intriguing matchups. Here we go again.
One thing the league has tried to do lately is promote younger players and stars, not only the best teams. It also tends to promote the biggest markets — which is why the Knicks and the Lakers are almost always locks.
On Thursday, the NBA announced this season’s Christmas slate. Note that all times are Eastern.
Noon | Sixers at Knicks (ESPN)
Philadelphia hasn’t played on Christmas Day since 2001, a 16-year drought that will finally end this year. It’s sooner than expected, but like the previous two years (New Orleans and Minnesota), the NBA is attempting to highlight a young, up-and-coming team. The 76ers — with two No. 1 picks prepared to make their season debuts, plus a hopefully healthy Joel Embiid — are exactly that.
This is the 52nd appearance on Christmas Day for the Knicks, by far the most of any franchise. They’re a historic team in the league’s biggest market, and they do have a budding star in Kristaps Porzingis. But this is mostly about New York, and the 8.6 million people who live there. Pitting two young teams against each other to begin the Christmas Day slate is a chance for the NBA to introduce viewers to its budding new young stars.
Here we go again. The two behemoths of the two conferences are favored to meet each other in the finals for a fourth straight season. Both their paths got harder — Gordon Hayward to Boston and Chris Paul to Houston, respectively — but no roadblock has slowed down the transcendent Warriors or the nearly unstoppable LeBron James so far.
For the past couple of seasons on Christmas, this has been the league’s matinee game, the one that you can’t miss. Hopefully you aren’t tired of this matchup yet, because we sure aren’t. And with a Kyrie Irving trade request probably shaking things up between now and then, it won’t be your same ol’ matchup, either.
This is arguably the best rivalry going in the Eastern Conference, since Cavaliers vs. anyone hasn’t really been a rivalry over the past three seasons. Washington and Boston went to a Game 7 in last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals, with the Celtics only barely squeezing through with a win. Now, the Celtics will be tasked with doing the same thing on Christmas Day.
Washington is still somehow extremely young, with a 26-year-old John Wall and 24-year-old Bradley Beal. Boston, meanwhile, finally cashed in on a huge name for the first time this summer, signing Gordon Hayward. They’re otherwise pretty similar to the team they were last year, although team president Danny Ainge still has plenty of assets to throw around. This game definitely deserves the 5 p.m. slot — there’s no doubt about that.
Houston could’ve sat tight, reminded everyone it had the third-best record in the regular season, and brought back the crew last season. Instead, the Rockets traded for Chris Paul and still might grab Carmelo Anthony before the season officially starts. It’s a small gamble, but it’s one the team felt it had to take — and for good reason.
Likewise, Oklahoma City gave up a couple of decent assets for Paul George, who may run off to Los Angeles next summer. But the Thunder were in a similar boat — they lost in the first round despite the Russell Westbrook show last season, they are in danger of losing Westbrook in free agency, and they had to make something happen. For the Thunder to pull off that trade without even giving up a draft pick, they have to feel good about the outcome, no matter what George does in free agency.
10:30 p.m. | Timberwolves at Lakers (TNT)
Only New York can claim more Christmas Day appearances than Los Angeles, who has been on 44 times come Dec. 25. The Lakers are the only Los Angeles team to appear this season, after several straight where the Clippers and Blake Griffin faced their crosstown foes. Los Angeles has reasons to be excited, though, and most of them relate back directly to second overall pick Lonzo Ball. It’s a young team, and the playoffs are almost impossible to reach — but this should be fun.
The Timberwolves are much further down the road now thanks to a Jimmy Butler trade. They added Taj Gibson in free agency and now boast a starting lineup of those two, Jeff Teague, Andrew Wiggins, and the rising star Karl-Anthony Towns. The question is no longer whether they’ll make the playoffs, but what seed they can obtain.
Christmas Day is a perfect showcase for the Timberwolves, whose young and exciting brand of basketball (as much as Tom Thibodeau will allow any team to have fun) should intrigue anyone who isn’t familiar with the team.