Instead of running through The Five Most Interesting Teams in the NBA This Week, we’re shifting focus to our annual marathon celebration of the many gifts the NBA has to offer: the Christmas Day quintuple-header. The five-game slate tips off with a matinee at Madison Square Garden between the Bucks and Knicks before moving on to Rockets vs. Thunder, Celtics vs. 76ers, Warriors vs. Lakers in prime time, and Jazz vs. Trail Blazers in the nightcap.
Let’s take a look at the five most interesting story lines we could come up with surrounding Tuesday’s games, starting with the gift that keeps on giving …
Is LeBron vs. the Warriors the Best Rivalry in the NBA?
It is, but largely by default. Teams don’t stay together like they used to, and they don’t stack playoff matchups against one another with the regularity required to develop the sort of familiarity that breeds the right kind of contempt. It’s bonkers that the Warriors and LeBron James’s Cavs accomplished this by rampaging through their respective conferences to wind up seeing one another in four consecutive Junes.
No team vs. team matchup in the NBA’s player movement era has the requisite heat to match what James carried with him to L.A. after four straight Finals appearances. The Warriors, with their earned imperiousness, don’t seem to truly see anyone else as a peer besides the guy who, once upon a time, went apeshit for three games in a row to do the impossible. (Except, maybe, the other guy who did that. There’s a reason why multiple Warriors picked Kyrie Irving’s new team as the one that worried them most heading into the season.)
There are other options, I suppose. Warriors-Thunder still has a heartbeat—especially after OKC annihilated the Warriors at Oracle last month—but it doesn’t have quite as much juice as it did in the first year after Kevin Durant went west and Russell Westbrook went for Instagram’s little-known cupcake filter. Ditto for Warriors-Rockets, which was beautiful while it lasted, but now feels like a firework that burned bright and faded away in the smoke of a hamstring injury and 27 straight clanks.
Sixers-Celtics has a rich and storied tradition of belligerence, but it’s gotten back into the swing of things only now that both teams are good; one five-game playoff series does not a proper rivalry make. Celtics-Wizards had a moment there—may we never forget the beautiful lunacy of “the funeral game”—but it fizzled faster than you can say, “Man, John Wall just did not even move on that possession.” Joel Embiid tries to chop down every opponent he faces, but if Hassan Whiteside and Andre Drummond fall in the forest, do their grumblings really make a sound?
Even if they do, it’s nowhere near as loud as the sound the basketball-watching world makes when LeBron, KD, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, or Draymond Green—maybe especially Draymond Green—says or does just about anything about one another. This is planets colliding, superstar shit. Nothing this league of stars can offer could generate quite the same wattage, no matter which city LeBron’s mega-brand calls home; that he just so happens to wear perhaps the most iconic uniform in the sport doesn’t hurt one bit.
Who’s Had the Better Career Post-Trade: James Harden or Russell Westbrook?
Harden started his career as a secondary creator in Oklahoma City coming off the bench behind Westbrook and Durant. He developed into the Thunder’s answer to Manu Ginobili: a dynamic lefty pick-and-roll playmaker whose willingness to come off the bench helped turn his team into a contender, but who was also clearly overqualified for a sixth-man role. Given Durant and Westbrook had already signed to second contracts, Harden and Serge Ibaka were eligible for extensions of their rookie deal, and the fear of triggering major luxury-tax bills by paying to keep their young core intact, the Thunder chose to move Harden—whose breathtaking offensive skills were considered at least somewhat redundant with those of Westbrook and Durant—in favor of hanging onto defensive linchpin Ibaka, saving some money, and trying to build a title team with what they had left over. (They came close a couple of times.)
Six years after Harden’s trade to Houston—which, weird as it sounds, is twice as long as he was in OKC—all parties involved have moved on. While Durant’s the only one to win a title, Westbrook and Harden have also cemented themselves as faces of the league. They are All-NBA mainstays, two of the most productive offensive players in the world, and the two most recent regular-season MVPs. But which has been better since their separation?
Harden made the All-Star team all six seasons; Westbrook has gone 5-for-6, missing out in 2014 after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. Both have made five All-NBA appearances since the trade, with Westbrook missing out in the injury-shortened 2013-14 season, and Harden falling off the ballot, despite historic production, following a slog of a 2015-16 campaign. (Harden’s got four first team nods to Westbrook’s two.) They’ve each finished in the top five in MVP voting four times and won once: Westbrook in 2016-17, Harden last season. Not much separation there.
The statistical case is similarly tight. According to Basketball-Reference.com, Harden has scored more, both per game and per possession, and has scored more efficiently, thanks to significantly higher free throw and 3-point rates, and higher shooting percentages from the stripe and the arc. Westbrook has been a more voracious rebounder, assisted on a higher share of his teammates’ baskets, and posted a lower turnover rate despite using more of his team’s offensive possessions. Win shares favor Harden. Box plus-minus favors Westbrook. Value over replacement player is close, but tilts slightly Harden’s way; player efficiency rating is close, but leans a tad toward Westbrook.
Russ’s postseason numbers outstrip Harden’s by a hair—27.7 points per game to 27.6, with Harden’s advantage in shooting efficiency decreasing a bit and Westbrook nudging ahead in VORP. But Westbrook has also played 12 fewer playoff games and 457 fewer playoff minutes during this span, thanks to OKC missing the playoffs in the injury-plagued 2014-15 season. Both players have made the Western Conference finals twice, and made it to a Game 7 in the WCF once; neither has returned to the NBA Finals since their last season as teammates.
That there’s a thin gap between their production and success feels appropriate for two players whose gifts are so inarguable, but whose application of them—Harden in the foul-hunting that earns him derision as a chiseler, Westbrook in the rebound-gobbling that has somehow led people to start viewing averaging a friggin’ triple-double as less than impressive—can sometimes rub fans the wrong way. It also feels instructive.
As remarkable as they are individually, the careers of Harden and Westbrook have been defined in the context of their partnerships with other stars. For Harden, it’s about how things fell apart with Dwight Howard, how close he came last season with Chris Paul, and how much his shot at a title depends on CP3 staying elite through a white-knuckler of a contract. For Westbrook, it’s about how things fell apart with Durant, and how he and the Thunder have found new life this season by handing the reins a bit more to Paul George, who has been phenomenal. You can’t do it alone in this league. In that way, six years after their separation, Westbrook and Harden remain tied together.
Is Giannis Antetokounmpo the MVP So Far?
The arrivals of coach Mike Budenholzer, his five-out offense, and perfect-fit stretch 5 Brook Lopez have unlocked Antetokounmpo like never before. The 6-foot-11 marvel can now trample through newfound acres of space all the way to the rim, leaving legions of overwhelmed defenders in his wake. He’s ninth in the league in scoring, pouring in buckets more efficiently than ever, while also grabbing rebounds, dishing assists, and getting to the free throw line at career-best rates. The Greek Freak’s young-Shaq-like performance at the rim has allowed him to dominate despite a still-buffering jumpshot—all while credibly guarding all five positions. If he was a league-average 3-point shooter, he might be the perfect modern basketball player. Even though he isn’t, he might still be the 2018-19 Most Valuable Player.
He also might not be. Anthony Davis and Harden have been historically productive one-man armies. Kawhi Leonard and Nikola Jokic, whose Raptors and Nuggets lead the East and West, have the “best player on the best team so far” argument in their favor. Curry and Durant might split the ballot, but they’ll certainly still be in the discussion. Joel Embiid has been a monster for a Sixers team that’s desperately needed it; ditto for George in Oklahoma City. LeBron is, well, LeBron. There are other choices.
That doesn’t mean any of those other choices is the right one. Antetokounmpo has been this season’s most undeniable player, transcending from the opening tip and pushing the boundaries of his game to make space for Milwaukee to become something it hasn’t been in ages: a legitimate title contender. This time last year, the Bucks were only a couple of games over .500 with a negative point differential. Now, they enter Christmas at 22-10, second in the East behind only Toronto, with the NBA’s no. 2 offense, no. 4 defense, and best net rating, and it all starts with Antetokounmpo. Without him, the Bucks are a curiosity, a smart scheme in search of a reason to believe; with him, they might have everything they need to make the Finals. (Their defense, a drop pick-and-roll coverage that gives 3-point-shooting ball handlers and pick-and-pop bigs all day to rise and fire, might be the X factor there.)
Antetokounmpo put up MVP-type numbers in his last trip to MSG, scoring 33 points with 19 rebounds in a losing effort. While he came away with an L, he also picked up the motivation to do even more this time around, thanks to one bold step by Mario Hezonja:
I don’t know if Giannis would use Christmas, of all days, to follow through on his promise to strike Hezonja directly in the testicles to exact revenge for his disrespect. But the possibility that he will—along with the general chance to watch one of the league’s truly unique talents strut his stuff—might be the best reason to make sure you’re in front of your TV early.
Who Has the Better Big Three: Philly or Boston?
Answering this question requires identifying the members of each team’s trio first.
That’s pretty easy for the Sixers. Philadelphia features Embiid, now bulldozing his way into the MVP conversation. There’s also Ben Simmons, a nightly triple-double threat who continues to grade out as one of the NBA’s best defensive point guards, and one of the most versatile defenders period; according to Krishna Narsu’s defensive positional data, he’s one of just 14 players who has spent at least 10 percent of his minutes guarding players at all five positions. And now there’s Jimmy Butler, a four-time All-Star and All-Defensive team selection who’s filling in the gaps and playing the hero when Philly needs one. The Sixers are 13-4 with Butler in the lineup and outscoring opponents by a healthy 16.5 points per 100 possessions with the three stars on the floor; the trade damaged their depth, but it gave them the jolt of top-end talent they needed to stay within hailing distance of the Raptors and Bucks atop the East.
The Celtics have also surged of late, bouncing back from a sluggish .500 start to win eight consecutive games after shuffling their starting lineup. But picking out their three best players is a pretty interesting exercise.
You’d probably start with Kyrie Irving, the All-Star point guard who leads the Celtics in scoring and assists. He is Boston’s offensive bellwether; the Celtics have scored 14.7 more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor than when he’s off it. Al Horford’s numbers are down virtually across the board, and he recently missed seven straight games because of left knee pain, but he’s still a vital secondary playmaker and floor-spacing shooter in Boston’s offense, as well as the quarterback of a defense that ranks third in defensive efficiency; when healthy, he’s probably your second pick. (Though it’s worth noting that Boston’s starting lineup has been even stingier with backup Aron Baynes in the middle.) And then … well, it depends on the day.
That second pick is supposed to be Gordon Hayward, the All-Star swingman the Celtics signed to a max deal two summers ago. But after a catastrophic leg injury that cost him all but five minutes of last season, his shooting touch and burst have been slow to come back, relegating him to a reserve role. It might be Jayson Tatum, who appears to have shaken off his summer-stoked Mamba mentality and settled back into the shotmaking rhythm that made him such an offensive force as a rookie. Or Marcus Morris, who is having the best season of his career while adding toughness and snarl to the Celtics’ frontcourt. Or Marcus Smart, who might never shoot 40 percent from the floor, but who guards everybody, makes every extra pass, and always seems to come up with the loose ball the Celtics need.
Philly and Boston’s rosters represent a clash between the most recent successful trend in roster construction (get the best Big Three you can) and what seems to be a new style (stack as much depth as possible). Embiid, Butler, and Simmons are all great. Now we’ll find out whether that’s enough to win when the other team is overflowing with “pretty damn good.”
Who Would You Rather Build a Team Around: Damian Lillard or Donovan Mitchell?
Lillard and Mitchell took different paths to the NBA. The former needed four years at Weber State to build himself into a prospect; the latter was highly touted out of high school, picking Louisville from a slew of power-conference offers. Once they reached the league, though — Lillard with 2012’s sixth overall pick, Mitchell 13th in 2017 — their careers began to take a similar shape.
They started as underdogs, with Lillard needing to shed the small-school stigma, and the über-athletic Mitchell having to prove his playmaking bona fides after watching seven guards come off the board before him. Both quickly emerged as legitimate backcourt scorers on teams built around all-star-caliber big men (Lillard with LaMarcus Aldridge in Portland, Mitchell with Rudy Gobert in Utah). Lillard hit a series-winning, buzzer-beating 3 in his first-ever playoff series; Mitchell became a breakout star by pushing the Jazz past the Thunder in his postseason debut. Neither wasted any time in establishing himself as a foundational piece for his team’s future. But which one’s the best bet to build around now?
There’s a lot to like about Mitchell, even as he stumbles through a sophomore slump during which his accuracy and shot selection have both come up wanting. With his size, athleticism, and capacity to create his own shot, Mitchell has the tools to one day become one of the league’s top offensive players. But Lillard already is. He’s a considerably better player right now, one of the very best point guards in the world, and I’m bullish on his chances of staying at or near this level for a while.
Lillard has three All-NBA selections in the past five seasons, including a first team nod last season. He has been just as productive and efficient this season, averaging 27.1 points, 5.9 assists, and 4.8 rebounds per game while posting career-high effective field goal and true shooting percentages. He also manages to balance his remorselessness as a pull-up shooter from beyond the arc — only three players are attempting more off-the-bounce triples this season, and Lillard’s shooting a higher percentage than all of them — with a caretaker’s mindset with the ball. Among players who have finished more than 30 percent of their teams’ possessions with a shot attempt, foul drawn, or turnover this season, only Kemba Walker has a lower turnover rate.
Lillard combines scheme-busting range and the willingness to bomb away if given even an inch of space off a screen with a knack for manipulating the chessboard in the pick-and-roll to make the right play for himself or his teammates. That array of skills makes him one of the most efficient and effective high-volume creators in the sport — a player at the peak of his powers, smack in the middle of the prime of his career.
You could spin Lillard’s experience in Mitchell’s favor. While the 28-year-old Lillard is unlikely to get any better than he is right now, Mitchell’s just 22, in only his second NBA season. He’s still a half-decade away from his athletic apex, with plenty of time to develop the court awareness, shot-making talent, and pick-and-roll prowess that make the current iteration of Dame so damn good. (He’s already got the “taking care of the ball” part down; Mitchell’s turning it over on only 12 percent of his offensive possessions this season, a very strong number for someone with the ball in his hands that much.)
Choose to build around him and you’re getting the whole of a player’s ascent rather than paying for past performance and locking yourself into the decline that can come quickly for point guards once they reach the wrong side of 30. Mitchell’s also a superior defender. He has the size (about 20 pounds heavier than Lillard, with a wingspan two inches longer) and instincts to defend either guard spot, making him a more versatile and valuable piece on that end of the court than Lillard, who has at times gotten bullied by bigger guards. Not having to hide your point guard is a big deal come the playoffs, and the Jazz — the league’s top defense last season, and its no. 7 outfit this season — don’t have to worry about opponents exploiting Mitchell when they need a stop with the game on the line.
The defensive difference matters, but — to me, at least — not as much as the discrepancy on the other end. Maybe Mitchell does strip away some of the junk food in his offensive diet, trading blind drives into traffic and heaves over double coverage for simpler plays and rhythm jumpers. But if I had to bet my franchise on Mitchell becoming a reliably above-average 3-point shooter whose playmaking makes life easier for his teammates and who consistently impacts games without taking 20 shots a night, I wouldn’t be too comfortable making that wager. Not when I could have a guy who can already do those things, who has already shown he can share the floor and the ball with another high-usage scorer (CJ McCollum), who draws raves for his on- and off-court leadership, and whose game is predicated less on a lightning-quick first step or unreal bounce than on craft, durability, and marksmanship.
I think Lillard’s a good bet to age gracefully. That helps mitigate the six-year age difference, and makes me feel more confident in choosing him over Utah’s exciting youngster as the cornerstone of my backcourt.
An earlier version of this story misstated the season OKC missed the playoffs. It was not the 2016-17 season, the team’s first without Durant, but 2014-15, when the Thunder were set back by injuries.