Christmas Day marks a major day in the sports world. That day belongs to basketball. For many casual fans Christmas day is the day they mark as the unofficial beginning of the season and usually one of the highest ratings getters for the league. (Golden State vs Lakers drew 6.5 in 2018). One would assume that the NBA would want to throw out the best games they can for viewers and really try to create interesting matchups that would keep the casual viewer tuning into the marquee matchups all season, but does the NBA actually do that?
While the NBA usually includes many teams in the league that are quite popular, including the Warriors, Thunder, and any team Lebron James is on, the NBA has a way of snubbing teams that may be seen come playoff time and gaining followers throughout the season. The biggest 2018 Christmas game snub was the Toronto Raptors. The “We The North” squad have become one of the must see teams in the league not only this year but for the past few years. They captured the #1 seed in the east last season before collapsing against the Lebron James led Cavs. Then in the offseason, they added Kwahi Leonard in a trade that shook their entire roster. With a star like Kwahi and coming off the #1 seed in the east it seemed like the Raptors would have been a top pick for a Christmas game, but instead the league stuck with the New York Knicks. The Knicks are in rebuilding mode for a while now and while they did add exciting rookies in Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson, the NBA knew Knicks star Kristaps Porzingas would still be out dealing with an injury around this time of the year. The Knicks hosted the home game and lost 109-95 against a very good Milwaukee Bucks team as the Knicks continue to struggle. Would a Raptors vs Bucks game on Christmas have been more interesting and drawn a better audience? Or should the league stick with tradition and the big market team who hasn’t been relevant since Carmelo Anthony was there.
Looking back to Christmas games within the past 5 years, there have been several teams to look at and question why these teams are getting a marquee game over other teams. In 2013, Kobe Bryant’s Lakers faced off against the Lebron James led Heat. Kobe was coming off a torn achilles injury and did not even play. Instead, we were left with a game with the Lakers being led by Nick Young, Xavier Henry and Jodie Meeks. While the game was decent enough, the Heat won and many probably took a siesta during this one. Instead of the Kobeless Lakers, the NBA could have opted to bring the Indiana Pacers on to play the Heat. The Pacers that season finished at 56-26 and were the #1 seed in the East.
In 2014, the Knicks are once again the highlight of teams that should have been home on Christmas Day. They had failed to make the playoffs the season before, and were attempting to add the triangle offense, installed by new coach Derek Fisher and team executive Phil Jackson, to a team that had Carmelo Anthony with the support of J.R. Smith and overpaid big men. A far cry from the triangle offense used by a Jordan and Pippen combo or a Kobe and Shaq. The Knicks lost by 11 at home to the Wizards who only managed a 5 seed that season in the East. Left sitting at home that season and snubbed was the Atlanta Hawks, a 60 win team, who clinched a playoff spot on March 3 of that year, which was the earliest that had been done at the time since the 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls team. The Hawks surge would have made for an interesting playoff preview against the Wizards instead of seeing Washington taking on a Knicks team that only won 37 games the year prior.
2015 had several candidates who probably had no business suiting up on Christmas Day. The Pelicans and Bulls both missed the playoffs but had Christmas day games, but the biggest one for 2015 would have to be the Lakers. They were 21-61 on the in 2014 and finished 14th in the West and lost to the Bulls 113-93 to the Bulls on Christmas the year before. They had acquired D’Angelo Russell and still had Kobe Bryant, but fell to a much better Clippers team. Imagine putting a team like the Toronto Raptors in that spot or the Portland Trailblazers or even the Atlanta Hawks who had showed what they could do the season before. While it was always fun to watch Kobe, showcasing the up and coming talent may have been the better move in this instance.
Once 2016 rolled in, the league still valued the Lakers and Knicks over many teams. However there is one team that was too young to be in this high marquee of a game and that’s the Minnesota Timberwolves. While the Wolves had a roster full of young talent, they were playing the Oklahoma City Thunder who took the young team apart 112-100. Any of these 3 teams could have been switched out with the Jazz or Blazer who were both in the process of getting better and making waves. Once again, to echo it year in and year out, the Toronto Raptors got the snub yet again. As a matter of fact, the Raptors are 0-1 on Christmas day all time, losing to the Knicks in 2001, which the Knicks were not seen on Christmas day again until 2009.
Finally we get to the 2017 season and it seems like a repeat of what was said earlier. Only 2 teams that played on Christmas last season did not make the playoffs and that would be the Knicks and the Lakers. While last season I could understand putting a very young Lakers squad on the slate, the Knicks had no business being here. The San Antonio Spurs had no Christmas day game and neither did the eventual #1 seed in the east, which was again the Toronto Raptors.
After what we saw in the 2018 season, it’s clear that the NBA is trying to keep large markets happy, but one may think that it’s at the expense of the fans who watch. These are just a few specific examples in the past 5 years to show. While the schedule is made well ahead of time, I think it is time to stop rewarding teams that struggle and year in and year out with big time marquee games just because of the city they are in. I think the league needs to consider the best game for us the viewers instead of a particular market. If a team wants a Christmas day game, they should earn that game. It’s time to stop catering to the big markets and getting more small markets involved if the NBA wants to become more balanced as a league.