My NBA Holiday Wish List
Featuring the best NBA rivalries today, a dream dunk contest, and more
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The NBA is in a weird place. It feels like half the league is in COVID protocols, and many other stars are injured. Oodles of teams have deviated from preseason projections, and there is less certainty on a night-to-night basis than I can remember in a long time.
But that’s not all bad! One of the fun things about all of the guys missing games is that it’s opened up new opportunities for many has-beens and never-wases who are trying to establish themselves as NBA players (sometimes for the second or third time!).
Familiar faces like Joe Johnson, Lance Stephenson, Ersan Ilyasovich, Isaiah Thomas, CJ Miles, Nik “Sauce Castillo” Stauskas, and others are wearing NBA laundry for the first time in years. It’s been a blast to see the names that infomongers Woj and Shams have been tweeting out.
Anyway, as we charge into the NBA’s Christmas Day games, I have a few wishes for the rest of the season.
Wish #1: We see injured stars again
Klay Thompson will be returning soon. I worry people’s hopes might be a little high for a man who hasn’t played basketball since months before COVID and who suffered two of the most devastating injuries a basketball player can have, but if anyone can bounce back, it’s Klay.
Other players like Jamal Murray and Kawhi Leonard have murkier return dates. Both the Nuggets and the Clippers are holding down the fort pretty well without their stars, and those players’ return will make a weak Western conference suddenly very, very intriguing for the playoffs. Murray is likely to return towards the end of the season, but Kawhi remains as inscrutable as ever.
Of course, Zion Williamson also remains a mystery. A series of setbacks have Pelicans fans disbelieving that we’ll see Zion at all this season, but I still have hope that he can return at some point. Even if it’s too late for the Pels to make a playoff push, just getting 20 games under his belt would be a huge help to a player who has less than 100 NBA games played to this point.
Zion needs the experience, and the Pels need to see how their gargantuan pogo stick fits in with their current core of Brandon Ingram (playing great!), Jonas Valanciuans (also playing great!), and assorted guards like Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Devonte’ Graham (who are decidedly not playing great). It would be good for Zion’s confidence to test out his foot a little in game settings, too, before the offseason begins.
I also want to see Ben Simmons back on the court. As ugly and muddled as his situation has been, Simmons’ rebound from that disastrous playoff ending last year will be must-see television - wherever he lands. He’s still a good enough player to be a difference-maker on certain teams.
And of course, I hope everyone in protocols emerges safely and can resume on-court activities without any lingering effects.
Wish #2: The Timberwolves are the 5-seed
I cannot stop watching Minnesota. A team filled with inconsistent but supremely talented players and bizarre characters (hey there, Patrick Beverley) makes for compelling viewing. This team has been bad for a long time, but I dare say that this might be the year they can win an actual series.
The West is extremely soft in the middle. Phoenix, Golden State, and of course Utah are all having historically great seasons. But after that? The Grizzlies are the current 4-seed and are only there because they ripped off a massive win streak after their best player, Ja Morant, got injured. That doesn’t sound like a particularly threatening team to me. The 5- and 7-seeds are the aforementioned Clippers and Nuggets, solid teams with a low ceiling unless their stars come back and immediately hit a high caliber of play.
The 6-seed, of course, is the Lakers, who have had plenty of struggles this year. And the 8-seed is the Mavericks, who have maybe two above-average players on the roster.
This is the year for the 9-seeded Wolves to make some noise. Any of these teams are capable of a big win streak, but looking at rosters and high-end talent, it feels like Minnesota has the edge. An engaged Karl-Anthony Towns can do things that no other player in the NBA can do and might actually be the “greatest big man shooter of all time” like he claims. Anthony Edwards has improved his shooting each month this year, averages 22 points per game, and leads the league in attempted murders:
D’Angelo Russell, weirdly, has been playing defense and is still hitting clutch buckets. My love for Jarred Vanderbilt is well known. Minny is a fun team with so much upside, and they’re very telegenic for a neutral audience.
But, of course, it’s Minnesota, and nothing good ever happens to the Timberwolves. And they’re not going to beat the three Western titans. That’s why my wish is for them to snag the five-seed and have a chance to play meaningful basketball for at least one playoff round.
Wish #3: We have a killer dunk contest
Contrary to popular belief, the dunk contests have been generally quite entertaining for the last decade (last year’s snoozefest was an exception). The league is absolutely stacked with high-flyers, but let’s hope we get the true crème de la crème this year. My ideal dunk contest:
Anthony Edwards (see above). We need this. I need this.
Kenyon Martin Jr:
Isaac Okoro, for one of my favorite dunks in memory. The way three different Rockets carom off him is both visually pleasing and a real-life science experiment proving the existence of Newton’s Third Law:
Okoro is having a minor renaissance this year in Cleveland as a shooting guard despite still not having an outside shot! Something to watch.
Gary Payton II:
Wish #4: Rivalries return
It feels like the strangeness of the last two seasons has somewhat dampened NBA rivalries. Players move around a lot more, many have pre-existing relationships from high school and AAU, and it’s rare for teams to develop genuine enmity for each other in the way they used to.
But there are some tasty butcher cuts of beef still out there! Here’s hoping that the matchups below can happen in the playoffs, where tempers often flare and talk gets trashier. The league is more fun with rivalries!
Mavericks vs. Clippers
Two straight years these teams have met in the playoffs, and two consecutive years the Clippers have put the Mavs down for a disappointing first-round exit. The Clippers are arguably the worst possible matchup for the Mavericks, with ace defenders Paul George and Kawhi Leonard both available to throw at Luka, plus a bevy of strong supporting defenders like Marcus Morris (who controversially stepped on a gimpy Luka’s ankle two years ago and fired up both teams). Since then, the two teams have generally said respectful things about each other, but it’s clear there’s no love lost. I’d love to see a third battle between them.
The Timberwolves vs. Rudy Gobert
This one requires a little background. I don’t know why, but the Wolves are convinced that 3x Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert sucks at defense. Recently, Anthony Edwards said that Gobert “is the same as everyone else…To me, the best rim protector in the league is [Dallas player Kristaps] Porzingis. Every time I go against Porzingis, I don’t get no layups. I don’t get why we couldn’t finish against Rudy Gobert, he doesn’t put any fear in my heart.”
That same day, Patrick Beverley said, “If I’m Defensive Player of the Year, I’m always guarding the best player no matter what, I’m not roaming…You got Rudy Gobert out there guarding (Jarred) Vanderbilt. And he’s talking about he’s Defensive Player of the Year. So, uh, whatever.” PBev somehow slandered his teammate Vanderbilt and Gobert at the same time. Rude!
For context, these quotes came after Gobert and the Jazz ANNIHILATED the Wolves 136-104 two weeks ago. So, weird timing. The Jazz defeated a protocols-ravaged Wolves again last night, too, but Minnesota did go 3-0 against Utah last season. So there’s something brewing over there. Edwards, Beverley, and Gobert are not shy with their opinions, so I’m sure that this nascent beef will age into a tasty prime rib soon.
Steph Curry vs. Lebron James
Although they’ve always said nice things about each other in the press, you can’t play someone four straight years in the Finals without developing a little hostility. Familiarity breeds contempt, after all:
It’s entirely possible that the Lakers and Warriors end up in a first-round clash, and it would be incredible to see their rivalry renewed in the playoffs once again. Each player’s fans also take great delight in poking holes in the other player’s resume, so a rematch between the two would undoubtedly get NBA Twitter fired up.
Heat vs. Bucks
There aren’t really hard feelings between the Heat and the Bucks, but they’ve become familiar foes. The Heat summarily dismissed a 1-seeded Bucks team in the 2019-2020 bubble en route to their surprise appearance in the Finals. Being dispatched in such an easy fashion caused the Bucks to rethink their entire offensive and defensive approach, and they traded for point guard Jrue Holiday that offseason to bolster their squad. Milwaukee then destroyed Miami in the 2021 playoffs, enacting revenge on the way to the NBA Championship.
PJ Tucker was a Buck last season but has switched to the fair-weather city, adding a little personal intrigue. He’ll likely be a primary defender against old teammate Giannis in a playoff series. Quietly, Giannis still hasn’t quite figured out how to solve Miami’s pack-line defense. Even last year’s sweep of Miami had more to do with Milwaukee’s lockdown defense on the Heat and sharp outside shooting than individual dominance from Antetokounmpo.
Miami is 2-1 this season against Milwaukee, although we haven’t seen a game where both teams were at full strength, and it feels like these two are destined to clash in the spring for the third time in a match that may decide the fate of the Eastern Conference.
Happy holidays to you all, and thanks for reading! By the way, click below for my HoopSocial article on the All-Time Miami Heat Team.
Until next time, enjoy basketball.
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