Since it is becoming increasingly difficult to grab the attention of the modern media consumer, nearly every sport has claimed a holiday to separate itself from the pack. The NFL has Thanksgiving. For a long time New Year’s Day was synonymous with college football, and even the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest has claimed Independence Day. For the NBA, that holiday is Christmas Day.
Following the lockout in 2011, the NBA regular season started on Christmas Day. The most memorable moment from that slate of games was Kobe Bryant trying (and failing) to go one-on-three and lift the Lakers over Chicago at the buzzer. As The Ringer’s Shea Serrano put it:
“I can 100 percent be talked into the idea that Kobe felt that, in that moment, he was responsible for saving Christmas for the 4 million people who live in Los Angeles.”
Even in normal years when games start in October, Christmas Day has become the unofficial start of the season. College football awaits the important bowl games, and many NFL teams’ playoff hopes have been officially dashed. For the sports fan who casually tunes into the NBA when it’s convenient, Christmas might be the first time that fan will watch more than one game in the new season. Therefore, the Christmas Day slate represents the teams the league wants to present to the public, the best snapshot of the NBA.
The NBA Christmas lineup is out and includes a Warriors-Cavs rematch. pic.twitter.com/IxndU7o8hw
— ESPN (@espn) August 10, 2017
In addition to the 10 teams taking the floor this coming December, below are the matchups on Christmas Day dating back to 2008:
2016: Celtics-Knicks; Bulls-Spurs; Clippers-Lakers; Warriors-Cavaliers; Timberwolves-Thunder
2015: Pelicans-Heat; Bulls-Thunder; Cavaliers-Warriors; Spurs-Rockets; Clippers-Lakers
2014: Wizards-Knicks; Thunder-Spurs; Cavaliers-Heat; Lakers-Bulls; Warriors-Clippers
2013: Lakers-Heat; Bulls-Nets; Clippers-Warriors; Spurs/Rockets; Thunder-Knicks
2012: Celtics-Nets; Knicks-Lakers; Thunder-Heat; Rockets-Bulls; Nuggets-Clippers
2011: Celtics-Knicks; Heat-Mavericks; Bulls-Lakers; Magic-Thunder; Clippers-Warriors
2010: Bulls-Knicks; Celtics/Magic; Heat/Lakers; Nuggets/Thunder; Blazers/Warriors
2009: Heat/Knicks; Celtics-Magic; Cavaliers-Lakers; Clippers-Suns; Nuggets-Blazers
2008: Pelicans (then-Hornets)-Magic; Spurs-Suns; Lakers-Celtics; Wizards-Cavaliers; Mavericks-Blazers
Who exactly are the teams the league is choosing to represent it? Hint: not Charlotte or Memphis, the only two teams to have never played on Christmas Day. In the past 10 years, 21 different teams have appeared on the holiday (a reality enabled by the move to five games — the slate owned just one game in 2006), but the same teams generally appear again and again.
The Lakers have played all 10 seasons, which makes sense for the second-largest media market behind the New York teams, and probably the most divisive franchise in the league. The Thunder have appeared eight times, owing to the star power generated by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Seven appearances were made by the Knicks, Cavaliers, Warriors, Celtics, Bulls, Clippers, and Heat.
All those franchises come from top-10 media markets OR were perennially in the hunt for a championship, and/or featured LeBron James, arguably the most recognizable figure sports. Likewise, the Spurs (5 appearances) and Rockets and Magic (4 apiece) had — in their periods of prominence — the playoff success and star power to warrant the big stage (those were the Dwight Howard days in Orlando, remember). The Aldridge-Roy Blazers (3), Carmelo Nuggets (3), John Wall Wizards (3), Steve Nash Suns (2), and Dirk Nowitzki Mavericks (2) fall into a similar category.
We are left with four teams we might classify as those the league projected as “on the rise.” The Nets appeared in 2012, the year before they went all-in with the trade with Boston; that “rise” didn’t last too long before Brooklyn became an NBA abyss. Along with a Chris Paul-led New Orleans team in 2008, the league tried to showcase Anthony Davis in 2013 and 2015. Aside from a first-round sweep at the hands of the Warriors, the Pelicans haven’t experienced much success in a competitive Western Conference.
Finally, the Timberwolves of the past two seasons and the Sixers this year both hope to one day embody Drake’s “started from the bottom, now we’re here” motto. Even with Coach Thibs in town, Minnesota improved by only two games to 31 wins last season. The league is doubling down this year that Jimmy Butler’s arrival will do the trick. Similarly, Philadelphia is expected to compete for a playoff spot with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Markelle Fultz forming the foundation, and free-agent acquisition J.J. Redick fleshing out a deeper roster. The league is gambling that the injury bug won’t strike the Sixers as fiercely as in years past.
While appearances on Dec. 25 may be old hat (and maybe even somewhat bothersome) for fans in Los Angeles, Cleveland, New York, and the Bay Area, years from now, fans in Minnesota and Philadelphia will hope this Christmas represented the beginning of a new holiday tradition. In the NBA, much like the jingle of sleigh bells and the patter of reindeer hoofs, a game on Christmas Day means you have arrived.