For many, the NBA season begins on Christmas, but a whole lot has happened already that you may have missed.
Consider this piece a gift on two levels. For those who are more interested in soccer, baseball, or football and haven’t paid as close attention to the NBA as they’d like, this can catch you up on all that you’ve missed so far this season (both on and off the court). For those so into the NBA that you can sometimes forget everything that’s happened, consider this a Christmastime refresher.
We’ve listed what we think are the nine most important things that have happened in the NBA so far this season, from team drama to wild shake-ups in the standings to mysterious injuries to offseason regrets. Enjoy.
The Jimmy Butler saga
There’s no way you could have missed the entire Jimmy Butler saga if you have even a passing interest in the NBA, and that whole crisis defies easy explanation. The short version is that Butlerdecided he did not want to remain in Minnesota over the summer, announced that to the world just before training camp, and had a stand-off with the Timberwolves until being traded to the Sixers in November.
That stand-off includes a social media war of words with teammate Andrew Wiggins that somehow brought Stephen Jackson into the mix, it included a hilarious and awful impromptu scrimmage against Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, and it included more exclusive interviews than Barbara Walters could land. What a mess.
The upshot is that the Wolves are happier but worse, the Sixers are better, Jimmy’s reputation has taken a tumble, and Tom Thibodeau is probably out of a job this summer.
KD vs. Draymond
One of the saltier internecine battles of the season happened between Kevin Durant and Draymond Green. With Stephen Curry out due to the injury and away from the team, Durantexpressed displeasure at Green for failing to give him the ball on a crunch time possession that Green eventually threw away. Draymond took issue with Durant’s critique, and a yelling match erupted with poor Klay Thompson unable to defuse it.
Green apparently said some things about Durant’s refusal to commit to Golden State long-term, and dropped a few b-words, getting him suspended by the team for one game. Neither he nor Durant seemed particularly happy in the aftermath, though they’ve moved on by now.
In a stacked rookie class, Luka Doncic stood out as the player with the best chance to be a franchise cornerstone and future MVP. Why? Because at age 19, he was winning MVP trophies in the second-best competition in the world, Euroleague. Because at age 19, he was leading his country to a shocking European championship. Because at age 19, he very clearly knew how to play basketball at a high level.
What a surprise that he’s been the NBA’s best rookie, even amid a stellar rookie class.
The Mavericks have a future because of Doncic. This dude has people singing for him. He’s a runaway Rookie of the Year choice even with other rookies like Deandre Ayton and Jaren Jackson Jr. putting together very good debuts. Luka has been every bit the revelation his biggest boosters imagined. He’s going to matter in this league for a long time.
LeBron has made the Lakers relevant again
Perhaps the least surprising development of the season is that the mere presence of LeBron James — still at the peak of his powers — has made the moribund Lakers awesome again. King James is playing at an MVP contender level (as he has every year for about 13 straight years) and that, plus some modest improvement from a couple of the young players, has gotten L.A. into the playoff mix.
The Lakers enter Christmas tied for the No. 4 seed after riding a five-year playoff drought, the longest in franchise history. There was concern in the preseason that moving West could cost LeBron a playoff berth given the West’s depth and the Lakers’ odd roster, but come on. He would never have done that to himself.
Perhaps the only surprising thing is how unsurprising this all is. We’ve already had rumors about a rift with the coach, about a desire for trades, about a desire the team sign his buddy. But that all feels formulaic and unserious. This has really been some fairly boring excellence. Just what L.A. has needed.
The Markelle Fultz situation gets weirder
Poor Markelle Fultz, who was named a starter in preseason, but continued to have shoulder trouble into the season, leading to some viral highlights (highlights?) and something like three dozen medical opinions and eventually a diagnosis that would seem to answer some questions. It’s unclear whether Fultz will ever play for the Sixers again. It’s becoming clearer that he will not be the player we all thought he was coming out of Washington.
Disappointment in Boston and Houston
Many picked the Celtics to win the East, and folks had high hopes for the Rockets, who came within a historic shooting slump of knocking off the Warriors and getting to the NBA Finals last season. But Boston has struggled to figure out how to fit the pieces together, leading to a post-loss team meeting just last weekend. Meanwhile, Houston has struggled to get healthy and to figure out how to fill the Trevor Ariza-sized gap in its roster.
The Celtics have a top-3 defense anchored by Al Horford and Marcus Smart again, but have an average offense despite Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, and Gordon Hayward in the rotation. There’s an argument gurgling that too many cooks in the kitchen are spoiling dinner. Will Danny Ainge press ahead to clean up the mess … or wait for the biggest prize (Anthony Davis) to be available before touching his asset base?
The Rockets’ slip was a little more predictable, if still not predicted. After a slow start Houston’s offense is back in the top five, but the defense has been among the league’s worst. It’s not just Ariza, though his absence matters. Chris Paul has been dinged up (and will miss about two more weeks) and no one else is defending at a high level. You wonder if they knew they blew their best chance last year.
With the Celtics and Rockets disappointing, two teams have stepped into their places at the top of the conferences.
With new coach Mike Budenholzer and contract-year jumps by Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe, the Milwaukee Bucks have been absolutely electric. The Bucks have the league’s No. 2 offense and No. 4 defense, using length in opposition and a spread attack with lots of shooters around MVP-caliber Giannis Antetokounmpo on the other end. It’s been quite magical, and the Bucks would be kings of the East if not for the excellent Raptors.
The Denver Nuggets enter Christmas Day a tenth of a percentage point ahead of the Warriors for No. 1 in the West. This is a team that missed the playoffs last season — what a leap!
How have they done it? Nikola Jokic is in the MVP conversation, Paul Millsap got the defense together before suffering a recent injury, and everyone is pretty much firing on all cylinders. It’s notable that the biggest offseason addition hasn’t been Isaiah Thomas or Michael Porter Jr., neither of whom have played yet. It’s been Monte Morris, a second-round rookie giving Denver excellent minutes and making the nihilists among us wonder if the Nuggets shouldn’t find a way to break up with I.T. before he gets healthy.
Wild, wild West
There are 14 teams in the playoff hunt in the West. The season is almost halfway over. This is ridiculous. Nine teams are within five games of the No. 1 seed, and everyone in the entire conference is within three games of the No. 8 seed, except the Phoenix Suns.
Before the season, there was debate on whether the Mavericks would make a run with Luka Doncic and DeAndre Jordan (they have, little thanks to the latter), whether the Grizzlies would bounce back after an injury-ridden season (they have), whether the Clippers and Nuggets could stay good (they did), whether LeBron could make the Lakers respectable (yep), whether the Spurscould stay relevant (uh huh), whether the Pelicans had enough around AD to stick around (sorta), whether the SACRAMENTO KINGS of all heavens-forsaked franchises had found something magical (against all odds, yes).
Surely, some teams will drop out as we traipse through January and skip through February. But WHO? But WHEN?
The upshot is that just about every intra-conference games starring West teams means something right now. It makes for very fun scoreboard watching, even this far from April.
Waiting on Anthony Davis
The Pelicans are not particularly good, having regressed a little from last season’s magical run. Julius Randle has been great as an offseason pick-up, but backcourt and wing issues have been apparent. New Orleans is totally in the mix for a playoff spot, but one presumes that the Pelicans need more to call this season a success.
That’s because the Pels can offer Anthony Davis a supermax contract this summer, one that would go into effect when his current deal expires in 2020. This season was seen as critical in convincing Davis he could win championships in New Orleans. That doesn’t seem to be panning out.
We don’t know what’s in Davis’s mind or heart, only what he tells us when asked (and he’s being asked with increasing frequency). The outlook isn’t good for New Orleans, though. That means that we could very well be watching the final days of Anthony Davis as a New Orleans Pelican.