The NBA season kicks into high gear this weekend, and The Shadow League convened our round-table of basketball experts to break down their thoughts, insights and observations, Wu-Tang-style, on the league's scrumptious holiday offering on Christmas Day with the Knicks vs the Celtics, the Warriors vs the Cavaliers, the Bulls vs the Spurs, the Timberwolves vs the Thunder and the Clippers vs the Lakers.


Amaar Abdul Nasir's Breakdown -

 

Kevin Durant’s Toughest Test

The rivalry between the NBA’s two marquee teams now has a superstar 1-on-1 rivalry to match.

As great as Cleveland vs. Golden State has been over the past two seasons, since LeBron James returned to the Cavs and Stephen Curry rose to MVP status for the Warriors, the LeBron-vs.-Steph dynamic seemed forced. Mainly because the two most popular players in the world don’t play the same position and rarely cross paths on the court.

Now that Kevin Durant suits up for Golden State – having replaced Curry as the Warriors’ best player in the eyes of many – this game now has a legit head-to-head showdown reminiscent of Bird vs. Dominique, Russell vs. Chamberlain, or Magic vs. Isiah.


When LeBron and KD square off on Dec. 25, Durant will be trying to snap a four-game personal losing streak against LeBron. The last time Durant’s team beat LeBron’s was in January of 2014. And even on that day, LeBron outscored Durant 40-39 in a shootout in Miami.

Overall, LeBron holds a 13-3 win-loss record over Durant in the regular season, and of course LeBron won his first NBA championship and Finals MVP by defeating Durant’s OKC Thunder in the 2012 Finals.

Things are different now. LeBron is on the other side of 30. Durant plays on the most star-studded, talented team in the world this side of the Olympics or the All-Star Game. The showdown everyone is waiting for will (hopefully) happen in June, but this December appetizer will be a must-see matchup.


Golden State Going For A Different Kind Of History

Is Cavs-Warriors a meaningful regular-season game, or a meaningless one?

The answer most likely depends on who you ask, who they’re rooting for, and if that team wins or loses on Sunday. Trust: You’ll hear a lot more opinions on the importance of this game after the fact than you will beforehand.

Whatever this game means, it appears to be a bigger deal to Golden State than it is to Cleveland.

The Warriors, after all, are the team that has lost three straight games to the Cavs. They’re the team that blew a 3-1 series lead in the Finals. They’re the team that watched an opponent celebrate winning the 2016 NBA championship on their court. They’re the team that made the biggest upgrade in the offseason while also sacrificing a significant chunk of their 2015 championship squad – adding Durant in free agency while letting Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Mo Speights, Festus Ezeli and Leandro Barbosa go.

The Warriors have things to prove.

First, they must prove the Cavs haven’t taken their heart and don’t own them mentally after last June’s collapse.

And after Sunday, the Warriors must prove they understand winning a championship is more important than being called the best team of all-time.


After the Warriors’ 3-1 series lead was officially blown, one popular diagnosis was that Golden State ran out of gas in the postseason because they expended too much energy chasing the NBA’s regular-season record of 72 victories. Golden State won its 73rd game on the last day of the season.

Their “Big Three” of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green missed a total of six games, with Curry and Green finishing in the league’s top 20 in total minutes played. Head coach Steve Kerr didn’t rest his stars after the Warriors clinched homecourt throughout the playoffs, which is what most coaches would do.

After that record failed to translate into rings, the Warriors changed their focus.

Kerr says he’s not thinking about 73 or 74 wins. Green, as he tends to do, took it a step further. “I don’t know what the number 73 means,” he told reporters earlier this season. “I have no interest. At all.”

The Warriors may be even better than last season, but now that they’re chasing a championship instead of a number, they may also be more dangerous than ever.


Are the Clippers for real?

Your favorite “NBA 2K” video-game team began this season looking like a championship contender in real life.

While everyone was tracking every victory and defeat for the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, the Los Angeles Clippers jumped out to the league’s best record through the first few weeks of the 2016-17 season.

Before hitting a speed bump during an Eastern Conference road trip around the Thanksgiving holiday, the Clippers were 14-2, and at the time of this writing were still very much in the mix with a 22-9 record, tied with Houston for third place in the West.

The Clippers have won games in Cleveland, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Memphis. They’re already 3-0 against the Portland Trail Blazers, the team that upset L.A. in the first round of the 2016 playoffs.

Although minor knee surgery will sideline All-Star power forward Blake Griffin (21.2 points and 8.8 rebounds per game) for at least a month, the Clippers appear to be among the exclusive club of serious challengers to the Warriors in the West.

Meanwhile, the Clippers lineup that will face the Lakers on Christmas Day has plenty of firepower to stay among the league’s elite while Griffin is out.


Chris Paul isn’t allowing anyone to write him out of the “best point guard in the league” conversation. His 20-point, 20-assist, 0-turnover performance on Dec. 10 against the Pelicans has been the high point of a campaign in which he’s averaging over 17 points, five rebounds and two steals per game to go with almost 10 assists.

J.J. Redick (15 ppg) and Jamal Crawford (11 ppg) continue to light up the scoreboard from long range, while All-NBA center DeAndre Jordan (just under 12 ppg and 14 rpg) gets his points in a more point-blank, rim-wrecking fashion.

The Clippers are so talented that future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce – who is going on 40 years old but can still do a little something on the floor – has been relegated to victory-cigar status.

Can L.A. make some actual noise in the playoffs, though? On paper, it looks that way. But the Clippers have been known to disappoint when there is no paper or PlayStations involved.


The LVMVP: Least Visible, Most Valuable Player

It wouldn’t feel right to discuss the San Antonio Spurs in mixed company without using words like “overlooked” and “underrated” and “without fanfare.”

Gregg Popovich has done a masterful job of turning the franchise that was once synonymous with George “Iceman” Gervin into the “Charlie Rose” of NBA teams. The current star of this quiet-yet-quality program is the NBA’s forgotten MVP candidate: Kawhi Leonard.

Although Leonard already owned a Finals MVP trophy, two NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards, and a second-place finish in league MVP voting going into the summer of 2016, his spot as the leader and go-to guy of the Spurs wasn’t made official until the legendary Tim Duncan announced his retirement in July.

In his new role, Leonard has shined. But a lot of people still don’t see him.

Through the first two months of this season, Leonard is averaging just under 24 points and six rebounds per game to go with two steals. He’s a lock to make his third straight All-Defensive First Team and he’s not out of the running for a third straight DPOY.


Oh, and Leonard has the Spurs right on the heels of the Golden State Warriors for the best record in the league. As much as casual observers want to hand the West to the Warriors, it can’t go ignored that the Spurs routed Golden State on the road in their only meeting this season. Leonard led all scorers with 35 points in that game.

And yet, somehow, Leonard seems to be getting even less attention this season than he got last season. Wasn’t the 25-year-old with a Jordan Brand endorsement deal supposed to get more of the spotlight without Duncan’s 7-foot frame casting a shadow?

Chalk it up to the shiny-new-toy appeal of Kevin Durant in Golden State and Dwyane Wade in Chicago, plus LeBron defending a championship in Cleveland, and Russell Westbrook and James Harden producing “NBA Jam” stats in OKC and Houston, as well as younger breakout stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Karl-Anthony Towns gaining followers in Milwaukee and Minnesota.

Once again, Leonard and the Spurs find themselves overlooked and underrated. That’s nothing new, however. They should surface on the radar when they’re one of the last NBA teams still playing in the postseason.


Martin Sumners' Breakdown


Melo & Porzingis

New York, basketball, hip hop and Christmas go way back.  But last season, the unmerciful NBA schedulers put a lump of coal in the stockings of the New York Knick faithful.  Their appearances were a season tradition as much as a broadcast of Miracle on 34th Street until banished from the Christmas Day slate as a result of the previous season’s 17-65 horrific record. 

The last time the Knicks won on this most holy day, it was also the league’s opening day of the lockout truncated 2011-12 season, defeating the Boston Celtics 106-104. Carmelo Anthony was the undisputed - like heavyweight champs used to be - man on that squad, dropping 37 points.  Five years later he remains the sole player from that team still on the Knicks as they again meet the C’s on Christmas at high noon in the Garden.  

But now, as far as who is the man, there appears to be some dispute.  


The continuing rise of the second-year phenom Kristaps Porzingis, for many Knicks fans, seems to have set up a zero sum game.  It’s like there is a choice of you can get with this or you can get with that.   The fans cloaked inside the darkness of the Garden murmur as Melo misses a jumper.  The audible sigh signifies that the solution is to give the ball more to KP, and in conjunction move on from Melo.   The local sports talk radio fans and often the hosts themselves are even less forgiving

The transcript of Patrick Ewing’s tenure in the Garden is filled with annotations that he never had another all-star to ride with.  The post-mortem here remains unfulfilled aspirations.  Melo at his peak was an offensive illmatic tour de force.  He got buckets from any part of the hardwood real estate; post –up, quick rebound put backs, slashing, mid-range, at the three-point arc or finishing on the break ala Kool Herc.  His defense is shaky and passing is average (however, he has perfected the cross-court pass from the top to the corner).

But not any one player out here is unflawed.  Some emcee’s rhyme rapidly, story-tell or just flow.  Some move the mind, others move the crowd. Melo moves the crowd.

For a fleeting moment, Melo and a healthy Amar’e Stoudemire paired up like Black Star but he is now left at the age of 32 defending his record while still balling with the best.  He recently dropped a season-high 35 points leading the way to a 118-111 win over the Indiana Pacers. 

Entering the season with no preseason collaboration with their point guard, Derrick Rose (in the midst of his civil trial), the Knicks led by Melo’s 22.8 points per game have still ascended, at this point, to the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference.  Perched right behind is KP with his 20.2 points per game and 1.9 blocks. Porzingis can be shoved around and muscled out, but his almost unlimited shooting range and agility that is inconsistent with his 7-foot-3 frame has been basketball mana.  Yet, not many predicted the Knicks to be this competitive.



With two potential all-stars on the roster and a former MVP in Derrick Rose on his grind, albeit frequently fighting injuries (his back injury absence coincided with their most recent three-game losing streak), some Knicks fans still salty and swollen over minutia.  Brandon Jennings has been a breath of fresh air as have been some other lesser known contributors. 

Look, this franchise hasn’t won a c’hip since when rap existed entirely in echoes of the South Bronx.  As the Christmas game approaches and in its aftermath, don’t look this gift-horse in the mouth.

They got it from here…Thank you for your service.

 

Kyrie vs. Curry

In the history of the NBA (or any major US sport), never have the same two teams competed for the championship in three consecutive years.  That may soon change.  Fans can take an early peek this Christmas at the gift that keeps on giving in the form of a potential Golden State Warriors-Cleveland Cavaliers Finals trilogy.  Their Finals record is knotted up one apiece, but landing a jab in December with a win may set up the haymaker in June. 

Notwithstanding that Kyrie Irving or Stephen Curry did not win Finals MVP in either of their team’s respective triumphs, the results significantly hinged on their play.  In 2015, the Cavs went up 1-0 due in part to Irving’s play until a severe knee injury late in that game robbed him of the chance to finish the series that ultimately went to the Warriors. 

The media members voted Andre Iguodala the MVP and he did his thing on both ends of the floor, but his heralded offensive contributions were inextricably linked to Curry.  And last year as Curry semi-struggled, Irving snatched the ring with a Game 7 jumper over Curry, allowing LeBron James to come home as the conquering hero.  

These two 6-foot-3, 190-ish converted point guards with stupefying offensive games are in their prime, having battled through early career injuries and in back-to-back Finals. Curry’s circus play oozes cotton candy while Kyrie kills you now-or-later. Steph has the MVP’s, Irving was the Rookie of the Year. Kyrie’s brand is envisioned through an alter-ego of Uncle Drew, while Steph is almost a one-man Under Armour platform.  Both are three-time All-Stars with a ring apiece. 

But their rivalry is actually understated, perhaps because of the injury that short-changed their first Finals. Maybe because both are considered weak on defense, that results in them not even guarding each other at times.

 

Yet, it wouldn’t surprise if they view each other as mortal rivals.  Kyrie as the No.1 overall selection in 2011 must have been feeling a bit underappreciated as Steph was collecting his Maurice Podoloffs and all the accompanying accolades. 

Deep down, just as Austin Rivers cursed Curry like the down-and-out Eddie King, Jr. in The Five Heartbeats blasted new member Flash with “how does it feel to be me?” Irving was likely boiling over last summer waiting for the payback. 

On a Myers Briggs personality scale, Curry and Irving may differ.  Irving is a stand-up comic on his own on the stage.  Although Kyrie clearly respects LeBron James and understands his value, he hasn’t always been fascinated with playing with the King.  Steph is more comfortable as an ensemble sketch player.  He fully engaged Kevin Durant to join the Warriors and sharing abounds as he gets the Holy Ghost witnessing a teammate like Klay Thompson demolish a defense.  

Within the larger war between the two , this battle also bodes as to which point guard’s path is the most righteous.


LeBron

“I’ve been in this league 14 years, I shouldn’t have to explain me sitting out a game or not playing games.”  

That’s LeBron James in response to “rest-gate”, concerning sitting out a road game in Memphis and thereby “robbing” Grizzlies fans of seeing him play.  Sit him in a golden laden bubble bath and he almost seems to be channeling Tony Montana who infamously and introspectively pondered “who put this thing together?”

 A couple weeks earlier, LeBron actually did quote a gangster film. 

"I'm smart and I want respect!" James playfully exclaimed in response to “posse-gate,” breaking out the Fredo Corleone line from "The Godfather: Part II."  The connection between these quotes, if I do say so myself is quite interesting and circular. Any amateur film aficionado realizes that Fredo is talking to his brother Michael, the Godfather, played by Al Pacino who also played Tony Montana. 



But the more serious response leveled in the same conversation was that the word posse was coded language attributed to Phil Jackson in a Q&A provided to ESPN intended to demean LeBron and his business associates.      

James who campaigned for Hilary Clinton in the presidential race is wearing safety pins and making it clear he feels a certain way about the president-elect. "It's just my personal preference," James said about Trump-gate; teams and players refusing to stay at a Trump hotel on the road. “At the end of the day, I hope he's one of the best presidents ever for all of our sake -- my family, for all of us. But it's just my personal preference. It would be the same if I went to a restaurant and decided to eat chicken and not steak."

Like he and the Chick-fil-A cow said, “Eat mor chiken.”  And since he’s been in his league for 14 years, I shouldn’t have to explain what you are going to get from him playing on Christmas.

 

Isaiah Thomas

I still don’t think the average fan knows how good this Isaiah Thomas is.  He came into our basketball conscious almost as an oddity.  “Hey, look another NBA player who shares the same name as the Hall of Famer also known as Zeke.”

However, when it is all said and done for his career, he will be known as the best “little man” in the game.  Calvin Murphy has been wearing that crown forever.  Things done changed.

Murphy, like Thomas, also stood at 5-foot-9 and he was a marvel ball handler and shot maker.   For now, their career averages are very similar.  Murphy comes in at 17.9/4.4/2.1 while Thomas is tallying 17.7/ 5.1/2.6.  Although Murphy did lead his team in scoring a few times, for the most of his career he was the beneficiary of playing for the Houston Rockets with Moses Malone.   Thomas has no such support.    


Moreover, Thomas is flat out taking dudes lunch money.  He is dropping catch and shoot threes as well as stop and pop treys.  Thomas is also manhandling cats off the dribble with yo-yo like precision.  We praised him in our NBA season preview highlighting his career-high 42 point outburst.  He recently topped that with a 44-point devastation, leading the Celtics to overcome 17-point deficit to beat the Memphis Grizzlies.

Please no elf jokes allowed as the Boston Celtics don their Christmas uniforms as they take on the New York Knicks.  Derrick Rose and Brandon Jennings won’t be dreaming of sugar plums dancing in their head the night before Christmas, but rather nightmarishly figuring a means to halt Thomas.  


Maurice Merrell's Breakdown

Let’s play a game of what Christmas movie are you: NBA team / player edition. There’s some classic movies to and some fun players and storylines to run with, like who put the extra similac in the Baby Lakers’ bottles this season? Or what’s crazier: Russell Westbrook’s averages of 31.3 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10.8 assists per game, or Lil Uzi, the rapper from Russ’ ‘Do What I Want’ commercial?

Lets take a merry dive into some of the NBA Christmas menu.

 

Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler: The Ghost of Christmas Past and Present (A Christmas Carol)

Over the course of 11 Christmas Day games over his career (12 by the end of this week), Dwyane Wade has averaged 25.2 points per game. That’s’ better than his 23.5 career average, meaning we know we get the Flash version of D-Wade each Xmas.

What Chicago didn’t know is a) they’d get a player who at 35 years old is showing no signs of slowing down, and b) we’d actually have to question who’s the leader of the Bulls.


Jimmy Butler, making his fifth Christmas Classic appearance, is the new face of the franchise. Eight years Wade’s junior, he looked poised to take over since Derrick Rose is now a New York Knick. While he’s still putting up All Star level stats, we haven’t seen the currently 7th seeded Bulls challenge quite like we expected.

Wade has come to the burgeoning star’s defense, often blaming the stagnant offense for the Bulls winter woes (3-7 in the last 10 games). While there’s no question that Jimmy’s a star, the question remains as to when he’ll really lead the team’s and that will mean wins for Chicago.


Triple-Double Machine Russell Westbrook Is The Nightmare Before Christmas (For the Timberwolves)

Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Ricky Rubio (haha), it doesn’t matter who the Timberwolves have guarding Russell Westbrook on Sunday. They’re in trouble.

All season, Westbrook’s been the stat story, averaging a triple-double and doing “what he wants” on the court. Saw a tweet the other day that said Westbrook has more 40 point and 10 rebound performances than every other point guard from 1985 until present day combined. That was followed by a tweet that said his four 40 point-10 rebound performances this season outdo the two Kevin Garnett had in his legendary career as a power forward.


Westbrook is making things players seldom ever do, regardless of position or superstar status, look normal. Just like Kristaps Porzingis and Karl-Anthony Towns playing with point guard fluidity as seven-footer’s is damn-near mythical to watch, Westbrook’s ability at his position is every bit Unicorn-ish too.

The way he’s playing, it’s not out of bounds to believe he’s the favorite to be this season’s MVP. Stylish and often misunderstood, he’s playing the part of Jack Skellington (the lead character from The Nightmare Before Christmas) almost to a T.

Expect a performance just as classic as the early ‘90s flick come Sunday from the one who does what he wants.


Zach LaVine is Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer in a Wolves Uniform

Before you think I’m reaching, consider the two trajectories. Zach LaVine was kind of an afterthought, not really taken seriously by NBA writers and it was even questioned if he was really an NBA player.

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was overlooked by everyone, Santa Claus included. Then Zack won back-to-back Slam Dunk contests in legendary fashion and in his third season (first as the official starting shooting guard) he’s putting up 20-3-3 on 47% from the field (38.6% from three-point attempts). Rudolph saved the day using his own, self motivated/god given glow and lead his reindeer brethren to legendary heights.


Karl-Anthony Towns is the team’s leader, but we know who he and fellow former Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins are. The only way the Wolves will truly fly out west is if LaVine proves he’s more than a walking spring. Which, as the leading candidate for 2016-17’s Most Improved Player, he’s doing.

Santa Thibs (Minnesota Head Coach Tom Thibodeau), might have the sleigh moving in the right direction. He’s got his Blitzen, Prancer, Dancer and them on board, but it’s “Rudolph” who’s going to be the difference maker. That goes for Sunday against OKC and beyond.

 

The Los Angeles Gremlins: The Gift We Didn’t See Coming

Remember the three rules about Gremlins: Don’t get them wet, don’t expose them to the sun/harsh light and never feed them after midnight.

With a talented core four of D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and Brandon Ingram, it’s like Mitch Kupchak and Luke Walton are out here pouring water on players like Jay Z and Dame Dash in the Big Pimpin’ video. Players are unexpectedly popping up on the radar ahead of schedule.


In the first Christmas post-Kobe Bryant, the Lakers have established a few things. Walton has become the embodiment of what a player’s coach is, having the young guys buy into his system. D’Angelo Russell wants to earn the proverbial torch from the Black Mamba, showing sings of maturity on and off the court. The Lakers have skipped a step, already being better than a bottom feeder team.

The Lakers were sitting pretty in playoff contention before Gizmo (read Russell) got hurt. And even with injuries plaguing the team, they still currently sit only two games out in 11th place. Having a team that looks this promising, well on its way to surpassing the 11-win 2015-16 season, they’ll likely flirt with post-season contention all season. Something none of us saw coming.