Just now getting around to the NBA this season? Where have you been? Here are the seven biggest post-Christmas Day storylines to follow.
Christmas Day is behind us, which to casual NBA fans represents the official start of the season. Perhaps this year, with the Warriors’ historic start, those who aren’t diehard fans of the league have been keeping tabs on what’s been going on. Just in case not, here are the major stories that have developed over the past nine weeks.
Warriors are nearly invincible
Golden State (28–1) carried a winning streak over from last season, and with its historic 24–0 start, extended it all the way to 28 games. The Warriors have been led by reigning MVP Stephen Curry, who has put up a blistering 30.8 points per game, which is nine more than his career average. It hasn’t come easy; starters Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut have missed a combined 19 games due to injury, and head coach Steve Kerr has yet to return after undergoing two off-season back surgeries.
They’ve played in some tight games, too; the Nets took them to overtime in November, and the Celtics took them to double overtime in early December before they finally fell to the Bucks on Dec. 12 to earn their first loss of the season. Though they haven’t lost another contest since then, they have played three straight single-digit games, most recently against the Cavaliers on Christmas.Kobe Bryant retiring after season
Bryant entered the year having played just 41 games over the past two seasons due to injury, but has missed just four of 30 contests for 2015–16.
His 34.5% mark from the field and 25.7% success rate from three haven’t been pretty, but it looks like he will be heading to his 18th NBA All-Star Game. After the first returns of All-Star voting, Bryant is the leading vote-getter by a wide margin. He’s gathered 719,235 votes compared to Curry’s 510,202, which rank second.
When asked for his reaction to the lead, Bryant told reporters after the Lakers’ Christmas loss to the Clippers, “Shocked doesn’t do it justice.”
Spurs unsurprisingly still the Spurs
Some things never change. If it weren’t for the Warriors’ incredible beginning to the season, the Spurs (25–6) might be the talk of the league. Their defense has been incredible, topping the league with just 92.9 points allowed per 100 possessions. That’s almost five points fewer than the Warriors (97.4) in second place. Offensively, they have been nearly as efficient, scoring 106.5 per 100 to rank third in the NBA.
That’s all thanks to Kawhi Leonard, who is vaulting himself into MVP contention with lockdown defense to go with averages of 21 points and 7.3 rebounds per game.
Four-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, who San Antonio signed to a four-year, $80 million contract this off-season, has been used conservatively by head coach Gregg Popovich. He’s played just 29.6 minutes per game, which would be the lowest mark since his rookie season (22.1 MPG).
Top of rookie class with strong debuts
The first four players drafted in June, Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, Jahlil Okafor and Kristaps Porzingis, have all averaged at least 12 points per game, but it’s been the three forwards mentioned who have been particularly strong.
Entering Christmas, Okafor’s 17.6 points per game ranks first among all rookies, Towns leads in rebounds with an average of 9.4 and Porzingis is No. 1 in blocks with over two per contest. The 7'3" Porzingis has also hit 33% of his shots from three, and shot 84.3% at the free-throw line.
Paul George is back
Paul George, who regressed at the end of the 2013–14 season, and missed most of last year after a gruesome leg injury during a Team USA scrimmage, has regained his old form. The 25-year-old is enjoying his highest scoring output (25.0 ppg) of his short career, and has kept the Pacers afloat in the suddenly competitive Eastern Conference. He’s probably the fourth-best small forward in the league at the moment, behind Leonard, Kevin Durant and LeBron James.
Cavs own pole position in East
Last season around this time, the Cavaliers were still trying to jell after adding James and Kevin Love over the summer. As a result, it was a battle for them to get to the top of the East, and they eventually finished seven games behind the first-place Atlanta Hawks.
Now, they’re on the pole position. After Christmas, the Cavaliers held a two-game lead over the Raptors and Hawks, and they were able to ascend to the top of the conference without point guard Kyrie Irving, who suffered a fractured kneecap in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. They got him back on Dec. 20, and are now poised for a run at the No. 1 seed.
East better than expected
The Eastern Conference has improved so much since last season that it may actually be better than the West at the moment. Outside of having the top two teams in basketball in the Warriors and Spurs, the quality of play hasn’t been the same. The Jazz, at 12–15, are the eighth-best team in the West, which would put them 13th in the East. The Magic, Hornets, Pistons and Knicks, four of the five worst teams in the conference last season, have all vaulted themselves into playoff contention.