Introducing the 12 beefs of NBA Christmas

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/teams/gsw" data-ylk="slk:Golden State Warriors">Golden State Warriors</a> teammates <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/4244/" data-ylk="slk:Kevin Durant">Kevin Durant</a> and <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/5069/" data-ylk="slk:Draymond Green">Draymond Green</a> had the biggest beef of the 2018-19 season. (Getty Images)

Golden State Warriors teammates Kevin Durant and Draymond Green had the biggest beef of the 2018-19 season. (Getty Images)

Christmas marks the unofficial start to the NBA season, when the rabid fan lectures the casual fan about how much he’s missed already (Luka Doncic is a godThe Kings are good! The Rockets are not so good!), and their dad interrupts to complain about how nobody tries until the playoffs anyway.

We are here to make your holiday watching experience a joyous one, to catch you up on all the drama that has led us to this point — a five-game slate featuring the last five players named MVP and 14 returning All-Stars — so you can explain to your family why you’ve been planted in front of the TV all day.

These are the 12 beefs of Christmas.

Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. Mario Hezonja’s nuts

Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo might well be the league’s Most Valuable Player through the first two months of the season, averaging a monster double-double with six assists and countless dunks per game for one of the Eastern Conference’s top teams. Meanwhile, New York Knicks wing Mario Hezonja might well be the league’s least valuable player, ranking 441st out of 455 players in ESPN’s real plus-minus category while playing 18 minutes a night for one of the East’s worst teams.

It is only natural, then, that when arguably the NBA’s worst player dunks on arguably the NBA’s best player, he should step over him to coldly carve the greatest moment in his basketball life into stone.

It is also natural for arguably the NBA’s best player to vow vengeance against arguably the NBA’s worst player for such an act, which Antetotokounmpo did, promising to “punch him in the nuts next time.”

Antetokounmpo later apologized for saying he would punch Hezonja in the nuts next time, not because he doesn’t plan to punch Hezonja in the nuts next time, but because he should have used a different word than nuts when explaining how he plans to punch Hezonja in the nuts next time.

There probably won’t be a next time, sadly. That dunk on Antetokounmpo marked Hezonja’s only points of the night in his team’s 136-134 overtime win over the Bucks earlier this month, and the odds of him getting to the rim against one of its best protectors again are likely off the table. It’s much more likely that Antetokounmpo will repeatedly try to dunk on Hezonja in their first meeting since the step-over, which will be just as entertaining and much less threatening to the Croatian’s lineage.

Small markets vs. big markets

For the most part, the good people of Milwaukee have avoided the incessant trade discussion that follows NBA superstars in small markets. They can be thankful that Anthony Davis first becomes a free agent in New Orleans, because his looming decision on a supermax contract decision has chewed up much of the conversation. Whenever that is settled, this summer or the next, the media’s attention will turn to Antetokounmpo, and you can be sure at some point people will link him to New York.

Even though the Knicks haven’t been relevant competitively for two decades, save for that one first-place MVP vote for Carmelo Anthony and a few weeks of Linsanity, every major player approaching free agency is at some point tied to Gotham. It just happened to LeBron James when he dared whisper about Madison Square Garden. It’s happening to both Davis and Kevin Durant right now. It will happen to Giannis, too. Circumnavigating New York exceptionalism is a rite of passage for NBA superstars.

Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo will play his first game on Christmas since entering the NBA in 2013. (Getty Images)

Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo will play his first game on Christmas since entering the NBA in 2013. (Getty Images)

Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo will play his first game on Christmas since entering the NBA in 2013. (Getty Images)

You can be as sure as Santa filling your stockings on Christmas that somebody in New York will ask Antetokounmpo about joining the Knicks, one way or another. This will be paired with Knicks coach David Fizdale’s recent suggestion that Antetokounmpo is “the best player in the league” and speculation about the Greek Freak’s commitment to the Bucks “as long as Milwaukee does the right moves and we’re a championship[-contending] team,” all packaged with a headline like “The Knicks are eyeing Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2021,” because of course the Knicks are eyeing him in 2021.

All of this despite the fact that Antetokounmpo has been consistent with his dedication to the city that drafted him 15th overall in 2013. He has actually said on multiple occasions that he prefers his current NBA home to bigger cities like Los Angeles and Miami (and presumably New York). Sorry, Milwaukee, but this is just the reality of hosting a transcendent talent in your small-market city.

Oklahoma City Thunder at Houston Rockets (3 p.m. ET, ABC)

Battle of the Brains: Daryl Morey vs. Sam Presti

Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey and Oklahoma City Thunder counterpart Sam Presti are widely considered two of the brightest minds in the NBA — mainstays at the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and shepherds for the modernization of the pace-and-space era. They have slightly different approaches, but there is no reason to believe they’re at odds, other than the natural competition between two guys chasing the same talent and vying for Western Conference supremacy.

Except, that competition intertwined them in a timeline they can’t escape. Morey and Presti were on opposite ends of one of the most scrutinized trades in NBA history — the 2012 deal that sent reigning Sixth Man of the Year and future MVP James Harden to the Rockets for Jeremy Lamb, Kevin Martin and the picks that became Steven Adams, Alex Abrines and Mitch McGary (now a recreational bowler).

History has ruled in Morey’s favor, and he is happy to remind us of that. Morey’s celebratory dance started at his introductory press conference of Harden, when he said, “I actually didn’t think they’d trade him,” and added, “I actually can’t come up with any examples of a player of his caliber and age getting traded at the time he was traded — it really has never happened.” It’s now a holiday for Morey.

If I were Presti, that would get on my nerves, so I’d like to imagine that years of silent stewing led him to order Adams to crush Harden on Christmas. Then, he can reclaim the trade as Steven Adams Day.

The Russell Westbrook vs. James Harden MVP conversation

Where you stand on the last two MVP selections depends on whether you like narratives or numbers.

Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook won the 2017 award largely for three reasons, all of which were amazing: 1) He stewarded the Thunder through the devastating departure of Kevin Durant to a 47-win playoff campaign; 2) He became the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62 to average a triple-double for a season; and 3) He was wildly clutch in doing so, culminating in a buzzer-beater that both eliminated the Denver Nuggets from playoff contention and clinched the single-season record for triple-doubles.

Morey wasn’t a fan of that storyline. He debated all three points, arguing that 40-something-win seasons are not historically rewarded with MVP honors, triple-doubles are an arbitrary set of numbers with no bearing on actual impact and clutch-ness isn’t necessary when you are blowing teams out.

Morey also openly accused Westbrook of stat-padding. And when the Thunder star took home the trophy after dominating the MVP narrative throughout the 2016-17 season, Morey went so far as to lobby for the eradication of the award, telling Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated in July 2017:

“You could argue for eliminating the awards altogether. I don’t really see a good way to do it that doesn’t have major issues. I like clean answers. If there’s not going to be a set criteria and there’s going to be issues with how it’s structured, for me it might be better to not have it.”

[…]

“We thought James was the MVP, but there were a bunch of very good, deserving candidates. I didn’t like how a different MVP criteria was used this year, compared to the last 55 years, to fit more of a marketing slogan. People thought a different criteria for selecting the MVP this year was the way to go.”

The following year, when the media honored Harden with the MVP after another (more efficient) historically great offensive season for the 65-win Rockets, despite a second straight season-long triple-double campaign for Westbrook, Morey also took home the Executive of the Year honor. The narrative was in their favor, and as best I can tell, there were no calls for eliminating either award.

A lot of people portrayed Harden’s MVP trophy as redemption for robbing him of the award the season prior, but I think that’s where number crunching gets in the way of watching games. Westbrook was transcendent in 2016-17. I might also just aesthetically enjoy his throw-caution-to-the-wind style more than Harden’s prodding (or, to be less kind, foul hunting and fantastical footwork). Either way, we get to watch the last two MVPs clash on Christmas and debate this basketball philosophy all over again.

Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics (5:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

Weird Celtics Twitter vs. Ben Simmons (aka “Shoot a 3, Coward”)

The world of Weird Celtics Twitter is an inexplicable amalgamation of memes inspired by everything from Soviet-style propaganda to 19th-century impressionism. Members have united in their disdain for the Philadelphia 76ers and a “Trust The Process” following that WCT likens to InfoWars, “because they deny objective facts in service of their view of the world,” and Ben Simmons is the whipping post.

Simmons was billed as the NBA’s next LeBron James-level transcendent talent upon being selected No. 1 overall by the tanking Sixers in 2016, and after a year on the shelf, he did well to fulfill expectations, averaging 16-8-8 and controversially capturing Rookie of the Year while helping the franchise to its first 50-win season since the Allen Iverson era. One problem: Simmons can’t shoot.

He finished his rookie year 0-for-11 from 3-point range, strictly on heaves, and his unwillingness to shoot from distance was met with calls of cowardice led by Jack Michael, a Mount Rushmore figure in Weird Celtics Twitter. Those calls only increased as the Celtics’ strategy against Simmons — daring him to beat them from the perimeter — resulted in Boston’s five-game Eastern Conference semifinals win.

Thereafter, WCT unveiled T-shirts, complete with the phrase “SHOOT A 3 COWARD” sandwiching a photo of a wide-open Simmons looking to pass from the 3-point line without any inclination to score.

The rallying call is no doubt maddening to Sixers fans, if only because there is an iota of accuracy to it. On one hand, it’s simplistic to boil down a phenom like Simmons to a single defect, and on the other, that flaw could prove fatal on Philadelphia’s hopeful destination at the end of this process. What once belonged to Weird Celtics Twitter has now been incorporated into universal mockery:

As long as Boston continues to hold the upper hand or until Simmons makes a three in a game against the Celtics, a “shoot a 3, coward” chorus will echo through the TD Garden rafters like carols on Christmas.

Jayson Tatum vs. Markelle Fultz

Christmas will serve as yet another reminder of Philadelphia’s failed trade entering the 2017 draft. Markelle Fultz, the much-maligned No. 1 overall pick whom the Sixers acquired from the Celtics for the No. 3 pick and the Sacramento Kings’ 2019 first-round pick, will be home, possibly under the watchful eye of security cameras, nursing what has most recently been termed as thoracic outlet syndrome.

Meanwhile, Jayson Tatum, the third overall pick whom Boston would have drafted first, had the Sixers not tossed in an extra lottery pick for the right to swap selections, will be starting and probably scoring a lot for the Celtics. Arguably the best player in last year’s conference semifinals meeting, Tatum is averaging better than 16 points per game on near-40 percent 3-point shooting at age 20.

Top-three picks Markelle Fultz and Jayson Tatum have gone in different directions in their first two NBA seasons. (Getty Images)

Top-three picks Markelle Fultz and Jayson Tatum have gone in different directions in their first two NBA seasons. (Getty Images)

Top-three picks Markelle Fultz and Jayson Tatum have gone in different directions in their first two NBA seasons. (Getty Images)

In the course of a year, Tatum and Fultz have developed into almost un-trade-able assets for polar opposite reasons. The former has flashed the potential of a future scoring champion with an array of polished offensive moves, so much so that he might only be made available as the centerpiece of a deal for a transcendent superstar in his prime. The latter cannot shoot, whether by shoulder ailment or mental block, and potential trade partners are reportedly wanting the truth about why that is.

If you want to annoy the Sixers fan in your life this holiday season, point out that Tatum would be the perfect complement to an offense that needs spacing around Simmons, Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler. It is not great for Philadelphians that the only solace they can take from this trade is that the Kings aren’t quite as bad as we expected, only leaving Boston with a late lottery pick in addition to Tatum.

Joel Embiid vs. Boston’s bench

Despite a stellar statistical line (23 points, 14 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game), Embiid was not the MVP candidate he is today against the Celtics in their playoff meeting, shooting well below 50 percent from the field and 25 percent from the 3-point line opposite a frontline that featured Al Horford.

You will be shocked to learn that the notorious trashtalker‘s struggles and his team’s deep hole against the undermanned Celtics did not prevent him from trolling every last member of Boston’s bench. He started by joining Giannis Antetokounmpo in the “I Viciously Dunked on Aron Baynes” club:

This alone would not a beef make, but a number of tussles between the two and Baynes returning the favor two games later left enough of an impression on Embiid that he held a grudge — a turn of events we’ll get to in a moment, right after we cover his run-ins with several more Celtics reserves.

With his team facing a 3-0 deficit and on the verge of winning its lone game of the conference semis, Embiid chose to troll Marcus Morris, who merely reminded the Sixers center of the series scoreboard:

Embiid then engaged in a fight for the ball with Celtics guard Terry Rozier, who took several swings at the 7-footer — a dustup that Embiid openly mocked in the immediate aftermath and the postgame.

“He tried to punch me twice,” Embiid said, “but too bad he’s so short that he couldn’t get to my face.”

The Celtics got the last laugh. Baynes’ surprising ability to stretch the floor as a corner 3-point shooter helped eliminate Embiid’s effectiveness as a paint-protecting defensive presence, and the final play of the series effectively silenced any on-court trash talk. Baynes and Rozier successfully defended Embiid on two post-ups within inches of the basket, either of which would have extended the series.

This somehow did not prevent Embiid from continuing to denigrate Baynes while watching the Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers play Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals at home from his couch:

Unfortunately, Baynes broke his left hand in Wednesday’s loss to the Atlanta Hawks, so we do not get to see the Australian and Cameroonian square off for another round, but Rozier and Morris will surely be happy to remind Embiid who wears the pants in this budding relationship for the time being.

Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James

As best I can tell, Kevin Durant and LeBron James aren’t beefing. To the contrary, they recently bonded over their disdain for President Donald Trump in a shared Uber ride, James selected Durant first in the inaugural All-Star draft, and they may or may not have exchanged texts about teaming up for real.

The juiciest nugget we have to hang our hat on here is that Durant described the locker-room environment around LeBron as “toxic” earlier this month, which is quite something when taken out of context. It is still something when we consider that he was talking about unwanted media attention, because Durant also said that the Lakers’ young talent will have a tough time developing in a system dominated by James. Either way, it does not sound like these two will be Lakers teammates in 2019.

This is about basketball, which is good, because that’s what we’re here for. James and Durant are the two best players of the past decade. They have met three times in the Finals, with Durant’s loaded Golden State Warriors taking the last two against LeBron’s weary Cavs. This marks their first meeting since James joined the Los Angeles Lakers. That alone is worth sharing Christmas night with the NBA.

There’s also this: While James has been chasing the ghost of Michael Jordan, Durant has been chasing LeBron, and the 2012 Most Valuable Player believes he’s caught the four-time MVP. Durant has repeatedly made this claim, including last December, when he said, “I’m on the same level.” At least one future Hall of Famer with an axe to grind against LeBron took it a step further, saying KD “may be the best player in the world today.” LeBron disagrees, as do Draymond Green and Stephen Curry. It should be fun watching them all try to prove each other wrong in prime time on national television.

LeBron James vs. Draymond Green

LeBron and Draymond are also supposed friends, but one general rule I have in life is that anyone who punches me in the groin is not my friend, and Draymond punched LeBron in the groin in plain view in Game 4 of the 2016 Finals. James may have excused this, since that punch led to a suspension that ignited Cleveland’s comeback from a 3-1 deficit and launched LeBron’s legacy to another level.

This resulted in a T-shirt war, with LeBron wearing an Ultimate Warrior shirt in 2016 and Green responding with back-to-back Quickie and Arthur shirts for reasons too complicated to spend time explaining in full. Just know that any game between LeBron and Draymond could begin with an accoutrement statement on the way into the arena and end with a punch to the plums on the way out.

There has been far too much discussion of cojones in this family-oriented NBA Christmas primer.

Draymond Green vs. Kevin Durant

Speaking of which, Green called Durant — his teammate — a “bitch” this season, which is something we probably shouldn’t forget so soon and definitely shouldn’t tell our grandmothers on Christmas.

An argument between the two on the failed final play of regulation in an eventual overtime loss to the Los Angeles Clippers last month spilled into the huddle and locker room, complete with an expletive-laced rant from Green that included pointed commentary on their roles and Durant’s free agency.

Both Durant and Green have tried to put the incident behind them, although it seems like everyone around the Warriors agrees this was over-the-line enough to creep above the surface again. That this could potentially happen against LeBron’s Lakers on Christmas night is a gift to the rest of the NBA.

Portland Trail Blazers at Utah Jazz (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Damian Lillard vs. the Blazers’ front office

You really have to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find beefs between the Blazers and Jazz, mostly because both teams spend much of their time beefing with the world in unending quests for respect.

In fact, Blazers star Damian Lillard paid a level of respect not often seen around NBA circles in Utah, suggesting he would sign with either the Jazz or Lakers “if the Blazers said they didn’t want me”:

Set aside for a moment that Carlos Boozer is considered the biggest free-agent signing in Jazz history, which would make Lillard’s departure to Utah, where he played college ball, unprecedented. This is candor we don’t often see. It’s refreshing to hear a player both discuss Utah as a destination and consider his fit on an up-and-coming roster that has since see Donovan Mitchell rise to stardom.

It’s also not out of the question that Lillard could find his way to the Jazz. Signed through the 2020-21 season, he will be eligible for a contract extension after next year. If he makes another All-NBA roster this season or the next, that extension could be worth as much $240 million, which Portland may balk at for a 30-year-old point guard. If Lillard and the Blazers butt heads over his value, we could finally see a breakup of the backcourt he shares with C.J. McCollum that may have already reached its ceiling.

Christmas marks another opportunity for Jazz fans to woo Lillard to Utah and plant the seeds of deception in Portland, where the three-time All-Star has already asked questions about his future.

Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell and Blazers counterpart Damian Lillard provide similar scoring prowess. (Getty Images)

Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell and Blazers counterpart Damian Lillard provide similar scoring prowess. (Getty Images)

Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell and Blazers counterpart Damian Lillard provide similar scoring prowess. (Getty Images)

Portland vs. Utah culture war

Portland and Utah meeting on Christmas is the perfect metaphor for 2018. If you close your eyes and imagine somebody from each city, I feel like you’ll come up with polar opposite stereotypes. In Portland, you’ve got a barista by day and bass guitarist by night who brings his own home brew to his gigs, and in Utah, you’ve got a checkered button-down and Gap khakis-wearing straight-edge.

It’s “Portlandia” vs. “Big Love,” Elliott Smith vs. Donny Osmondthe first city to decriminalize cannabis vs. the last state to decriminalize alcohol, noted Ball Don’t Lie contributor/hilarious standup comic Ian Karmel vs. Marcus, Funny Man Who Does Tricks. It’s a city that voted overwhelmingly in favor of Hillary Clinton vs. a state that heavily voted for Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election.

If you really want to mix it up this Christmas, make everyone in your house choose sides in this culture war and cheer yours on like the future of the country depends on it. It’ll be a whole lot more entertaining than watching the real thing devolve into chaos over the year. Merry Christmas to all.

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