After some of the greatest basketball we’ve seen in a while coming out of the Disney Bubble last summer, the NBA began their season in an unorthodox way. Normally the Christmas Day slate comes two months into the season. This allows storylines to be written, and whispers of playoff matchups to swirl. It even allows the NBA to make a buck selling special edition Christmas Day jerseys for teams lucky enough to be on the schedule.
Christmas is a chance for the NBA’s best teams to shine, but 2020 wasn’t full of “tales of the glory” like those of recent memory. Instead, we the basketball consuming public were subjected to five blowouts with an average point differential of 22.2 points.
That’s not great.
In a year where the NBA has the world’s attention, the Chirstmas Day slate left a lot to be desired. Despite putting their league’s biggest stars on national television, the league dropped the ball. While seeing the Warriors go up against the Bucks might have been great in 2018, in 2020 the matchup left a lot to be desired.
Kyrie’s return to the Garden was neutered by the lack of fans in attendance, and the former Celtic showed off. If you heard screaming coming from the Northeast on Christmas Day, that was the entire city of Boston losing it.
In a matchup billed as “LeBron and Luka,” we were treated to the Lakers domination of a struggling Mavericks team. As time wound down, Dallas was relegated to launching threes just to keep it close.
By the time we reached the Christmas finale, a rematch of the 2020 NBA Western Semifinals between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Denver Nuggets, watching felt like a chore.
That’s a problem for the NBA, and it’s one that can’t be solved by throwing the Warriors at it.
Perhaps the NBA was backed into a corner this Holiday Season by pushing the season’s start. That doesn’t excuse the poor quality of these matchups. Instead of forcing single-player marquee matchups, why not go for a rivalry game? Why not see a Celtics/Lakers rivalry game or an OKC/Warriors battle? How about a Chicago/Detroit slugfest? Even a Staples Center standoff between the Lakers and Clippers would have been better than the Pelicans vs. Heat.
The NBA is a player-driven league for sure, but creating “player vs. player” matchups for ratings is a risk. And considering that in the midst of this global pandemic everything is under a microscope, that’s a big gamble the league is hoping will pay off.
Yes, seeing Luka Doncic go up against LeBron feels like must-see TV, but does Anthony Davis vs. Dwight Powell have the same feel? How about Kyrie Irving vs. Jeff Teague? The window for these superstar matchups is small. Leading with team history affords much more leeway for things to sour.
College Football has rivalry week. The MLB has rivalry series. The NBA needs to lean into the old school bad blood that once drove the league.
Leave the Marquee Player Matchups at the door. Give us Battles for Bragging Rights.
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