FIVE STORYLINES ON CHRISTMAS DAY
By David Thorpe
1. Boston at New York:
Tyson Chandler can be a difference maker on defense, but only if Melo and Amare are locked in as well. Otherwise, he'll be fouling their men as they saunter toward the hoop.
2. Miami at Dallas:
I expect Miami to explode out of the gate, but I'm curious to see how well Dallas can defend them without Tyson Chandler on the court. Plus, can Rodrigue Beaubois be a spark like JJ Barea was off the bench?
3. Chicago at Lakers:
Who's gonna be the "glue guy" for LA now that Lamar Odom is in Dallas? Where is Kobe's head, on the game or his divorce? And how invested are Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum to this organization?
4. Orlando at Oklahoma City:
I am not worried about how Dwight Howard will play, but his teammates are another matter. Will they compete with great intensity when they know their franchise player would rather be somewhere else? How willing will they be to feed him?
5. Clippers at Warriors:
Adding Chris Paul makes lots of things easier on offense and defense. But the game will still require a lot of grinding things out, and I want to see if the Clippers get that. Hustle plays, physical plays, smart plays can't only be done by the Blake and Paul show.
FIVE SCROOGES ON CHRISTMAS DAY
By Michael Wallace
1. Rajon Rondo, PG, Celtics
The Celtics were shopping more aggressively than holiday bargain hunters in an effort to unload the eccentric All-Star point guard. No trade materialized. So instead of breaking up, the Celtics and Rondo are in make-up mode. Considering the injury and aging issues in Beantown, Rondo must accept that although the C's recently tried to part with him, they need him now more than ever.
2. Chris Bosh, PF, Heat
A return to his Dallas hometown for the holidays won't include any warm and fuzzy feelings under the mistletoe when Bosh faces the team that beat the Heat in the NBA Finals. The power forward is already on record as questioning the history and longtime loyalties of the Mavs' fan base. He also said it will "suck" to watch Dallas raise its championship banner before the game.
3. Kobe Bryant, G, Lakers
In their 1973 hit, the Emotions asked, "What Do The Lonely Do At Christmas?" Perhaps Kobe's answer will be "Drop 40 on Chicago." The separation issues extend beyond the drama the Black Mamba faces off the court. He's coping with detachment on it, as well. Phil Jackson. Lamar Odom. Torn wrist ligament. Won't matter. If he plays, he's delivering gift buckets through a scowl.
4. Dwight Howard, C, Magic
It looks like Mickey and Minnie will get their wish of keeping Orlando's franchise player in tow for the holidays. But you'll have to excuse Dwight if his expression today appears as if he just unwrapped a package of underwear and socks. Blame Brook Lopez, whose ankle injury tossed a lump of coal on a potential trade that would have sent Howard to his desired destination in New Jersey.
5. Monta Ellis, G, Warriors
It seems that the only time Ellis, of the league's most dynamic guards, makes national headlines is when controversy surrounds him off the court. But the often-overlooked Golden State star is long overdue for some spotlight between the lines. The relative anonymity motivates Ellis, who has a chance to steal some of the shine away from Chris Paul's debut with the Los Angeles Clippers.
FIVE ROOKIES ON CHRISTMAS DAY
By Chad Ford
1. Norris Cole, PG, Heat
Cole doesn't play like he's shot out of cannon. Instead, scouts use phrases like "high basketball IQ," "steadiness on the floor" and "leadership ability" to describe his game. On draft night, I thought the Heat got one of the steals of the draft. If Cole had been playing at Duke or North Carolina instead of Cleveland State, he would've been a late lottery pick. With things still pretty unsteady at the point, it's not out of the question that he could be the starter by the end of the season.
2. Klay Thompson, G/F, Warriors
Jerry West pushed hard for the Warriors to grab Thompson in the lottery in June. He was one of the best scorers in college basketball last year. He's got good range on his jump shot and has a nice midrange game as well. He also handles the ball well for a player his size and can see the floor. Thompson's lack of elite athleticism is the biggest question mark about his game right now.
3. Iman Shumpert, G, Knicks
Shumpert rose dramatically on draft boards in June after a series of great workouts and a stellar showing at the NBA draft combine. On paper, he's a beast -- a 6-foot-5, hyperathletic guard with quickness and explosive leaping ability. On the court, it's a bit more of a mixed bag. He had a very good junior season at Georgia Tech, but turnovers and shot selection were problems for him. I don't know if he's really a point guard, but with the way Mike D'Antoni plays and given the lack of depth in the Knicks' backcourt, he should be one of the most productive rookies in the early going.
4. Jimmy Butler, SF, Bulls
Butler is known as much for his "Blind Side"-esque backstory as he is for his basketball abilities. He had a breakout senior season at Marquette and is a jack of all trades. He's good at a lot of things; not great at any one thing. If he makes his mark in the NBA, it will likely be on the defensive end. He can guard multiple positions and he plays really hard. The Bulls have been raving about him in camp, so he may get more minutes than most rookies would on such an established team.
5. Reggie Jackson, G, Thunder
Jackson isn't expected to play a huge role this year for the Thunder -- they are stacked at guard already. But after a breakout junior season for Boston College, a number of scouts felt that he was one of the best point guard prospects in the draft. A late-season injury caused his draft stock to fall, but had he stayed healthy, he would've been a late lottery to mid-first-round pick. Jackson's length and his ability to get his own shot make him an interesting prospect to keep an eye on.
FIVE VETERAN TRICKS TO APPRECIATE ON CHRISTMAS DAY
By J.A. Adande
Ever wish the Christmas spirit would never go away? That's the way I feel about these veterans, who have developed distinctive elements to their game that we've become so accustomed to seeing but most realize we won't be seeing forever.
1. The Ray Allen floating flicker.
No shot is prettier than Ray Allen's jumper, with his high extension and quick release. Many right-handed shooters prefer to shoot moving to their left, because they are not shooting back across their body. But last season Allen actually shot a higher percentage coming off screens and going to his right -- 46 percent to 45 percent, according to Synergy Sports. Check out the :51 mark and the 2:16 mark of this video to see Allen hitting shots while going to his right. It's a skill with a hidden degree of difficulty. Allen makes it look easy.
2. The Dirk Nowitzki one-legged fadeaway.
Dirk Nowitzki's signature shot now has added cachet since he used it to lead the Dallas Mavericks to the championship. But, much like Jim Furyk's golf swing, you don't see a lot of other players emulating it because it seems so unnatural.
Whenever someone does attempt it, one thing immediately comes to mind: Dirk. Now that's the sign of a signature move. Here's a clip of Nowitzki and other players around the league talking about it.
3. Kobe Bryant's floor plan.
At this stage of his career, Bryant has the entire court mapped out in his head. There are spots he likes and spots he dislikes, and there's very little defenders can do to keep him from getting to the spots he favors. They feel compelled to honor his spin back to the lane, or are wary of him stopping and pump-faking, so that creates just enough hesitation to allow Bryant to get to his chosen place on the floor, slam on the brakes, elevate and shoot the jumper.
His favorite target is on the right side, just outside the lane, parallel with the basket. That's where he went to hit a key basket against the Portland Trail Blazers last season. Brandon Roy described the sick feeling of guarding Kobe one moment and watching the ball sail over your head the next like this: "As soon as it left, I was turning like, 'Noooooo.'" There are defenders all over the NBA who have been there.
4. Jason Richardson's sneaky cuts.
With Dwight Howard occupying the lane in Orlando there isn't much room for the rest of the Magic players to roam through there. But keep an eye on Jason Richardson when he's away from the ball. He doesn't run to stay in perpetual motion, the way Rip Hamilton does. Richardson will pick his spots, but when he does slash to the hoop it results in points 75 percent of the time, according to Synergy Sports. He'll lull the defense to sleep, and next thing you know he's at the rim with the ball.
5. Chauncey Billups' good hands.
There isn't much flash to Chauncey Billups' game. He barely gets off the floor. He doesn't have that Allen Iverson-style crossover. He doesn't need any of that. He has the essential building block for ballhandling and shooting: great hands.
In Billups' case, his gift is strength. He can whip a pass from one side of the court to the other simply by flicking his wrists. He doesn't need to generate too much lift from his lower body because his hands can do most of the work. In most cases, saying you want your team to be held by steady hands is a metaphor. For Billups, it's a fact.
FIVE UNDER-25 UNDER-THE-RADAR GUYS ON CHRISTMAS DAY
By Chris Palmer
ESPN The Magazine
Christmas Day games are all about superstars. And in today's NBA that means highly decorated young guns. While everyone's tuning in to see that memorable move from Derrick Rose or Blake Griffin, I'll have my eyes on the other guys, hoping they'll give me something I haven't seen before. Here are five under-25 and under-the-radar players I'm looking forward to watching on Christmas Day.
1. Landry Fields, Knicks, 23
What's not to love? From his surprisingly useful hops (offensive tip dunks, anyone?) to his crisp knock-down jumper to his Long Beach-meets-Stanford swag. He was the surprise rookie of the first half of last season, copping Eastern Conference rookie of the month awards in November and December from a starting spot. Melo's arrival saw his production drop off in a reserve role, but he's back in the starting lineup and could be the Knicks' X-factor this year.
2. Rodrigue Beaubois, Mavericks, 22
The speedy Frenchman is drawing comparisons to Tony Parker and is the one player on the roster who figures to be a cornerstone of the Mavs' rebuilding efforts when Dirk & Co. move on. The old heads might have a tough time keeping up with his open-court speed, but few things are more fun to watch than Roddy's one-man fast breaks.
3. Serge Ibaka, Thunder, 22
Ibaka is one of the best young game dunkers around. Partly because of his out-of-this world athleticism, but also because that ability is a bit unpolished. He crashes toward the rim with a graceful rambunctiousness that hints at a world of potential he's barely scratched
4. Stephen Curry, Warriors, 22
Would gladly hand over cash just to watch Curry warm up. In only two years Curry has emerged as one of the game's purest shooters, never having shot lower than 43 percent from behind the arc thanks to a picture-perfect release. But it's not just the sweet stroke that makes Curry fun to watch. He's got a deep arsenal of dipsy-do up-and-under moves and unorthodox ball fakes that no one can seem to resist.
5. DeAndre Jordan, Clippers, 23
Why Jordan? Simple. His dunks are becoming almost as must-see as Blake Griffin's. After two preseason games Chris Paul has actually connected on more lobs with Jordan than Griffin. Jordan seems bent on bringing back the days of monstrous seven-footer thunder dunks that seem to have been missing from the NBA landscape for a while.