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Thursday, January 29, 2015

2015 All-Star Picks

As always, I wanted to put together a list of who I think should play in the NBA's version of Super Bowl Sunday.  The fan voting has ended and the 2015 starters for the NBA All-Star Game have been announced.  Now it’s time to ponder who should fill out the remaining rosters to play at the big game.  


All-Star selections; click to enlarge

What do I think of the fans’ selection of the starting lineup?

Other than Kyle Lowry's surprise booting of Dwyane Wade from the starting lineup in the last round of All-Star balloting, voting in a player from an abysmal 9-37 team is just beyond me.  Why David Stern or Adam Silver never stepped up and changed the impact of fan voting is equally perplexing.  At least we can count on Mark Cuban to shed some light on other reasons why the system sucks - and cleverly without calling the fans a bunch of idiots.  I of course am referring to the fans' selection of Carmelo Anthony.  They may not have gotten the Lowry pick wrong, but a guy from the league's WORST team?  Come on.

As for the West starting five, please copy and paste what I said about Melo and replace "Melo" with "Kobe." Sure, he will be replaced regardless due to a season-ending injury, but either James Harden or Klay Thompson belong in that 2-guard slot.  

MY RESERVE PICKS

Key Omissions due to Injury:
Russell Westbrook (Oklahoma City)

Eastern Conference
As I do every year, I base my picks off of teams who are winning.  In a perfect world, I would put four Hawks on this year's team.  What they are doing this year is not only legit, but incredible.  We haven't seen a team exceeding its individual talent like this since the 2004-2008 Detroit Pistons.  I'll settle for at least three, with Millsap being a potential injury replacement for Melo if necessary.  They just won 17 freaking games in a row - reminding me an awful lot of the T-Mac-led Houston Rockets in 2007-08 that won 22 straight games; just a bunch of great pieces that complement each other very well without that much superstar talent.  They might not win the championship, but they are legit and really amazing to watch.

Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, Al Horford and company look to dominate the East


I granted two All-Stars each to Washington, Chicago, and Cleveland - the next best teams in the East (sorry, Toronto, but you're too young and inexperienced).  And yes, I do think Jimmy Butler is deserving of a nod more so than Derrick Rose - at least, to the season's midpoint.  Rose has been ballin' of late - averaging 24.1 points, 5 assists, and 3.4 (!!) 3-pointers in the last 15 games.  Had he been healthy and playing like this all year, he would be a lock in my book.  But I gotta recognize Jimmy Butler, who is an odds-on favorite to win this year's Most Improved Player award.

Washington is a very intriguing team to watch.  They broke out last season, making it to the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs before bowing down to a crumbling-but-talented Indiana Pacers team.  Marcin Gorat has only gotten better, and Paul Pierce's veteran presence seems to be paying off.  And, he seems to have enough left in the tank before he vacates his small forward position in favor of Kevin Durant's homecoming.  Too soon?

After a slow start, LeBron and Kyrie
look to get the Cavs back on track
Speaking of homecomings, LeBron James is finally starting to look like himself, eh?  After looking emaciated to start the year (he reportedly lost about 20 pounds in the offseason), he seems to be refreshed after missing a few weeks to heal his nagging injuries.  He has a wrist injury that will prevent him from playing this weekend, but he is poised to have Cleveland finally gel together in the coming weeks.  And hey, having Kyrie Irving - another sure-fire All-Star - helps too, especially when he can carry a LeBron-less team past a very, very tough Trailblazers squad and drop 55 on them on Wednesday night.

Now for the team LeBron left - the Miami Heat.  Dwyane Wade, while still battling nagging injuries, is reminding everyone that he's not dead yet.  He is averaging 21.4 points and 5.4 assists per game, and Miami's offense looks completely hurt when he's not on the floor.  Looks like he's going to miss a little bit of time with a strained hamstring, and might need an injury replacement, anyways.  Chris Bosh has missed some time as well, but is stepping up as a focal point in the offense post LBJ - averaging 21.3 ppg/7.5 rpg.  With the (L)Eastern Conference as a whole being pretty shallow, that's good enough for me to make the reserve forward slot.

Speaking of Miami, let's play a "Guess Who" game.  A Miami Heat player is ranked 6th in the entire NBA in PER.  Who do you think it is?  Well, if you go by my All-Star picks, it's gotta be either D-Wade or Bosh, right?

...Right?

......

Wrong.  The answer is Hassan Whiteside, who has completely come into his own with a whopping 27.01 PER rating.  Only Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Stephen Curry are ahead of him.  That's it!!  He's ahead of freaking LeBron!! Granted it's early in the season with a relatively small sample size of games, and he doesn't play that many minutes (17.1 on average), but still - the guy was an early second round pick in 2010 by Sacramento, and NO ONE saw this coming.  Incredible story.  But I digress...

Apologies to Milwaukee, whom I still can't name five players from off the top of my head, but I would not be opposed to Brandon Knight making a wildcard spot.

Western Conference
First off, my apologies to Russell Westbrook for the snub.  Ironically, I am one of the most adamant defenders of this oft-criticized superstar.  But I think both he and KD missed too many games to be considered for the contest.  KD (as always) got voted in, but there are an astronomical number of deserving candidates in the West who played more games than both of them.

The Splash Brothers have made their mark this season
Golden State is this year's most talked-about and arguably most popular team.  With Mark Jackson parting with them on rocky terms (at least with team management) at the end of last season, nobody knew if the Warriors could be serious contenders as constructed.  But leave it up to Steve Kerr
- the world's most underrated basketball mind - to make Mark Jackson's inspiring coaching style a distant memory.  They are now 36-7, and a whopping 21-2 at home.  How they will respond to a predominantly road-heavy schedule after the All-Star break remains to be seen.  But for now, I am rewarding them with THREE All-Stars:  Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and breakout star Draymond Green.  Curry, of course, has catapulted himself into the league's best point guard conversation.  Even last season, it was hard to see this coming with this position being arguably the most loaded in the NBA.  But the fans already know that, and that's why he received the most votes of any player to play in Brooklyn on February 15th.

Whereas Curry was the leading vote-getter by fans, I think his running mate Klay Thompson will be the equivalent popular pick for head coaches.  He has become arguably the best two-way shooting guard in the league.  The guy has improved his game in so many ways - even putting himself in the record books by scoring the most points in a quarter in NBA history.  This historic event can only be explained in NBA Jam terms.  How did he get so good?  This article by Ethan Sherwood Strauss is one of the most informative articles I've ever seen and explains all the work Thompson's new moves to add to his repertoire.  Any explanation that shows video footage of a player's improvements is extremely telling.

And then there's Draymond Green.  Admittedly, I am still giddy about picking him up on my fantasy team early in the season.  But if you watch Golden State play, this guy has so many game-defining intangibles.  In the Warriors OT loss to Chicago on Tuesday night, I watched Green - time and time and again - consistently out-hustle TWO seven-footers in Gasol and Joakim Noah for a lot of key rebounds and tip-ins -including a last-second tip-in after out-jumping both big men to force OT.  For a guy who gives up about 4 inches to them, that is impressive.  I know I'm pointing to a loss, but he makes relentless plays on a routine basis and is a HUGE reason why the Warriors are off to this start.  Steve Kerr has recognized this from the beginning, and rewarded him with a starting role even with David Lee coming back from an injury.  With his overall contributions to the best team in the NBA, I just can't get myself to leave him off the list.

Okay, enough about the Warriors.  The West is as competitive as it's ever been, but there are only a few spots left.

Lillard (left) and Harden (right) are two of the most
lethal offensive weapons in the league
James Harden is making a strong case for MVP.  Even a former teammate who he completely dissed upon his departure, Chandler Parsons, is vouching for his candidacy.  Along with Thompson, he is a sure fire bet to get the coaches' votes, as he manages to drop about 30 ppg despite receiving continuous double and triple-team coverage.

Now for the team that defeated Harden's Rockets in the playoffs last season - the Portland Trailblazers.  This victory, of course, was most famous for the thrilling series-winning buzzer-beating three-pointer by Damian Lillard - who absolutely has to be next in line in the guard positions after Harden and Thompson.  He has carried that momentum this year to extraordinary levels and an endless pile of highlights.  His less-flashy but equally lethal teammate, LaMarcus Aldridge, deserves his perennial All-Star bid as well - after several years of being a snub up until 2013.

With two current non-playoff teams - OKC and New Orleans - each having an All-Star representative in the starting lineup (KD and AD), that leaves very few spots left for a super stacked conference.  If you reward the teams that are currently in the playoff hunt, you have to recognize, in some order, the guys who are making it happen for their teams: Duncan, Dirk, CP3, Mike Conley, Kawhi Leonard, Goran Dragic, and Eric Bledsoe.  In other words, 7 guys for 2 spots.  It's only fair that I pick players from the two unrepresented teams - San Antonio and Dallas - and go with Duncan and Dirk.  With the Clippers already having Blake Griffin represent them, I have no choice but to snub Chris Paul.  I'm even more mad about leaving off Mike Conley, who is also having a stellar year for the Grizz - but Gasol is repping Memphis already.  One of these great guards will get an injury replacement call anyway (for Kobe), but for now I have to leave them off.

Damn, that was hard.





Thursday, December 25, 2014

NBA Christmas Day Wish List

As we close in on another five-game NBA extravaganza, we would like to put together our wish list for each of the teams playing on Christmas Day - and maybe one or two that should be playing that day.


Since I have a fellow writer on board (Kunal), we will exchange ideas for six wishes each.

Vijay's Wishes

1.  Rajon Rondo returning to elite form as a new Maverick

Rajon Rondo (right) will make life a lot easier for
Dallas' incumbent primary ball handler, Monta Ellis (left)
Vijay:  I know, I know.  The Mavericks aren't playing that day, but they are a must-mention     right now.  After being mired by trade rumors for seemingly half-a-decade, former Celtic Rajon Rondo finally finds himself on a contending team again in Dallas.  It is worth mentioning on my wish list that I hope Rondo's addition makes for yet another great contending team out West.  In 2007, remember when people were concerned Rondo would not be good enough as a point guard to properly run a team with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen?  They won the first year he teamed up with those guys.  I see him doing great things immediately.  An obvious upgrade over Jameer Nelson, Rondo makes the Mavs instant title contenders.




Kunal:  A trade may have discovered Rondo’s price – but, I agree, we need time to discover whether he makes Dallas a strong(er) contender.  The Dribble, Screen, Dribble Dribble, Screen, & More Dribble Rondo Show isn’t what the Mavs need to improve.  And Dallas surely isn’t seeking a poor-shooting point guard.  Nonetheless, it got both for Christmas.   Ok, ok – I can also admit that, other than watching Rondo hide without the ball, he and Dirk could have made for fun Christmas pick-&-pops, and Chandler’s signature, two-handed slams – via RR dimes – would definitely complement my spiked eggnog.  But the West is loaded with PGs, many of who are playing on Dec 25th, making it worth waiting until Boxing Day to see Rondo withstand comparisons to JKidd and prove whether his playoff iteration of yesteryear is ready for a return.



2.  More Mavericks, Blazers, Pelicans & Grizzlies games, but less Lakers and Knicks

Melo (left) and Kobe (right) have been featured every
Christmas Day in recent memory...but why?
Vijay:  While I am always thrilled to watch five NBA games every Christmas Day, the NBA has got to show us teams that are much more worth watching than two of the league's cellar dwellers in LA and New York.  Those who create the schedule seem to be irrationally stubborn about giving them entirely too much national TV exposure no matter how bad they are.  Ratings are down because these teams are awful and the TV networks keep showing them - not because the league does not have enough good teams.



Portland and San Antonio played an epic triple-overtime game Thursday night.   By the way, that was the Spurs' second triple-OT game in a row!  Although these are both small-market teams, do you think people would have enjoyed that game on Christmas Day,or would they rather kick back and watch the Knicks get blown out at home?  Please.

Kunal:  I get it – Christmas matches are supposed to be between the best teams.  And for the most part (8 of the 10 teams), the best players and teams are playing on Jesus’ bday, with the exception being the Knicks and Lakers (combined record of 13-42).  But before you go wishing for a Rip City or Memphis BBQ Christmas, take a moment to appreciate that the Lakers and Knicks are to Christmas what the Packers and Cowboys are to Thanksgiving: certain to deliver holiday drama like a crazy uncle.  Plus, it could be worse: Adam Silver might have re-gifted a Celtics game.

3.  Pau Gasol showing the Lakers why he was missed

Not surprisingly, Gasol is having a great season in Chicago.  After some crazy disrespectful treatment by the Lakers organization the last few seasons, he is showing us once again why he is one of the best big men in the game.  Under Mike D'Antoni's offense in LA, he found himself as a third or fourth option, and camped out on the perimeter shooting mid-range and three-point shots.  Now, as a focal point in the offense, he is averaging 18.7 points and 11.7 rebounds per game.  Pretty good for a guy who was a scapegoat for the Lakers' shortcomings the past few seasons.

Kunal:  Agreed – the Lakers and its fans definitely miss Gasol.  But not all relationships are meant to be forever, and I too am happy to see Pau thrive.  It’s just a shame that Chicago is the beneficiary.

4.  Miami finding its stride again under a revitalized D-Wade

While Dwyane Wade is having his best season in years, his team's sub-.500 record clearly doesn't reflect it.  Common consensus was that his best years were behind him, but it is great seeing him coming back and playing at an elite level once again.  My wish is for Wade's great season to be fruitful, as he clearly does not have a whole lot of them left.

Problem is, the Heat still stink.  Chris Bosh has been out for four straight games with a calf injury.  Other than him and D-Wade, Luol Deng is the only guy capable of sustaining a consistent offense.  It doesn't look good right now.  Still, with a healthy Chris Bosh, this team should find itself contending for a top-four seed in the very watered-down Eastern Conference.

Kunal:  D-Wade’s resurrection is as unexplainable as Kobe’s shot selection this season.  I mean, I am still recovering from agonizing Finals moments when Danny Green (DANNY GREEN!) and Boris Diaw seemingly embarrassed Wade – defensively and offensively – to the point of awkwardness. But then Lebron migrated north and returned the crown of Alpha Dog of South Beach to Wade. (Bosh is forever omega.)  And with Wade making a alpha money with a cool $18 million this season, it is great for him and the NBA that he’s returned to the play that solidified him as the third-best shooting guard of all-time – like dropping 42 on Utah the other night.  As for wishes, I’m excited to witness Miamians react to the news that Christmas isn’t opening tip to the season.

It will be difficult for LeBron (left) and D-Wade (right)
to be opponents again after four years of success together

5.  An awesome show-down in LeBron's return to Miami

Vijay:  You get the feeling that LeBron's first return to Miami does not quite have the same ring to it as his first return to Cleveland as a Heat player four years ago.  You also get the feeling that this isn't quite a clash of the titans with both teams finding themselves fairly low in the weak Eastern Conference standings.  We know the Heat have their issues post-LeBron, but Cleveland has also been struggling thus far - but understandably so as LeBron, Love, and Irving are in search of chemistry in their first year as teammates.  Overall, this game is not going to get quite the hype as we foresaw before the season started.

Nevertheless, it will be fun watching D-Wade and LeBron squaring off as opponents again.  As of now, Miami is only four games back of Cleveland in the standings, so you never know how important this will be as far as playoff positioning implications go.

Going back to Cleveland's struggles, a stat worth mentioning:  Cavs are 8-2 when LeBron has at least 9 assists.  Once LeBron fully learns his teammates' tendencies, and the offense becomes more cohesive, he will rack up the assists on many more occasions - and the team will win a lot more games.

Kunal:  For part-time NBA fans, the Heat-Cavs game might seem like the best Christmas Day matchup.  But as you said, as soon as one gets past the overdone storyline about Lebron getting back together with his ex, the head-to-head is a bit pedestrian:  both teams are middle-of-the-pack in the feeble Eastern Conference and the bad blood was reconciled by a low-profile Decision 2.0.  But that doesn’t mean that I’m not excited to see isolations of Lebron vs D-Wade, and hopefully LBJ v Bosh, if the Heat forward-Raptors mascot is recovered from a strained calf.  Hell, can I wish for ABC to pay Bob Costas to deliver a theatrical opening narrative to the game that ends with the official song of basketball.


Aside from throwback soundtracks and split-second moments within a 48-minute game, what’s my chief wish for the Cavs-Heat matchup? To see Mario Chalmers.  I haven’t seen Mario since he took vacation days during the Finals.  And with the NBA focused on its #nogifts campaign, I expect Kyrie to stuff Mario’s stocking with lumps of coal.  It might not be on your Christmas list, but highlights that star Mario on the receiving end of dynamic plays feel as good as hearing that Heat “fans” observed OT of Game 6 through the glass doors of the American Airlines Arena.

video



6.  Stephen Curry overtaking Chris Paul as the league's best point guard

Vijay: With Steve Kerr having his Warriors blaze out to a ridiculously unforeseen 22-3 record, one can't help but credit Stephen Curry for making Kerr look like his former coach Phil Jackson (well, in terms of W-L).  My wish is for Curry to have an epic toe-to-toe battle with Chris Paul - the league's consensus best point guard.  But after seeing Chris Paul failing to come through time and time again - including against the Thunder in Game 5 of last year's playoffs - the window of him being the league's best point guard is closing with the way Steph Curry has come into his own.

The Warriors-Clips game on Christmas Day gives Curry a great opportunity on a national stage to show why he is capable of being the league's next best point guard.  Last season, the Warriors fell short against Paul's Clips.  But they did not have Steve Kerr coaching, or a completely revamped bench, or even this year's version of Steph Curry.  

Kunal:What if, in March 2008, I told you that Dell’s son would end up having mad handles AND definitively shoot better than his daddy?  You’d likely say that one of the two might be possible, but no way to both.  Well guess what:  that high-school-looking kid from Davidson – who then torched a 2-seeded Gtown – has now grown up to be an NBA-shooting assassin masked as a college student.

But before one attempts to hype Steph Curry as the NBA’s premier PG, let’s remember that CP3 will definitely come correct to Christmas dinner to preserve his title as the league’s floor general.  So are we hasty to identify the Warriors-Clipps as a PG-passing-of-the-torch kinda game? Absolutely.

Nonetheless, both players know that we’ll be watching closely and excessively reading into certain plays, since Steph Curry will be advancing his MVP campaign and CP3 (undeservingly) proving his legacy as one of the greatest points guards, which many refuse to give him until he shows up to a conference finals.  Lob City is still exciting and good, but the cool kids in the Bay Area are running game – so here is to wishing for less legacy hyperbole and more point-guard magic this Christmas.



Kunal's Wishes

7.  Splash Brothers’ Green Light

Kunal:  You know the best thing about the Splash Brothers?  Hint:  it’s neither their sharpshooting skills nor college-like comradery.  It’s that they, who electrify crowds like any other duo this league has seen, are no more physically intimidating than the regulars who play on Court 1 at your rec center.  And in today’s NBA – a league of imaginary-like athletes whose wingspans and verticals cause scouts and fans to gawk – it is refreshing to know that someone who could borrow my clothes could also be my favorite player. 

Other than the physical characteristics of an everyday guy, the Splash Brothers deliver us two (very) different doses of sharpshooting.  From Curry, we admire a point guard who resembles the love child of Allen Iverson and Mark Price – the impeccable mixture of handles and range that reminds us the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.  If you give him an inch, he'll torch ya from downtown.  But if you get up in him, he'll have you on your heels and looking silly.  Good luck with that assignment.  

video
As for Klay Thompson, he’s the perfect catch-and-shoot compliment, which makes defenses honest, to Curry’s shoot-or-penetrate powerful play; plus, Klay enjoys awkward, self-congratulatory air swings after dunking on 7-foot Sideshow Rob (see video).

For part-time NBA fans, the Thunder did offer the most university-like NBA experience, with an arena of fans who pride themselves and their team for being "name-on-the-front-of-the-jersey" kinda of people.  But now that the Thunder have buckled down – after early season injuries to KD and Westbrook – to restore an honest record, intermittent NBA fans will realize this Christmas that they would be wise to pivot their marginal, regular season interest to Mark Cooper’s homeboys: the Golden State Warriors.
"hey, yo! what's up? where's my theme music?!"


Vijay:  I like how you keep saluting the part-time NBA fans.  But you're right - whether you're a fair-weather or avid NBA fan, the Dubs are an absolute MUST-watch team this year.  Not only are the two "brothers" entertaining, but their supporting cast makes for some entertaining basketball.  Harrison Barnes has supplanted Andre Iguodala as a more explosive starting small forward.  Still, Iguodala and even Mareese Speights are fun to watch coming off the bench.  And by the way, two KEY guys - David Lee and Andrew Bogut - are still hurt.  Just imagine what they would be like fully healthy.  With Steph Curry as the team's engine, there's no telling how far they can go with their lights-out shooting and abundance of athleticism at every position.

8. An I-95 Christmas Dogfight

Kunal:  If you’re from the Northeast, you’re familiar with the settled science that, to a DC resident, an NYC weekend feels like unyielding liquid cocaine and that, to a New Yorker, a DC weekend equates to a BlackBerryville bed and breakfast.  I get it, NY:  you have world-class restaurants, better music and art scenes, and the Garden is to basketball what Lord’s is to cricket.  

But while the jury is still out on regulatory capture between Wall Street and Washington regulators, the verdict is in that the Wizards (19-8) are I-95’s most talented and fun team, led by John Wall’s deserving-of-an-MVP-conversation season and Bradley Beal’s arguable emergence as this generation’s version of Jesus Shuttlesworth.  Shame that Beal went to UF and not Big State.

Looking ahead to Thursday (or perhaps I'm looking backwards to convey a position), the Wizards have experienced recent success against the Knickerbockers, winning the last four matchups by a margin of 7 points.  But this year's Christmas can only be more festive the Knicks, considering that Carmelo isn’t injured this time around and last year’s 29-point loss to the Thunder is hard to beat.  But if a team were able to underperform last year’s blowout or start a short-lived run by beating a formidable postseason competitor in the Wizards, it would be the Knicks.  But the truth in all of it – I (and all of us) should find both versions of a Christmas Day Knicks performance entertaining.

Bradley Beal (left) and John Wall (right) have the look of
becoming one of the league's best backcourts

Vijay:  I just started living in DC five months ago, and man do I notice the difference between here and NYC.  Even more visible is the difference between the two cities' teams as you mentioned. I can see this being a competitive Christmas Day matinee game, but it is hard to imagine this being a good potential playoff matchup - and hell, a playoff matchup in general with the Knicks looking to lock up a top-five lottery pick.  In that sense, I am not too sure if this game will be all that entertaining in terms of significance, which brings me to my second wish above to not even showcase the present-day Knicks on national TV.

Instead, I'll focus on the Wizards.  The addition of Paul Pierce and his veteran presence has really helped this team jump out to the second-best record in the East.  This is all despite not having Bradley Beal for about four weeks with a broken hand.  With Marcin Gortat looking like one of the league's best centers (I would only put the Gasol brothers, Joakim Noah, Anthony Davis, Tyson Chandler, and DeMarcus Cousins definitively ahead of him - sorry, Dwight), the Wizards have the look of a contender in the East.

9. Critics getting off Westbrook's back

Kunal:  If Durant is the NBA’s favorite son, Russell Westbrook is definitely the league’s redheaded stepchild.  A megastar among his peers, Westbrook still carries the burden of having to control his second-to-none killer instincts and fulfill our expectations of feeding the league’s sweetheart and MVP -- Kevin Durant.  President Obama has a high-stress job and Speaker Boehner has the unreasonable responsibility of controlling House Republicans, but both realize that Westbrook is a better guy than they are for attempting to live up the the expectations of a Thunder point guard.

This past week, as KD sat out against the Lakers, Westbrook showed us why he is undoubtedly the scariest point guard in years.  I know this is crazy to say, but to steal a term from Wilbon, I think that Russell plays with a (slightly less) controlled rage that we haven’t seen since the always-cool Michal Jordan.

Westbrook should focus on what he's good at
- ferociously finishing at the rim
Vijay:  I always thought Westbrook was unfairly criticized throughout his career.  He's a classic case of a guy that does 99% of things EXTREMELY well, and the other 1% is debatable.  People tend to make a mountain of a mole hill in terms of his deficiencies.  But I would argue that the 1% of things he does is merely a side effect of being an on-edge player.  I would argue with you that we have had players who played with a certain controlled rage - such as Charles Barkley and Ron Artest.  Granted, Westbrook has the talent to become much better than them, but we've seen the two of them do a boneheaded thing or two as a result of their uber-competitive mentality on the court.  That being said, Westbrook can also control his temper a bit better than those two guys.  Also, don't tell him to pass more, because he is a straight-up assassin and attacker on the court.


10.  Seeing the Scrutinized Outperform the Steady

Kunal:  Whenever I witness Westbrook or Tony Parker convert on an incredible drive, which both do often, my reaction to each captures how I (and likely many) feel about each star.  With Parker, I admire a player who looks like an everyday Parisian who somehow magically slices through NBA defenses with the simplest of head fakes and impeccable timing, leaving us all wondering how his low-release layup wasn't sent to the fourth-row seats (again).  On the other end of the spectrum of incredible finishes, we witness Russell Westbrook's athletic ability and vision to anticipate a defensive shift before he and defenders realize how the play might mature.  

Suppose that we imagine that we were guarding each player on their good day...with Parker, we would constantly wonder on whether a quicker or more studious player could have guarded Parker's shifty dance; but with Westbrook, we would quickly sense that his attacks to the rim are what violent, unguardable moves genuinely look (and feel) like.  It's Balanced vs Belligerent on Christmas Day – and this year I'm getting stooopid.

Vijay:  You bring up quite an interesting comparison.  Between Westbrook and Parker, it is so difficult to say who is the better one because of how differently they each play.  But you're right on in that it is a fantastic clash of styles.  While this game won't tell us who the better point guard is, it will still give us an idea of which player is more devastating to the other team's defense.  The thing with Parker is, we've seen him come through time and time again in championship-deciding moments.  We have not seen that with Westbrook quite yet.  Until then, I am giving a slight nod to the four-time NBA champ.

11.  Bulls' Jimmy Butler Redeems Chicago Suburbs' Corner Store, Also Returns Esteem for Bulls' 2-Guard Position

Kunal:  I know, these wishes are just weird and senseless.  However, give me an opportunity to explain why Jimmy Butler (ok, mostly just his first name) is relevant to a Chicago Christmas:  Home Alone.

Why Home Alone?  Here is a hint:  the stolen toothbrush scene.  Still not sure?  Fine, then how about  the quote:  "Jimmy, stop that boy."   Now if that video still confuses you, go to hell for being so young and full of promise.  *(Separately, I feel like a think piece could be written about how the Home Alone police officer serves as the best way to react to a trivial shoplifting incident, but that is another blog and another blogger.)

Back to hoops:  Jimmy Butler is playing superb basketball.  Like All-Star kind of superb.  Like he and Steph Curry were even named NBA "November Employees of the Month" kind of superb.

Sadly, many NBA enthusiasts might not appreciate how well Jimmy is playing (21.7 PTS, 3.3 AST, 6.2 REB),  and Christmas is an opportunity for him to convey this (mostly) welcomed information.  Sure, we are still far from any Bulls two-guard coming within two zip codes of MJ's numbers, but Jimmy Butler might be the extra horsepower the Bulls need to reach the Finals for the first time in 16 seasons.  For all the missing pieces to a Bulls title that we've been trying to put our finger on, we can admit that Jimmy Butler is not what we were looking for, but we aren't disappointed that he might be that missing piece who was in the box the whole time.

Vijay:  Not much to say here, other than Jimmy is my Most Improved Pick so far.  Draymond Green in Golden State is knocking on the door, but I don't see this award going to anyone else the way Butler is stepping up this year.

12.  A Triple Ocho Kinda Christmas 

Kunal:  I'll admit that I appreciate Kobe as much as Bill Simmons loves to write War & Peace-length books about basketball (which I celebrate).   And Kobe's visit to the United Center, on the heels of just passing MJ in all-time points, opens an opportunity for us to appreciate a coined phrase by Reggie Miller for Vino: Triple Ocho.  And how appropriate it would be for Triple Eight to bring it on the 25th like MJ did against Santa. 


Vijay:  Why am I not surprised that you're ending this column with a Kobe wish?