Every NBA Team’s 2021 Christmas Present

Christmas and the NBA go together like hamburgers and J. Wellington Wimpy’s credit rating. As such, let’s take a look at all 30 NBA teams, from worst to first by conference, and play Santa Claus, giving every team its dearest holiday wish. No fancy intro this time out, just straight to opening presents like…well, like a kid on Christmas.

Detroit Pistons: All Their Young Players Hit Their Best Possible Ceiling.

The Pistons start three players—Cade Cunningham, Isaiah Stewart, and Killian Hayes—who are too young to drink the fun kind of egg nog on Christmas morning. Another starter—Saddiq Bey—is 22.

And while Santa could grant their wish just to keep those guys healthy, the greater hope for a franchise mired in a 5-26 tankfest of a season is to see those players develop the way players in the NBA 2K video games develop when they have a “Potential” rating of A+.

Sure, a lot of these presents have a monkey’s paw attached to them. If Detroit has four players on rookie contracts turn into All-NBA Rose Rule contract extension guys by Year 4, they’ll be so horrifically capped out trying to keep them that they’ll probably have to trade one or two of them for future draft picks or else have all their eggs in baskets that have already shown themselves to be injury-prone.

But let’s face it. When you’re a bad team rebuilding through the draft, that’s exactly the problem you’re hoping to have when you’re also winning 55 or 60 games a year. Just ask Warriors fans how much or how little they care about what that team’s homegrown talent makes in salary.

Orlando Magic: Same Present Detroit Got.

Second verse, same as the first. All five of the Magic’s primary starters are 23 or younger, with Mo Bamba the elder statesman of the group. Along with Cole Anthony, Wendell Carter Jr., Franz Wagner, and Jalen Suggs, they form the core of a team that, just like the Pistons, the Magic can only dream of ending up a capped-out mess when all five of them hit Rose Rule status thanks to the NBA Potential Fairy sprinkling them with 2015 Warriors dust.

Indiana Pacers: Bionic Joints for Their Injury-Prone Players.

“If this team weren’t constantly hurt, they could be contenders,” said every Pacers fan since Victor Oladipo‘s quadriceps tendon went full Charles Barkley in 2019. Malcolm Brogdon is made of glass, Domantas Sabonis can only do so much before his inevitable heroic workload breaks down his body, and if Brogdon’s made of glass, T.J. Warren is made of tissue paper.

OK, so maybe the Pacers just plain aren’t that good—14-19 is good for 13th in the East, after all—but if their players had the durability of old-school toys made of wood and steel and not cheap Chinese dollar-store knockoff plastic stocking stuffers of today, one must presume they’d be at least over .500. Warren’s 3-point shooting alone ought to see to that.

In fact, the Pacers actually have a positive Net Rating this year. So maybe they’re just wishing for some luck this Christmas. Eight of their losses have been by three points or less.

New York Knicks: An Actual Front Office and Owner That’s Not A Mess.

I feel bad for Knicks fans. No, actually, that’s a lie. I was born and raised in Boston, and New York fan suffering fuels my soul like racing fuel in the family Toyota Camry.

But it’s been over 20 years since James Dolan bought this stupid franchise and consigned it to the toilet bowl of the NBA, and if only for the sake of the league, a marquee franchise in New York City shouldn’t be such an absolute joke.

Their young players don’t develop. They don’t draft well. They’re not well coached. They can’t shoot for beans—defense wins championships, but not if you make the other team’s defense look like the ’94 Knicks or 2014 Spurs every time you take the floor offensively.

The Knicks deserve actual basketball people who know how to cultivate and build talent. As it stands, if they were to try and rebuild through the draft, they’d be even worse than the Pistons and Magic.

Toronto Raptors: Scottie Barnes Turns Into Karl Malone (On the Court, Not Off It)

I’m not suggesting Barnes go out and impregnate an underage girl. I’m just saying if he continues to show the potential he’s shown so far in his rookie year (15.6 PPG, .133 WS/48, 0.8 VORP, and generally becoming the second-best player on the team behind Fred VanVleet, who needs to turn into John Stockton in this scenario), the Raptors could be back up to their old tricks as perpetual contenders the way they were when Kyle Lowry was still on the team.

If Nick Nurse can find a way for Barnes to attack the basket as well as shoot the 3 (he’s hitting 35.6 percent from out there in his debut season), that would be a Christmas miracle.

Atlanta Hawks: An Instant End to the COVID-19 Pandemic.

The Hawks are 15-16 mainly because their players seem to spend more time in COVID-19 health and safety protocols than they do on the court; the Omicron variant of the virus is practically Atlanta’s sixth man at this point.

Clint Capela, Sharife Cooper, Danilo Gallinari, Kevin Huerter, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (thank you Basketball Reference for helping me spell that), Lou Williams, and most importantly Trae Young are all shelved by the scourge that will define the 2020s in the history books by the time the pandemic finally burns itself out.

Get vaccinated and boosted, folks. We’re all going to get COVID eventually—a virus whose closest genetic neighbors cause the common cold will eventually evolve into exactly that—but according to the King County (WA) department of public health, the death rate for vaccinated people under 50 who contract the disease is, rounded to one decimal place, zero. I’m 44. I’m getting my booster two weeks from today. And I like those odds. I don’t like having the common cold from hell, but you can’t win ’em all.

Charlotte Hornets: D-Fense! D-Fense! D-Fense!

The league’s third-best offense, absolute worst defense, and second-fastest pace may make for wildly entertaining basketball with completely bananas scoring, but it also tends to cancel itself out, as the Hornets are 17-17 and ninth in the East.

If this team could play even league-average defense, they could contend for a title. But Gordon Hayward has completely lost the ability to guard anyone, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Terry Rozier are similarly awful defenders, and when your best defensive player is LaMelo Ball, you have a problem.

That’s not to slag on Ball too much—even I have to admit that the kid’s actually pretty good. I thought his floor was going to be so low as to turn him into someone no better than his brother Lonzo, but LaMelo has a 1.5 VORP so far this season and .123 WS/48. That’s better by miles than anything LaVar’s spawn have been able to do against real competition.

Still, though. The Hornets’ defense is historically atrocious. They need to start guarding someone before they lose the play-in game 150-130.

Boston Celtics: Same As Atlanta.

The list of Celtics players in COVID-19 health and safety protocols is even longer than the Hawks’ list. They need Pfizer or Moderna to sponsor their jerseys.

Speaking of COVID, when Jayson Tatum contracted it last year, something happened to him, like “talent stolen for the Monstars” something. He’s shooting a wretched 41.9 percent from the field and 32.6 percent for three, and his 25.6 points per game have come on a downright Iversonian 21.5 shots.

Tatum is broken. There’s no nice way to say that. He has never been the same since the virus hit him.

Philadelphia 76ers: A Suitable Trade for Joel Embiid, and Ben Simmons Sticking Around.

Embiid is a clubhouse cancer. Simmons might be a head case, and he might be way beyond the point where Philly can salvage any hope of reconciling with him, but Embiid has been an agent of chaos for the Sixers’ chemistry. Charles Barkley’s been on him all year about stepping up as a leader, but that’s just not what Embiid’s about, and the Sixers need to understand that “The Process” just made them into an easy second-round (if not a first-round; after all, they’d be in the play-in games if the season ended today) out.

Don’t hire MBAs from outside sports to be your general manager. It doesn’t end well for anyone.

And while we’re on the subject, let’s not forget that Doc Rivers is one of the worst playoff coaches of all time, a guy who cannot make an adjustment in a seven-game series if he’s got a gun to his head. The 2008 Celtics, a team so stacked with talent that a bowl of oatmeal could’ve coached them to a title, needed Game 7 twice to get through just the first two rounds of the ’08 playoffs, and they lost a total of 10 games in four playoff series. They choked away Game 7 in 2010 when Kobe Bryant went 6-of-24. Rivers needs to go. He got out-coached by Nate McMillan in a playoff series last year. As a longtime Pacers fan, I didn’t even think that was humanly possible.

The Sixers don’t need Santa Claus. They need Rocky Balboa’s montage producer.

Washington Wizards: Whatever Wizard Magic Makes Them 17-15 and Not 14-18.

The Wizards are 21st on offense, 22nd on defense, and 23rd for Net Rating. They should, in essence, trade places with Indiana in the standings, with the Pacers sixth and the Wizards 13th in the East, at least statistically. Washington is bad on both sides of the ball. They’re playing like a 36-win team, which is why they’ve lost 12 out of 19 to drop from 10-3 to 17-15. In that 19-game stretch, their biggest win has been by eight points (over Minnesota) while all 12 of their losses have been by at least six points and nine have been by double digits.

It’s probably inaccurate to say the Wizards are playing like a 36-win team. Since starting 10-3, they’ve played more like a 20-win team.

Nothing short of a miracle will get this team to the playoffs unless they turn around their putrid play of the past 17 games. Otherwise, they may not even win 30 games all season. 13-37 in their last 50 is certainly on the table.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Whatever Spirit Animated Their Blowout of Milwaukee Last Week.

The Cavs have a bunch of players in COVID protocols and have seen their games postponed this week.

But last time they actually took the floor, they clobbered the Bucks 119-90.

What’s more, they are the opposite of the Wizards recently; since starting 9-10, they’ve gone 10-3, with all ten wins by double figures.

Cleveland is taking on all comers and clobbering them. Whatever they’re doing right, Santa needs to give them more of it.

Miami Heat: Some Freaking Consistency.

The 20-13 Heat looked like the beasts of the East when they were 6-1.

Trouble is, they’re 14-12 since then and have a nasty habit of just plain not showing up for games; they’ve been blown to hell by 15 or more six times, and 10 of their 13 losses overall have been by double digits.

When the Heat are good, they blast teams out of the arena. When they’re bad, the “Heat” are more like the Miami Absolute Zero.

They need to get right mentally and actually come out hard for every game. When they get down, everything tends to go right out the window, a sign of an undisciplined team that may well self-destruct come playoff time.

Milwaukee Bucks: For Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry‘s 3-Point Stroke.

Giannis is, when it comes to outside shooting, Charles Barkley. He makes Russell Westbrook look like Klay Thompson. He’d probably lose a 3-point contest to Ernie Johnson—someone at TNT needs to arrange this, maybe when the Bucks visit Atlanta to play the Hawks on January 17.

The Bucks are otherwise the same “3 seed with title aspirations” they were last year. They’re 21-13, 7th in Net Rating, as good as their record (their projected record and actual record are identical), just the same old great Bucks they’ve been since Giannis emerged as a superstar.

But Giannis’s outside shooting makes the baby Jesus cry. And we don’t want that on Christmas, do we? I mean, that might be because it’s baby Jesus and Mary needs to put him on the tit and feed him. But Giannis’s shooting isn’t helping.

(what, you wanted me to go through a Christmas piece without some blasphemy? I’m the guy who pluralizes the word “gods” every time I mention religion. You must be new here.)

Chicago Bulls: Get DeMar DeRozan an Outside Shot!

The knock on DeRozan since he came into the league is that if he’d entered the NBA in 1969 or even 1989 instead of 2009, he’d be one of the greatest players of all time.

As it stands, his dinosaur offensive game, over-reliant as it is on midrange jump shots, was first exposed when Toronto finally won the title the year they got rid of him.

Now, in Chicago, it threatens to be exposed in the second round of the playoffs. Because the Bulls, at 19-10, may be half a game up on Milwaukee in the standings, but they’re just as close behind the Bucks in Net Rating (Milwaukee is seventh, Chicago eighth) and on paper the Bucks are going to eat their lunch in the second round.

You cannot count by 2 when the other team counts by 3 in today’s league. The Bulls have the second-lowest 3PAR in the NBA. Even though the rest of the guys—even Lonzo Ball, fercrissakes!—are excellent 3-point shooters and Chicago is third in 3P% league-wide, they’re going to learn the same lesson San Antonio did about low 3PAR, and it’s going to hurt just as much.

Brooklyn Nets: A Trade for Kyrie Irving.

Irving is a head case. There’s no nice way to say it, and I don’t care a lick about his status as a “martyr who speaks his mind.” He’s a flat-earther and an anti-vaxxer. If he were white, we’d all just call him an idiot, assume he was a Republican, and move on.

The guy is a chemistry-killer; his lone title came because LeBron James put him on a leash in Cleveland, a leash that eventually led to Irving and LeBron having a falling out and Kyrie ending up killing chemistry in Boston.

Maybe some team out there is desperate enough for a point guard and plays in a state where COVID restrictions aren’t a thing (Florida? Texas?) that they’d trade for Kyrie.

But until he gets his head out of his ass, the Nets are stuck with a boat anchor on their cap and a hole at the point.

Then again, Brooklyn is 21-9, best in the East and behind only the three Western powerhouses—Golden State, Phoenix, and Utah—for the best record in the whole league.

You ever notice teams are better when Kyrie sits than when he plays? Ask Bill Simmons about something called the “Ewing Theory”…

Houston Rockets: Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr. Learn How to Shoot.

The Rockets started the season 1-16. Since then, they’re actually 9-7, but the elephant in the room is that their two young talents, Green and Porter, are truly atrocious shooters, with eFG% numbers of .467 and .431 (barf!) respectively.

Porter’s been injured of late, and the team has played musical chairs with its starters’ minutes as they try to give everyone some run in a rebuilding year, but it’s not a good sign for Stephen Silas’ team that their young players have such an uphill battle just to avoid playing 4-on-5 or even 3-on-5 offensively.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Sam Presti Re-Discovers His Drafting Touch.

Presti famously drafted three Hall of Fame candidates in three years between 2007 and 2009, snagging Kevin Durant second overall in 2007, Russell Westbrook with the fourth pick in 2008, and James Harden third in ’09.

Trouble is, all three of those guys are gone now. Oklahoma City hasn’t been good since Durant left after the 2016 season, and they were downright putrid last year.

Sixth overall pick Josh Giddey hasn’t exactly looked anything like those three prior Presti picks this year, shooting a wretched 39.7 percent and 25 percent from three, and it’s not like those 3-pointers have been the biggest drag on Giddey’s shooting. His 3PAR is just .318. 68.2 percent of his tries have been 2-pointers, and he’s hit only 46.6 percent of them. He’s got a ton of aborted drives—31.5 percent of his shots have been between 3 and 10 feet compared to 19.1 percent from 3 feet and in—and it’s been a huge drag on his efficiency.

In other words, Presti may be headed for a monstrous fall from grace reputation-wise if he can’t get some quality talent onto the prairies in a hurry.

New Orleans Pelicans: Please, Santa, Just Let Us Not Be a Dumpster Fire.

What do you even do with New Orleans, a team that hasn’t been good since they had Chris Paul back in the day? They had Anthony Davis and only made the playoffs with him twice. They’ve been consistently badly coached, and they’re downright cursed with Zion Williamson having turned into the worst possible version of himself since they drafted him. Williamson looks more like Fat Albert than The Next LeBron, all his huge potential in college having gone down his gullet with beignets and po’boys in the Big Easy.

New Orleans started 1-12. Like Houston, they got better after the dreadful start—they’re 11-9 since and 12-21 overall—but does anyone seriously believe (besides ESPN and TNT, who insist on putting this trash fire of a team on national TV) that the Pelicans will be anything other than the Pelicans?

Just move them to Seattle. Or Vegas. Or Timbuktu.

Sacramento Kings: A Real Coach, Please.

Replacing Luke Walton—who has been awful since he coached the Lakers starting in 2016—with Alvin Gentry—who was part of New Orleans’ tale of woe during the Davis era—has been a disaster for Sacramento.

The Kings have been perpetual losers for 70 years now, the 1951 championship for the Rochester Royals the sole Kodak moment in the history of this awful franchise. They’ve wasted Hall of Fame careers—just ask Jack Twyman and Oscar Robertson, or maybe Mitch Richmond and Chris Webber. They’ve moved time and time again, always into the NBA’s housing projects, first in Cincinnati, next in Kansas City and Omaha, finally in California’s forgotten wasteland that mostly confounds kids who think the capital of the state is Los Angeles. It probably should be Los Angeles.

No amount of fancy arena money can change the fact that this is another team that should’ve just been moved to Seattle as soon as the Sonics left—speaking of new buildings, Climate Pledge Arena, anyone?

But the one coach they had who understood the modern game in recent years—Dave Joerger—they ran out of town. His 39-43 2019 campaign remains the best season the franchise has had since 2006. Seriously. Sacramento hasn’t had a winning record for 16 years (assuming, with no evidence to the contrary, they’ll be that bad this year.)

And at the rate they’re going, they might not have a winning record for another 16 years. See you in 2038. Even the Timberwolves have done more with their franchise over the last decade and a half.

Portland Trail Blazers: A Good Haul of Draft Picks for the Rebuild.

The Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum Era is over in Portland. No amount of wishful thinking or remembrance of Dame miracles past can change that. It’s time for the franchise to blow it up, go full Process, and start over.

Then again, Portland has famously whiffed in the draft in epic fashion twice, so whatever they do, if there’s a transcendent talent on the board potentially one pick behind a center, DON’T DRAFT THE CENTER.

Of course, the moment Portland heeds this advice, the center will turn into the next Shaquille O’Neal or Wilt Chamberlain.

But they need to stack the draft. Take a page from Danny Ainge on this one, guys.

San Antonio Spurs: Four Words: Head Coach Becky Hammon.

It is long past time for Gregg Popovich to retire. The 73-year-old hasn’t coached a playoff game since 2019, hasn’t made a serious playoff run since 2017, and is the coach of the Spurs mostly because he’s Gregg Freaking Popovich and nobody in San Antonio would dare fire him.

But the magic is gone. His coaching philosophies are so far out of date that he might as well be Red Auerbach at this point. It’s time for him to step aside.

And the NBA is ready for a woman patrolling the sideline full-time. If Hammon fails, it won’t be because some sexist in another NBA city pulled the plug too soon. San Antonio is the place for Pop’s heir apparent to get her fair run from the fans and the franchise.

Because it’s just sad watching an old man dodder around the sideline, his coaching magic so far gone that only old highlight reels and reunions with Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili can spark it for so much as a moment.

Minnesota Timberwolves: For the Blowout Losses Not to Mean as Much as They Look Like They Mean.

It’s hard to believe in a team that’s been as bad for as long as Minnesota has been. When Miami gets blown out of the building, you can remind yourself that they made the 2020 NBA Finals.

When Minnesota gets their ass kicked, as they’ve done with shocking regularity in their 17 losses so far this season against 15 wins, you mostly think to yourself, “yeah, it’s the Timberwolves, what did you expect?”

The weird part is that the Wolves almost never play close games no matter who wins. Their win column is just as disproportionately littered with blowouts as their loss column is.

In Miami, you wish for consistency. In Minnesota, you hope that the losses don’t say more about the team’s abilities than the wins do. Great teams win big and lose close. Bad teams win close and lose big. Teams that make no sense whatsoever either win big or get the crap kicked out of them.

Minnesota is either a bad team just waiting for the bottom to fall out or an up-and-coming team just trying to put the pieces together. Santa needs to give them that latter outcome.

Denver Nuggets: Same as Indiana.

Nikola Jokic, the reigning MVP, spent the early part of this year flirting with the all-time record for WS/48, held by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The rest of the Nuggets have been constantly injured, with Jamal Murray and Michael Porter out for the season, Aaron Gordon his usual fragile self, PJ Dozier out until the heat death of the universe, and the rest of the Nuggets a mishmash of statistical degradation that means this is “Nikola Jokic and a G-League Team.”

Get them out of injury trouble and the Nuggets could be contenders. Otherwise, Jokic is going to have to be better than Kareem in his prime just to get Denver into the playoffs.

Dallas Mavericks: Same as Atlanta and Boston.

Another team, another COVID-19 health-and-safety protocols mess.

Even Luka Doncic is out now. At least Omicron’s supposedly not as bad as prior variants even as it’s more contagious…only a matter of time before it’s the common cold (I keep telling myself this because I first predicted it as the pandemic’s endgame way back when Delta showed up and I’m nothing if not determined.)

Los Angeles Lakers: LeBron Finds the Fountain of Youth.

LeBron James lurches toward career milestones even as he misses a bunch of games in his late 30s; in oth

er words, he’s Malone, Abdul-Jabbar, early-70s Wilt, early-aughts Michael Jordan

…gods, I’m old. People I rooted for when I was a young man are now aging out of the league. The last NBA player older than I am, Vince Carter, finally retired. Over in the NFL, Tom Brady, three weeks younger than me, approaches Steve DeBerg’s record for the oldest player ever to start an NFL game (Brady, if he starts any game in the 2022 season at age 45, will break that mark) but won’t live forever.

And now LeBron, about to turn 37, is in a race with Father Time to get to 38,388 career points before his body finally breaks down for good.

He’s on 35,930. Malone finished with 36,928; at LeBron’s current pace he needs 40 more games to get there and might do it this season. Kareem, though? 38,387. 2,457 points left. About two more years given LeBron’s recent totals. Interestingly, all of the top four scorers in NBA history played at least one season with the Lakers—Malone in 2004, LeBron recently—even if only Kareem and Kobe were mainly associated with the franchise and only Kobe himself played his entire career there. His Airness is fifth.

As for LeBron’s other career milestone—a “career triple-double” of 35,000-plus points and 10,000 rebounds and assists? He’s 108 boards and 167 dimes away. 20 or 30 games at his current pace this season.

The Lakers need to pass this torch in Los Angeles. Forget titles or whatever else. The Lakers’ supporting cast is terrible, Davis is savagely overrated as a superstar, and Westbrook’s a garbage fire at this point.

It’s all about King James ascending to NBA godhood. Someone get him a Fountain of Youth.

Los Angeles Clippers: Magic Healing for Kawhi Leonard‘s ACL.

‘Nuff said, really. Where Kawhi goes, winning follows, and while Paul George may have shed his playoff-choker reputation at least a little last year in getting the Clips to the conference finals, the fact still remains that as Kawhi goes, so go the Clippers.

Memphis Grizzlies: Please Let the Last 14 Games Be for Real.

Memphis is 10-4 since starting 9-10, and more importantly, while those first 10 losses included nine double-digit defeats against just three out of nine victories by 10 points or better, the last 14 games have featured all 10 wins coming by seven or more while the worst loss was by nine to Golden State.

In other words, since that rough start, the Grizz have played like an honest-to-gods contender.

Are they for real? Or is that awful start, far worse than the 9-10 record statistically, the true face of this team?

Memphis fans infamously remember the collapses in 2016 and ’17. Santa, give ’em this one. Another heartbreak hotel moment in the land of the delta blues in the middle of the pouring rain? That’d just be cruel.

Utah Jazz: Turn Those Advanced Stats into Actual Wins.

The Jazz are a familiar story to fans of the mid-’90s Seattle Supersonics. Great regular season with two big-time superstars. Playoff heartache as the team can’t rely on that gaudy Net Rating in a seven-game series.

Last year’s team was tops in Net Rating and crashed out against the Clippers in the second round.

The 2020 squad was ninth in the league and didn’t get out of the first round.

The 2019 team was fourth. Couldn’t get out of the first round.

Now they’re tops in the league again in that mark. They’ve also most likely got a date with Golden State or Phoenix in round two. Does anyone seriously believe the Jazz win that series? Do they know it’s Christmas?

C’mon, Santa. Or are you Catholic and you think the Mormons are heretics the way my paternal grandmother—Satan damn her soul—did?

Golden State Warriors: A Christmas Win over Phoenix.

Phoenix Suns: A Christmas Win over Golden State.

Because fans across the country can’t wait to see a Western Conference Finals preview on national television in the nightcap. Gather the family around the TV and enjoy the greatest of all showcases, the greatest gift Santa gives not just the winning team but basketball fans everywhere. Half a game separates these two teams in the standings. The winner takes the 1 seed for the time being. What’s more, the winner also gets the pole position for the head-to-head matchup; they’re tied 1-1 so far but they do play each other again on March 30.

Enjoy the game. And happy holidays to all.