Merry Christmas: We Can Already Rule Out One-Third of the NBA

Why you should care

It’s already time for much of the NBA to tank.

College football bowl season is upon us, which can only mean one thing: Real NBA basketball is about to start. For years, a running joke among NBA fans and haters alike is that the season doesn’t begin until Christmas Day. At least the meaningful matchups, anyway. For sports fans, Christmas has become as synonymous with hoops as it is hymns and honey-baked ham. Like football on Thanksgiving, Christmas has become appointment viewing for the NBA. This year, five marquee matchups — highlighted by Celtics-Raptors, Bucks-Sixers and a Clippers-Lakers nightcap — take center stage. 

But what if we told you that Dec. 25 actually marks the end of NBA uncertainty? Don’t watch the NBA until January? Well, you’ve already missed the fun. 

We crunched the numbers and, over the last 10 seasons, 84 percent of teams that made the playoffs would have made it if the season ended on Dec. 25. Which makes sense: good teams race to an early lead in the standings, then dominate the cellar dwellers until the playoffs roll around. But, rarely, a revitalized squad goes full undertaker and steals a playoff spot. To figure out who that might be this season, we had to key in on a statistical point of no return when it comes to playoff berths. We found it: 

Since 2009, only five teams with a winning percentage under .406 on Christmas Day went on to make the playoffs. 

None has done it since the 2015 Portland Trail Blazers. Just 11-20 with a .355 winning percentage on Christmas Day, Portland ripped off a 33-18 record to close the year, earned a 5 seed and made the Western Conference semifinals. Teams celebrating Christmas with a winning percentage below .350 fare even worse. Only one such team — the 2013-2014 Brooklyn Nets, who were 9-19 (.321) on Dec. 25 — went on to make the playoffs, losing in the second round. 

Christmas comes early this year, with the earlier start to the season meaning we’re already more than a third of the way done. Heading into Tuesday’s games, 20 of the 30 NBA teams have winning percentages above .406 — so the 16 playoff teams will probably all come from that group.

Given the current standings, there are seven teams we can immediately cancel: New Orleans and Golden State in the West, and Chicago, Washington, Atlanta, Cleveland and New York in the East all have winning percentages below .350. To those eight teams, thank you for your time, but better luck next year. It’s time to tank for a better draft pick. 

In the West, Phoenix is lurking just outside the playoff picture. But we’re looking down the board to find our late riser. One of the most shocking storylines of this young season has been Portland’s collapse. At 11-16 (.407), the team that made the Western Conference semifinals is currently in 10th place. But the Blazers may yet have life — and not just because they are barely above our .406 cutoff. 

“They need to make one move,” says Turner Sports analyst Steve Smith. “It’s been a roller-coaster season so far in Portland, but adding Carmelo [Anthony] — to some people’s surprise — was exactly what they needed.”

It’s true. After a 5-9 start, Portland signed Anthony to a non-guaranteed one-year deal. He made his debut on Nov. 19 and is averaging 16.8 points and 6.1 rebounds. Portland, now 6-7 since Anthony’s arrival, fully guaranteed the 10-time All-Star’s contract on Dec. 5. The Blazers don’t look great, but with Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Anthony, they’re fully capable of catching Phoenix, Oklahoma City or even Utah in the West. “Luckily for Portland, Kevin Love wants out of Cleveland,” says Smith. Indeed, the five-time All-Star and Oregon native reportedly wants to be traded to the Blazers. If that happens, the Blazers will be playing in May. 

In the East, the standings provide a bleaker view. The Orlando Magic (12-14) are in eighth, with Charlotte (12-17) and Detroit (11-16) the only other teams with a winning percentage above .350. “The Hornets play hard and have a lot of players who are fighting to prove they belong in the NBA,” says Smith. Still, usurping Detroit or Orlando might be too much for the young team that just watched long-time star Kemba Walker join the Celtics this offseason. 

Come to think about it, let’s all just hope that Zion Williamson returns from injury to take the 6-21 New Orleans Pelicans to the promised land. That’s a surefire way to inspire a hoops-themed hymn.

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