The NBA Christmas Day games are one of the league’s most visible showcases. Rivalries are deepened, as with the Clippers-Warriors matchups in 2013 and 2014, or rejoined, as with the centerpiece of this year’s slate, a finals rematch between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers. For the last seven years, the Oklahoma City Thunder have enjoyed prime placement on the Christmas marquee, playing against some of the best teams in the league. But this season, after former MVP Kevin Durant left town over the summer, the Thunder’s star power has diminished enough to warrant a matchup against the Minnesota Timberwolves, currently 9-19 and one of the worst teams in the league.
We can use FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings to see just how far the Wolves fall below the Thunder’s standards. Here are Oklahoma City’s Christmas Day opponents beginning in 2010:
|DATE||HOME TEAM||AWAY TEAM||THUNDER ELO||OPPONENT ELO|
You might notice that in 2013 the Thunder got stuck playing the New York Knicks, TV’s worst recurring Christmas Day special. Except 2013 was the rare occasion when the Knicks looked like a legitimate NBA team coming into the season. Their preseason Elo rating was 1579, 128 points higher than their rating on Christmas Day, or the difference between a top-10 team and a bottom-5 one. So the Thunder weren’t supposed to have a dog of a game, they just ended up with one because the Knicks fell off the wagon.
That wasn’t the case for this season’s Timberwolves. Minnesota came into the season with a rating of 1434, and has since fallen to 1426. The idea with the Wolves was that they have one of the brightest talents in the league, Karl-Anthony Towns, and a roster packed with young, exciting players liable to throw a 30-foot alley-oop or dunk on your head. They were supposed to be among the baby-faced upstarts in the league this season, and they might yet be if they ever figure out how to hold onto a lead.
This is a flavor of game the league likes to book. Last Christmas saw a similar matchup between the Miami Heat, two years removed from LeBron James’ leaving in free agency to return to Cleveland, and the New Orleans Pelicans, home to Anthony Davis. The matchmaking logic made sense enough: Pair off a franchise familiar to fans with a few stars left over from deep playoff runs against an up-and-coming face-of-the-league-type star.
Things didn’t work out so well then, either. The Heat came into the game looking like dark-horse contenders in the east, with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside playing at high levels. But the Pelicans were beset by injuries early in the season, and Davis never took the leap forward many expected. New Orleans came into the game at 9-20, and while it took the game into overtime, it was hardly the glamour matchup the league had hoped for.
Last year’s Pelicans-Heat and this year’s Wolves-Thunder aren’t quite parallel, though, because the year before — the Heat’s first without LeBron — saw Miami host James and his Cavs, beating them 101-91. Durant’s Warriors make a fine partner for the Cavs, but a Christmas Day reunion with Russell Westbrook would have been something to see.
Westbrook is averaging 31.3 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10.8 assists with a 41.9 usage percentage and a 54.1 true shooting percentage. But as if the phrase “averaging a triple-double through Christmas Day” isn’t impressive enough, the triple-doubles he’s racking up are far removed from the basic 10-10-10 variety. If we adjust for pace of play (which has slowed from the breakneck days of Oscar and Magic), he’s having the finest triple-double-type season we’ve ever seen.
Below is a versatility index1 for the players with the highest point-rebound-assist per-possession averages in NBA history:
|STATS PER 100 POSSESSIONS|
(Amazingly, the top two seasons by this measure are happening right now. The No. 2 spot belongs to Rockets star and former Thunder sixth man James Harden, who is averaging a per-100-possessions triple-double of his own for new coach Mike D’Antoni, in a role I like to think of as “overgrown Steve Nash does his best Corey Maggette impersonation.” Giannis Antetokounmpo, who turned 22 this month, comes in 27th.)
This won’t be the first time Westbrook will be playing Christmas Day without Durant. In 2014, Oklahoma City drew the defending-champion San Antonio Spurs (also without Kawhi Leonard) as its opponent, and won 114-106, with Westbrook pouring in 34 points, 11 assists, 5 rebounds, and 5 steals. It was a brilliant game, the type of which we’ve become accustomed to from Westbrook the last few seasons. The difference this season is that if he repeats that line on Sunday, or even if he racks up his 14th triple-double of the season, it will be away from the biggest stage of the day.
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