The holiday season is almost at an end, and the new year is upon the NBA world. Christmas, — the league’s flagship day — brought along with it some gifts and cheer for certain franchises. By weeks end, however, some of those teams weren’t feeling as jolly as they might have been on Christmas Day.
As the league heads into 2020, with the standings beginning to take real shape, let’s hop into some winners and losers from the holiday season.
Winner: Boston Celtics
If the All-Star break started today, the Boston Celtics would have a very legitimate case for three All-Stars on the roster.
When Kemba Walker replaced Kyrie Irving, the expectation was that he would slide into that All-Star-caliber role and lead a young Celtics core in ways that Irving failed to do at times. Well so far, so good. Walker not only has answered the call in his own right, but he’s helped elevate both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to new heights this season and it showed over the course of the last week.
Despite splitting a pair of games with the Toronto Raptors, the Celtics were able to finish the week 3-1 in large part because of Brown’s scoring output and impact on the boards. Brown’s 24.3 points per game came behind a 52.2 percent clip from beyond the arc, both well above his season and career averages. His growth as a shooter has been the main catalyst behind his spike in scoring production, not only this past week, but this season as a whole.
Tatum, Boston’s other young stud, poured in 39- and 30-point performances this week to help shoulder some of the scoring load as well for the Celtics.
Irving left for greener pastures and to team up with another superstar, but it appears what he left behind are two budding stars in their own right between Brown and Tatum. At 22-8 on the season and sitting third in the Eastern Conference, the Celtics continue riding weeks over .500 to reassert themselves into the NBA championship contender conversation.
Three 20-point-per-game scorers. Three potential All-Stars. Three wins last week. The Celtics are rolling as they enter the new year and they have their young, cohesive core to thank.
Loser: Philadelphia 76ers
After the Sixers demolished arguably the league’s best team on Christmas Day it seemed nearly impossible that they could find themselves in the loser category this week. Such a statement win over the Milwaukee Bucks had people buzzing around the league that Philadelphia might be the real deal, especially when the playoffs arrive.
Alas, the Sixers followed up their impressive performance with two straight losses in Florida. One to the Orlando Magic, the other to the Miami Heat. Both by a point. Both riddled with mistakes, turnovers, scoring droughts and head-scratching decisions.
It’s true, Philadelphia might be best suited for playoff basketball. Head coach Brett Brown has said as much. But the level of volatility the Sixers play with over the course of the season could greatly impact their matchup scenario once they get to the postseason — and not for the better.
Losing to the Heat by a single point, especially in overtime, isn’t a terrible loss for the Sixers, though a few costly turnovers by Joel Embiid near the end of regulation is what separated Philadelphia from a win and a loss. That’s the overarching issue for the week.
Coming off a massive statement win over Milwaukee, the Sixers shouldn’t have found themselves in a close game on the road to a so-so Orlando Magic team that ultimately came down to a missed 3-point heave by Embiid as time expired.
As the season progresses, the Sixers still need to hone in their focus for games that aren’t nationally televised events. Or against the league’s top competition. In games against the Eastern Conference’s top six seeds, the Sixers are 6-3 (following the one-point Miami loss). It’s clear the more important the matchup, the more attention Philadelphia pays.
In order to get where the team wants to go in the postseason, the Sixers need to pay attention to every game on their schedule. Not pick and choose like they did last week.
Winner: Jordan Clarkson
Any time a player gets to move from a basement dweller to a playoff contender, it’s easy to consider him a winner.
Getting the opportunity to jump into Quin Snyder’s system out in Utah, and provide a much-needed scoring attack off the bench should benefit Clarkson greatly. In 29 games for Cleveland, Clarkson averaged nearly 15 points a game in just 23 minutes. His touch from beyond the arc — 37.1 percent for the season — provides even more firepower for a team that already ranks first in the NBA in 3-point percentage.
The quick turnaround from Cleveland to Utah took no time to pay off, either. In just Clarkson’s second game, the guard contributed 19 points off the bench and helped lift the Jazz past the Los Angeles Clippers.
With the second half of the season right around the corner, it appears Clarkson will be in position to get back to posteason basketball instead of being stuck in Cleveland’s rebuild — and that in itself is a win.
Winner: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
When Paul George was dealt to the Los Angeles Clippers in the middle of the night amid the Kawhi Leonard drama this summer, the silver lining for Oklahoma City Thunder fans was always Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
A promising rookie season in L.A. has turned into a validating sophomore campaign for Sam Presti and Co., who banked on SGA’s progression enough to make him the centerpiece return of the George trade. This past week, all of his electrifying skills were on display, beginning to beg the questions about where just might Gilgeous-Alexander rank among the league’s top young players?
In four games, he took over the Thunder’s scoring load in resounding fashion. Shooting the ball just over 20 times a game, the second-year guard managed 28 points per game — including two 32-point performances. Coming out of college, there were questions surrounding how well Gilgeous-Alexander could shoot the ball. Well, after displaying an improved stroke much of this season, SGA connected on 47 percent of his shots from downtown over his four-game stretch this week.
At 17-15, the Thunder are in the playoff conversation in the Western Conference, and a large part of that is due to the crown jewel guard they received back from the Clippers. If Gilgeous-Alexander can keep up his performance from the past week, he might have enough juice to make himself and his team winners for much more than a four-game stretch.
Loser: Atlanta Hawks
Much has been made about comparing the personal stats and growth of Trae Young and Luka Doncic. While they’re both incredible talents, one of them is on a team making winning strides while the other is struggling to win consecutive games.
The Atlanta Hawks are 6-27, losers of 10 straight, and suffered three losses this week — one of which being a brutal beatdown by the also underachieving Chicago Bulls.
Granted, John Collins has played a total of just eight games this season after returning from a 25-game suspension. And as Atlanta’s second-best player, not having him for a nearly a third of the season definitely added more losses to that column than expected. But the rut the Hawks are currently in, losing to the caliber of teams by the margins that they are, is troublesome beyond “young team with growing pains.”
With the type of talent Young possesses, and the level of secondary player Collins projects as, head coach Lloyd Pierce and his team should be translating a few of these blowout losses into at least competitive outcomes.
Atlanta holds the fourth-fastest pace in the NBA, which is beneficial to its young and athletic core that likes to get out and push the ball. But with an offensive rating that is dead-last in the league, and a defensive rating that is 28th in the league, all of those extra possessions are clearly ending in a negative result for the Hawks.
Following Young twisting his ankle, and missing what will be a pair of games, the Hawks need to put their best effort forward to try and salvage some competitive nature upon his return. Losing that many consecutive games is never a positive development for young player growth.
Chalk this up as another lost week for Atlanta.