Predicting NBA’s Christmas Day Games: Will Cavs make the cut?

Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors and LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers. Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images
Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors and LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers. Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images /

The NFL owns Thanksgiving, with three games on for turkey-filled fans to watch all nestled together with extended family under an afghan. Wimbledon (and hot dogs) gets July 4th. College football has New Year’s Day. And the NBA’s marquee day of the year is none other than Christmas Day.

Certainly, that day also brings candy canes and mistletoe, jolly laughs and bearded toy deliverers. Christmas has religious significance for many. But when it comes to sports, the biggest helping will be served by the National Basketball Association.

As a focal point of the season slate, the NBA usually announces the Christmas Day schedule ahead of the official full-season release, so it’s possible we hear in the next couple of weeks which NBA teams will be dressing up in flannel pajamas and playing reindeer games (it’s possible they’ll just wear jerseys and play basketball).

Who is likely to play on Christmas Day? And can the Cleveland Cavaliers expect to make the cut?

Who gets to play on Christmas Day?

Since the 2008-09 season, the NBA has scheduled five games for Christmas Day, showcasing a full third of the league. Those games are split between the league’s two major broadcast partners, with ESPN/ABC and TNT sharing the load (although in recent years ESPN has handled the majority). The games are spread out during the day, often beginning at noon ET and tipping off the final game at 10:30 ET.

Unlike the NFL, which always schedules the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving, the NBA’s teams are not set. Instead, the league picks from among the biggest stars and large-market teams. As fans of the Cavaliers can tell you, if you don’t have a top-10 player and you play outside of the half-dozen largest markets, you’re toast.

That’s why the New York Knicks top the list of franchise appearances, playing on Christmas Day a whopping 54 times in the NBA’s 77-year history. Teams like the Knicks, Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers manage to secure frequent bids whether or not their teams are good.

The NBA generally tries to schedule matchups with some level of drama, be that two teams that met in the playoffs the year before, two stars who have battled for MVP awards, or a pair of fanbases with historic vitriol. The Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks playing on Christmas Day in 2022 fits this category.

In fact, to provide some context to which teams generally get picked (and to serve as a reminder) here are all five matchups from last year’s Christmas Day slate:

  • Philadelphia 76ers vs New York Knicks
  • Los Angeles Lakers vs Dallas Mavericks
  • Milwaukee Bucks vs Boston Celtics
  • Memphis Grizzlies vs Golden State Warriors
  • Phoenix Suns vs Denver Nuggets

Based on that knowledge, who do we expect to play on Christmas Day this year?

Predicting the 5 Christmas Day Matchups

There are a few teams that are essentially a lock to play this Christmas, either due to market size, star players or both.

Nikola Jokic and the defending champion Denver Nuggets will absolutely have a spot. Jokic has a case as the best player in the NBA and the Nuggets just won it all; they are the Fort Knox of locks.

The Los Angeles Lakers will play on December 25th; the Lakers always play anyways, but especially with their run to the Western Conference Finals and the possibility of LeBron’s last season in L.A. it’s an obvious pick.

The Golden State Warriors are essentially a lock as long as Stephen Curry is at the height of his powers; the Warriors are popular, Curry is fantastic, and that’s what matters for Christmas. The New York Knicks nearly always play and are genuinely good, so they will play. Finally, the Boston Celtics are good, a historic team and have a star in Jayson Tatum; they will be on the schedule.

We are already down to 5 slots, and so now things get a little murkier. Teams that seem like near-locks can’t quite be 100 percent sure. Even so, it’s very likely that Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks get a nod, as he is still a superstar and the Bucks had the league’s best record a season ago. The Miami Heat have star power (possibly even more if they trade for Damian Lillard) and were in the NBA Finals.

Out West, the Phoenix Suns are likely to make an appearance. They have one of the league’s best players in Kevin Durant, built a “super team” with Devin Booker, Bradley Beal and Deandre Ayton, and project to be really good and in the title conversation. Now we’re down to two.

Who is in the mix for the final two slots? Yes, the Cleveland Cavaliers finally show up; they had a top-5 record in the league last season, have a marketable star in Donovan Mitchell and rising stars in Darius Garland and Evan Mobley. Yet they may have to beat out the Philadelphia 76ers, who play in a big market and have the reigning MVP. The reason Philly might not make it is the uncertainty of James Harden and the possibility the Sixers take a step back.

Injury uncertainty will hold the LA Clippers and New Orleans Pelicans off the list. The Memphis Grizzlies are an option and played last season, but Ja Morant’s suspension could conceivably not be over by then given its open-ended phrasing. Luka Doncic is a superstar and Kyrie Irving is a draw as well, but they weren’t even a Play-In Team last season. Could the NBA schedule Victor Wembanyama and the San Antonio Spurs already?

Here are our final predictions:

  • Game 1: Cleveland Cavaliers at New York Knicks (rematch of last year’s playoff series)
  • Game 2: Milwaukee Bucks at Miami Heat (playoff rematch)
  • Game 3: Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics (playoff rematch)
  • Game 4: Denver Nuggets at Los Angeles Lakers (playoff rematch)
  • Game 5: Phoenix Suns at Golden State Warriors (Durant finally plays in front of Bay area crowd)

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There you have it! The Cavs just barely make the cut, and we get plenty of vitriol drummed up from recent playoff opponents. Do you think we picked the right 10 teams?