The NBA gets three chances every season to sell its product to everyday, run-of-the-mill sports fans, the fans who are unlike those who live in an NBA city and start following professional basketball from the minute the NBA Draft starts to the second the NBA Finals end.
The first time is Opening Night, which has now been expanded to Opening Week, which features a measured roll out of the upcoming season’s teams to watch.
The NBA’s final chance to win over the unclaimed eyeballs of fans who would rather sit out most of the regular season is the All-Star Game.
The NBA’s second chance to make a splash on the sports scene is Christmas Day. And unlike the All-Star game (which is nothing more than a glorified exhibition) or Opening Week (which consists of rusty teams playing on hype that is either a season old or not yet proven), Christmas Day, for the NBA, has the potential to be great.
Even though the NBA schedule comes out all at once, and doesn’t have the flex option that the NFL has (an option to move games on to or off of national TV based on match-ups) educated guess work can usually produce a handful of good games on Christmas, games that feature not only the league’s above-the-line talent, but games that are both competitive and fun to watch.
The operative word is usually. Sometimes, even the scheduling experts at the NBA get it wrong. On Christmas Day 2010, the NBA’s best team record-wise (the San Antonio Spurs) was left off the Christmas Day slate of games. The league got it a little better last season. A year ago, the NBA’s three best teams were all in action. Not only that, there was a replay of the NBA Finals and it featured the best team in the East (Miami) against the best team in the West (OKC).
In 2012, the NBA hit their Christmas Day games out of the park. Not so much in 2013. This year’s Christmas Day games featured only one team from the Eastern Conference with a record over .500 and two Western Conference teams that would be not included if the playoffs had started on December 25th. Christmas Day 2013 was long on the disappointment narrative and rather short on actually intriguing basketball until the day's final two games.
And of course, this season the NBA’s top team again wasn’t in action on Christmas Day. That’s because, when the NBA tipped off their early-season showcase, the Portland Trail Blazers were owners of the league's top record. Once a staple of the Christmas Day basketball smorgasbord, the Blazers last played on Christmas in 2010.
As 2013-14 matures and the number of days the Blazers have spent as one of the best teams in the Western Conference continues to grow, its becoming clear that this season, as special as it has been to start, isn’t just about winning a big game every now and then, or enough games to keep LaMarcus Aldridge in the Pacific Northwest until he retires: It’s about rebuilding the Blazers’ brand.
Part of that brand rebuilding process is getting back to the ranks of Christmas Day teams.
“Sometimes it’s good to play on Christmas Day. Good teams [play], people watch,” Nicolas Batum said after the Blazers outlasted the New Orleans Pelicans in their final game before getting some time off for the Christmas holiday.
“This season is a key maybe for us. If we’re playing good and start getting national attention,” Batum said of getting back to Christmas Day status.
Batum should know what it takes to be a Christmas Day team: He was part of a number of great Christmas Day games, including 41-point showing from Brandon Roy in a Blazer victory over the Denver Nuggets in the night cap of Christmas 2009, arguably the best game played on one of the NBA’s biggest nights.
The Blazers finished the home half of 2013 with a heartbreaking loss to the Miami Heat, courtesy of an unlikely long-range dagger from Chris Bosh. Prior to that devastating loss, the Blazers overcame a Boxing Day barrage of Chris Paul potential game-winners to knock off the LA Clippers.
The Clippers are new(ish) to the ranks of teams the NBA uses to sell its products; the Heat will play in every possible big-time game until LeBron James joins Kevin Love and Kevin Durant on the Lakers' roster.
The Blazers in 2013-14 can beat and have beaten the best teams in the league. All that is window dressing if the Portland Trail Blazers, as a franchise, can’t elevate themselves past some of the other small market teams that would never get invited to the Christmas party.
We’ll just have to wait until December 25, 2014, to see if the Blazers really are back.