The Utah Jazz won’t appear in this season’s slate of Christmas Day games even though they absolutely deserved to play in what would have been a perfect slot.
Now that we’re in the month of August, we shouldn’t be far removed from the release of the full 2019-20 NBA schedule. That became even more evident as several marquee games were announced on Friday by the likes of ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and The Athletic’s Shams Charania. Among the games they made known to the public were several key ‘return’ games where players will go back to take on their former teams as a member of a new squad.
This included Kawhi Leonard in Toronto on December 11, Anthony Davis in New Orleans on November 27, Kyrie Irving in Boston also on November 27 and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City on January 9, to name a few. While Westbrook is almost certain to be received with a tribute video and overwhelming praise, and Leonard might as well to some extent (though his return will be awkward), Irving and Davis are sure to be showered with boos.
On the Utah Jazz front, it was also announced that Mike Conley will return to Memphis to take on his former Grizzlies team early in the season on November 15th. Like Westbrook, he’s sure to receive a warm welcome. But the other announced return game – Kristaps Porzingis against the New York Knicks on November 14th – might not be so pretty.
Perhaps even more exciting than the announcement of this group of games was the leak of the teams who will be playing on Christmas Day, which is always an exciting slate to be a part of on a day that has become synonymous with exciting NBA basketball. Last season, the Utah Jazz got their first Christmas Day nod since 1997. It was an exciting contest against the Portland Trail Blazers that resulted in a big-time Jazz win.
Due to Utah’s performance a year ago coupled with the fact that they beefed up their roster in a big way this summer to the extent that many believe they will be championship contenders in 2019-20, several fans were optimistic that we could yet again see the Jazz play on Christmas Day. Unfortunately, according to Friday’s leaks, such won’t be the case.
Instead, the following five matchups will be taking place:
- Los Angeles Lakers vs. LA Clippers
- Toronto Raptors vs. Boston Celtics
- Philadelphia 76ers vs. Milwaukee Bucks
- Golden State Warriors vs. Houston Rockets
- Denver Nuggets vs. New Orleans Pelicans
Now, a lot of these matchups are going to be extremely fun to watch. And let me just say hallelujah to the fact that finally the hapless New York Knicks won’t be featured on Christmas Day as we’ve had to suffer through for several consecutive seasons. Clippers-Lakers will be the battle of Staples Center that many fans have been waiting for. Bucks-Sixers will be a clash between the two favorites in the East. And Warriors-Rockets will be Houston’s chance at a little revenge albeit with both teams’ statuses in the conference looking much different than we’re used to.
The other two contests have me less excited. I suppose that it’s reasonable for the defending champion Toronto Raptors to get a Christmas Day nod after their exciting postseason run last season. But without Kawhi Leonard, they feel less appealing than most Christmas Day teams tend to. Factor in as well that they’re going up against a Boston Celtics team that surely isn’t facing the same expectations as last year (though they might wind up better due to enhanced chemistry) and it’s just not as thrilling as I would hope.
Nevertheless, both teams figure to be playoff teams, so it should still be exciting. The one that really irks me is the matchup between the Denver Nuggets and the New Orleans Pelicans.
Now, before you jump to conclusions, allow me to explain. I’m actually very excited about both of these teams this upcoming season. The Nuggets made an incredible leap last year and figure to continue to be one of the best teams in the NBA as they’re running back a nearly identical team and expecting significant internal improvements along the way.
The Pelicans, meanwhile, feature number one overall pick Zion Williamson, who is arguably the most hyped player to enter the league since LeBron James. With a tantalizing young core surrounded by sturdy vets such as Jrue Holiday, J.J. Redick and Derrick Favors (it still hurts), while I wouldn’t say this is a team that’s favored to make the playoffs, they definitely have a shot. And even if they don’t, there’s no denying that they’ll be an entertaining team.
In that vein, I can see why they got a Christmas Day spot. However, I strongly believe that the Utah Jazz would have been a much better option in that slot, taking on the Denver Nuggets for some first-class Yuletide entertainment.
The first reason is that while the Pelicans may be a fringe playoff team, they face an uphill battle if they think their young squad will make it into the postseason in the first year of their new look post-Anthony Davis. Even if they do make the playoffs, there’s simply no way that they project to be better than a Jazz team that had an incredible offseason and is expected to be in the upper echelon of the conference.
Simply put, the Jazz are set to be the better team. And if the NBA wants to display top talent on Christmas Day, inserting the Utah Jazz would have been a highly logical choice.
But not only would I like to see Utah over the Pelicans in a vacuum, but the matchup the Jazz could have had against the Denver Nuggets would have been incredible for the Christmas slate. Not only do the Jazz and Nuggets figure to be two of the top teams in the West as similar small-market over-achievers, but the two squads are division rivals with a lengthy history of disdain for one another.
Perhaps it has to do with their proximity geographically, their similarity in market size and good but never great success, or their familiarity from playing in the same division for so many years. Whatever the case, it’s always a battle when the Jazz and Nuggets get together. Add in the fact that the Jazz managed to swindle Denver in trades for both Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell – Utah’s two best players – and it just adds extra fuel to the fire.
Last season, we saw the Jazz-Nuggets games get highly scrappy, including one that featured a fight which broke out between Derrick Favors and Mason Plumlee. The Jazz won the regular season series 3-1 last year, with each contest being an exciting battle.
The intensity that would have prevailed between two teams with bad blood, high stakes as they duke it out for a top seed in the conference, a history of hard-fought games, and a chance to compete on a marquee stage would have been ideal for Christmas Day. Instead, we’ll get an entertaining Pelicans team in Denver, but one that likely will be over-matched by a sure-fire playoff team in the Nuggets who are extremely daunting on their home court.
Last of all, per ESPN, last season the Jazz-Blazers game drew the highest rating for a Christmas game in the late slot (8:30 PM MT) since 2015. For a pair of teams that many casual fans tend to consider small market and unexciting, that was a great mark to hit. I believe that the new-look Jazz and consistently sturdy Nuggets would have generated even more buzz and appeal.
But, alas, it was a surprise that the Jazz got a chance to play last year, and seeing them appear on December 25th two years in a row would have been nearly unheard of for the oft-overlooked small-market squad.
Donovan Mitchell reacted to the news with a very fitting set of emojis, reminding the NBA world that the Jazz continue to be slept on:
Meanwhile, Rudy Gobert had perhaps the best response of all. Rather than bemoan the fact that his team wouldn’t be featured on Christmas Day, he simply maintained that his focus instead was on a championship. Indeed, as Rudy stated, it would be more riveting to play in June than on December 25th by a long shot.
Unfortunately, the fact that the Jazz weren’t slated on Christmas probably is very telling about how the Jazz’s championship odds are viewed by the general public. As good as their offseason was and as competitive as they appear on paper, they’ll face an uphill battle as they look to overcome the onslaught of giants in the West to reach the ultimate prize.
But this is a team that has done well when they’ve been doubted and overlooked. And I imagine that this Christmas Day snub will only serve to provide more fuel to their fire, creating an additional chip on their shoulders moving forward. Regardless of public perception, this Jazz team is absolutely constructed such that it can compete with any team for a championship. They don’t need a Christmas Day game to prove that.
Instead, they’ll have an entire 2019-20 NBA season to prove that they belong in the conversation among the league’s best. As fun as it would be to see the Jazz and Nuggets play under the bright lights of December 25th, Rudy Gobert is absolutely right. A Finals appearance would be a much more impressive and exhilarating Christmas present, even if it arrives six months late.