By Ben Browne
If you’re an NBA player, you dream of playing on Christmas Day. It’s the equivalent to playing on American Thanksgiving in the NFL.
The NBA plays five games every Christmas Day, beginning at Noon and wrapping up 14 hours later after the final buzzer of the late West-coast match-up. While every other sport is on the sidelines — whether in the offseason, on their holiday break or, in the case of the NFL (usually, except for the last couple years), practicing — basketball’s biggest stars take centre stage, possessing the sporting world’s undivided attention.
December 25th is the crown jewel of the NBA schedule.
But for the Toronto Raptors and their fans, the day has become a bone of contention. Players and fans (and probably coaches, too; although you’d be hard-pressed to get them to publicly admit it) feel they have been snubbed out of a spot on the NBA’s Christmas Day slate in favour of bigger, American markets.
Frankly. it’s hard to disagree.
Notwithstanding my inherent bias of being a Raptors fan, from a purely numerical stand point, the Raptors have a legitimate beef here. The Raptors have the 4th best record in the entire NBA (second best in the Eastern Conference), they have a better record than six of the ten teams playing on Christmas Day, and also have a better winning percentage than the Cleveland Cavaliers.
So, for all intents and purposes they’re better than seven of the ten teams (70%) who took to the court on Monday.
Yet they were watching from the couch (or, I mean, flying to Dallas for a boxing day matchup with the Mavericks) while teams like the Lakers, Knicks, 76ers and Timberwolves played games.
The six teams who played in honour of Santa not named the Cavaliers Warriors, Celtics and Rockets have a combined record of 98–96 (.505) this season. The Raptors, by comparison, are 23–8 (.742).
But this is less about this year alone and more about a seemingly less-than-subtle oversight of the league’s only “national” team since its resurgence back in 2013–2014. Since that campaign, those six teams (PHI, NY, WSH, OKC, MIN, LAL) have a combined mark of 883–1,234 (.417), while Toronto’s overall record is 227–132 (.632).
Although some very bad L.A., Philadelphia, New York and Minnesota teams skew these numbers a bit in favour of the Raptors, they still tell a massive story. Those four teams, and two others whose rights to see the court on Christmas day are debatable, are playing, while the Raptors are not, despite a 22.5% discrepancy in winning percentage over the last 4+ seasons.
The Raptors have put together a sustained run of success, while those clubs haven’t proven anything. Yet, it’s Toronto who is spent much of their Christmas in airports or in the sky.
There’s something drastically wrong with that picture.
“It has gotten to the point where you just sigh and say, ‘Another year…’ That’s crazy,” Raptors All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan told Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated. “I always wanted to say that I’m playing on Christmas.”
“I have never played on Christmas,” the other member of the Raps lethal backcourt brotherhood, Kyle Lowry, told the same publication. “I’ve always…wanted to play a Christmas game. There a lot of things I want to say as the reason I think ‘why not’ [for Toronto]. It’s never happened, but I’ve always had the opportunity to always be with my family on Christmas. It’s a blessing to be able to not play, but at the same you always want that one time you play on Christmas.”
“You get the special shoes, the Christmas jerseys. That’s one I want to frame one day. Hopefully, I get the opportunity to do it.”
NBA senior vice president Tom Carelli said to The Undefeated in an email that selecting the ten teams who will receive early Christmas gifts from the NBA is “one of the most difficult decisions that we make when we create the schedule.”
He says they “consider all 30 teams” when making the schedule, and that the league must, too, look at broadcast times, arena availability, travel and off-days.
While that may be true, it seems awfully far-fetched to surmise that there hasn’t been a single opportunity in the last five years to allow the Raptors to play a Christmas Day game. From 2008-2013, they didn’t deserve to play on Christmas; they were a bad basketball team, and bad basketball teams shouldn’t play on the biggest day of the NBA schedule.
What it comes down to is marketing. The NBA would rather play bad teams from big American markets like New York and L.A. than they would good teams from small or non-American markets like the Raptors, who take away a whole city of American viewership on ESPN/ABC.
But it’s about time the Raptors get their due, especially in the face of ignorant takes like this one from Tim Doyle of Stadium, who said “basketball is not a Canadian game, it’s American game…,” despite the fact basketball’s inventor, Dr. James Naismith, was Canadian. He also called the Raptors “boring” and “white rice.”
This team deserves its league’s ultimate platform. It’s shameful the NBA and people like Doyle overlook them, because they are fun to watch, they are consistently among the top five teams in the league, and they have a crop of young talent who are developing in a winning environment.
The NBA needs to play its best products on Christmas Day, and if that means having the Raptors play (or even host) on December 25, then so be it. They’ve earned that privilege, and their players and fans have an absolute right to be displeased.
Ben Browne also writes at Canada Football Chat. You can find him on Twitter here.