Kyrie Irving doesn't think Christmas is a holiday, but we can at least agree on it as the time of the year when many people start to pay attention to the NBA season.
As we near the halfway point of the regular season, the standings are starting to take shape, and while we're still figuring out where half of the league will end up, it's not too early to start grouping teams into clusters, from the bottom-feeders to the rebuilding teams to the league's middle class to the wild cards who are to the contenders and, of course, to the favorite.
NBA on Christmas schedule (times Eastern):
Noon (ESPN): 76ers at Knicks
3 p.m. (ABC): Cavaliers at Warriors
5:30 p.m. (ABC): Wizards at Celtics
8 p.m. (ABC): Rockets at Thunder
10:30 p.m. (TNT): Timberwolves at Lakers
Below is a current look at where every NBA team stands as we head into the new year.
Atlanta Hawks (8-25), Dallas Mavericks (9-25), Sacramento Kings (11-21), Chicago Bulls (10-22), Phoenix Suns (12-23)
Before losses at Cleveland and Boston, the Bulls improbably rolled off seven straight wins, which coincided with the return of Nikola Mirotic, who missed the first 23 games of the season recovering from facial fractures and a concussion suffered in a physical altercation with teammate Bobby Portis during the preseason. Mirotic averaged 19.6 points and 7.7 rebounds and shot 48.8 percent from three during the win streak, and while he's still only on speaking terms with Portis on the court, the Mirotic-Portis duo outscored opponents by 21.8 points per 100 possessions when they were on the floor together during the win streak.
The Bulls aren't going to suddenly get back into the playoff race, which is for the best because priority No. 1 for the franchise is to increase their lottery odds for next year's NBA Draft. But with Mirotic, Portis, Lauri Markkanen having an impressive rookie season, Kris Dunn showing signs of being a capable starting point guard (15.0 points, 7.7 assists, 4.8 rebounds in December) and Zach LaVine aiming for a return in early January, the Bulls at least have something to show for in a season that started out so terribly.
Rebuilding and regrouping
Memphis Grizzlies (10-23), Los Angeles Lakers (11-20), Orlando Magic (11-23), Charlotte Hornets (12-21), Brooklyn Nets (12-20), Los Angeles Clippers (13-19)
In an alternate universe, the Nets -- yes, the team that gave away nearly half a decade's worth of first-round picks to Boston and has been recovering since -- would probably be in the race for the a playoff spot in the East this season. But that's no longer a possibility thanks to an season-ending injury to Jeremy Lin on opening night followed by D'Angelo Russell being out of the lineup since mid-November after having knee surgery.
Head coach Kenny Atkinson has pushed his team to play an up-tempo style while spacing the floor to take advantage of the 3-point line. In that regard, he has succeeded. The Nets are fourth in pace and trail only the Rockets in 3-point attempts per game. Meanwhile, despite being handcuffed without their first-round picks and not being able to attract top-tier free agents to Brooklyn, the front office has done an admirable job adding talent by taking on reclamation projects.
Brooklyn recently traded for Jahlil Okafor, the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, in a trade with Philadelphia. "We're approaching him with a clean slate," Atkinson said earlier this month. "You have to understand the guy's past. [He was] the high school player of the year, ACC player of the year. We can't just put that in a box and forget about that. There's a respect factor there. We're just looking at him through our prism."
The Nets have seven recent first-round picks on their roster (Okafor, Russell, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Caris LeVert, Nik Stauskas, Jarrett Allen and Tyler Zeller). Talent wins in this league, and Brooklyn will need to accumulate more before it can start thinking about realistically contending for a playoff spot in the East, but the franchise is doing its best to turn the page.
As the rebuilding process continues in Brooklyn, the head coach sees himself on the same timeline as the team. "I'm still developing," Atkinson said. "I'm still learning, I'm still making mistakes. We [as a coaching staff] are going through the same growing pains."
The Nets are still a few years away from being anything better than where they are now, but slowly, they're building a culture in Brooklyn that will lead to better times in the near future.
The middle class
Utah Jazz (15-19), New York Knicks (17-15), Miami Heat (17-16), Portland Blazers (17-16), Detroit Pistons (18-14), Washington Wizards (18-15), Denver Nuggets (18-15), Indiana Pacers (19-14)
The Knicks weren't expected to be competitive this season, but they currently hold the final playoff spot in the East. Some of that has been thanks to Kristaps Porzingis' brilliance, some of it because, on occasion, Michael Beasley decides he's the best player in the league and some of it is because of how well New York has played at Madison Square Garden, where it is 15-5. It's been a different story on the road, where the Knicks are 2-10. With a tougher schedule ahead, they are the most likely team out of this group to fall out of a playoff spot.
The Jazz are hoping to get to the postseason, too, but right now they're on the outside looking in out West. Long-term, Utah might recover from Gordon Hayward's departure in free agency thanks to rookie Donovan Mitchell, who is averaging 23.6 points per game this month, which includes a 41-point game and two other games in which he scored over 30 points. However, the Jazz are missing Rudy Gobert, who is still at least two weeks away from returning after suffering a knee injury.
The jury is also still out on the Nuggets, another team with designs on making the playoffs this season. Denver is in right now, but it has yet to make a push, with its longest winning streak so far being three. The Nuggets are another team with potential to move up, but a lot of it will depend on when Paul Millsap -- who is expected to be out until after the All-Star break after wrist surgery -- returns.
The best story of this group has to be the Pacers, who were expected to be one of the worst teams in the league after trading Paul George this summer. Instead, Indiana might not only make the playoffs, but it has a shot at home-court advantage in Round 1. Victor Oladipo has been incredible and is up to 29.1 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.8 steals per game in December. Nate McMillan as Coach of the Year is not out of the realm of possibility.
The wild cards
Philadelphia 76ers (14-18), Milwaukee Bucks (17-14), New Orleans Pelicans (17-16), Oklahoma City Thunder (18-15), Minnesota Timberwolves (20-13)
The ceilings on these five teams are high enough that they belong in a group just slightly above the middle class. The Sixers have lost nine out of 10 and just started a five-game road trip, so it's possible we won't even be considering them as a playoff contender in a month's time. But if Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are healthy, there's just too much talent to think they won't be heard from before the end of the season.
In Oklahoma City, the Thunder are still trying to figure out how to make Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony work, with George and Anthony both leaving next summer a very realistic possibility. The team's depth also remains a concern. But the Thunder have won 10 of 13 and might be finally finding some much needed stability in what's been a rocky start to another Big Three experiment.
San Antonio Spurs (23-11), Toronto Raptors (23-8), Boston Celtics (27-9)
Last summer presented another opportunity for Masai Ujiri to change course in Toronto. The Raptors were swept out of the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. With Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka headed to free agency, it was legitimate to wonder whether this core group had peaked and it was time to move on.
Instead, Ujiri kept the core group intact and talked about a culture reset that included a different playing style this season that has placed a greater emphasis on ball movement and 3-point shooting. "Early on, a lot of us were trying to figure it out, to find the right rhythm, it was a challenge," DeRozan said after a home win over Brooklyn earlier this month.
The Raptors are clicking on all cylinders now, and DeRozan has led the way. A career 28.4 percent 3-point shooter, DeRozan has made 40 percent of his threes this month and is 13-for-20 from beyond the arc over his past three games. He's also shooting the 3-pointer with more confidence than ever. DeRozan remains an effective scorer in the mid-range and has improved his passing, as well. On the season, he is averaging 24.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.4 assists and shooting 49.4 percent from the field.
But it has not just been DeRozan and Lowry leading the way. Serge Ibaka has woken up in December, and the young guys on the roster -- Fred VanVleet, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam, Delon Wright and Norman Powell -- along with C.J. Miles have formed one of the best second units in the league. Add in the fact rookie OG Anunoby is starting and making an impact on both ends of the floor, and the Raptors have one of the best and deepest teams in the league. They're fourth in offensive efficiency and sixth on defense.
This is the most playoff-ready team in the Lowry-DeRozan era and probably the best Raptors team in franchise history.
The team with LeBron James
Cleveland Cavaliers (24-9)
With Kyrie Irving in Boston and Isaiah Thomas out to start the season, the Cavaliers sputtered to a 6-7 start. Since then, they've righted the ship, winning 18 of their past 20 games heading into their Christmas Day matchup against the Warriors. LeBron James is having one of the best seasons of his career, and a historically great season unlike any we've seen from a player with his career mileage.
Thomas's return in January will only bolster the Cavs as an offensive juggernaut. Questions remain as to whether the Cavs have the pieces to compete against the Warriors in a potential Finals matchup, but the East still goes through LeBron.
Houston Rockets (25-6)
The Rockets are running teams off the floor with their offense, but they've also been one of the best defensive teams in the league. Even a recent two-game losing streak can't take away from the fact that Houston looks every bit like a championship contender. The questions about whether James Harden and Chris Paul could co-exist appear already to be an afterthought. Daryl Morey has constructed his best team yet. The key figures on this team -- Harden, Paul and Mike D'Antoni -- are trying to erase ghosts of playoffs past. This season appears to be their best opportunity to do it.
Golden State Warriors (26-7)
The Warriors came into the season as the consensus favorite to repeat as champions, and nothing through their first 33 games has dispelled that notion. On some nights, the Warriors look bored, and it's hard to blame them. They have a gear that no team can match, and when their stars are healthy and clicking, they can coast to wins, or be in a malaise for 46 minutes and overwhelm you with their talent and execution in late-game situations. Add in the fact the Warriors have won two championships in the past three seasons and set the league record for most regular-season wins along the way, and you understand why the 82-game schedule feels like one long tune-up to the postseason. Golden State might finish with only 60 wins. It might not even finish as the top seed in the West. But the Warriors are still the team to beat.