Playing on Dec. 25 is a longstanding tradition for the New York Knicks, who in 1947 beat the Providence Steam Rollers at Madison Square Garden in the NBA’s first Christmas Day game.
The Knicks are gigawatts ahead of Washington in terms of franchise star power, glitz and magnetic pull on national broadcasts. But Washington is no slouch when it comes to playing on the day gifts are unwrapped, having been in 21 such games.
Only seven franchises have played in more, including New York, the all-time leader with 49 on Christmas Day. And Washington has been pretty good, too, going 14-7.
History and heritage won’t help the Knicks Thursday when they host the Wizards. New York is 22-27 overall on Dec. 25 and just 21-20 at home. Based on the team’s current makeup and trajectory, it will surprise no one if New York drops to .500 in Christmas games at the Garden.
Denizens would celebrate a .500 record at season’s end because the Knicks are dreadful. Only Philadelphia (4-23) has won fewer games than New York, 5-25, which is floundering in ways Phil Jackson didn’t imagine when he became team president in March.
“It’s about a loser’s mentality,” Jackson told reporters during a news conference earlier this month. “It’s not about the skill or the talent level.”
That sounds like the propaganda Washington fans were fed for most of this century, with just five seasons at .500 or better. Among the worst campaigns during that stretch was 2008-09, when the Wizards finished at 19-63.
That also marked the last time Washington played on Christmas Day, visiting Cleveland and losing its eighth straight game.
Much has changed since then. LeBron James is back with the Cavaliers after leaving for South Beach. Gilbert Arenas is in California collecting remnants of the $111 million contract Washington gave him in 2009. Javaris Crittenton is in jail, awaiting trail on murder charges in Atlanta.
Just as the Cavaliers have returned to the spotlight, the Wizards have enjoyed national prominence that we haven’t seen since Michael Jordan suited up in the teal and bronze.
Conversely, the Knicks never left center stage, with TV execs force-feeding us New York games no matter how awful the team played. The Knicks on Christmas is based on legacy more than merit, but the Wizards earned their way onto Thursday’s marquee by virtue of their resurgence last season.
Entering the fourth of 15 scheduled national appearances this season (the Knicks are slated for 23), Washington has shined in its newfound exposure. The Wizards previously eked by Indiana, 96-94, held off Cleveland, 91-78, and blew out Denver, 119-89.
As to be expected of teams with a .167 winning percentage, New York has fared poorly (2-9) when aired coast-to-coast. The stark differences between the Knicks and Wizards will be highlighted when they tipoff the national schedule at noon.
The visitors boast an emerging MVP candidate in point guard John Wall and a future All-Star in shooting guard Bradley Beal, both under 25 years old. Washington also has a 35-year-old journeyman who’s an early contender for the league’s Most Improved and Sixth Man awards (Rasual Butler), plus a bruising frontcourt rotation with four quality bigs (Nene, Marcin Gortat, Kris Humphries and Kevin Seraphin).
That’s not to mention a future Hall-of-Famer (Paul Pierce), a point guard who’s No. 9 in alltime assists (Andre Miller) and an intriguing player taken No. 3 overall in 2013 (Otto Porter Jr.).
The injury-depleted Knicks have little to offer besides sore-knee Carmelo Anthony, fatigued Amare Stoudemire and still-developing Tim Hardaway Jr. Only three New York players have win shares of 1.1 or better, compared to eight Washington players.
While Jackson is counting on cap space and Big Apple-cachet to lure free agents and engineer a rebuild, his Washington counterpart is way ahead of him. Ernie Grunfeld has a team that’s not only thriving with integral young players, but has the salary flexibility to chase key additions – especially a hometown star who might leave Oklahoma City in the summer of 2016.
These franchises clearly are headed in different directions, with Washington climbing toward the Eastern Conference peak and New York racing Philadelphia for the No.1 overall pick.
The Knicks still have the brand name, the celebrity fans, the Zen Master and the world’s most famous arena. But the Wizards have what matters most, the best gifts they can offer their fans right now: a winning team and a bright future.
Washington, finally, is on the nice list at Christmas.