December's Top 5 (12/30/15)

By Tom W. Brewer @Tom_W_Brewer
NBA - December's top five headlines.

Where does the time go? Christmas has come and gone, and New Year's Eve is almost here. Before you run out and buy noisemakers and draw up a game plan to get into the club without paying a $50 cover charge, let's look back at the NBA's biggest stories from December of 2015.

1. The Bucks Stop the Warriors' Undefeated Streak

It's hard to imagine a more thrilling way to start the NBA season than the Warriors winning streak*, but alas, it's over. To steal a line from Robert Frost, nothing gold can stay. But if at the beginning of the season you predicted Golden State's first defeat would come against the Milwaukee Bucks, move to Vegas now. You've got some money to make.

Let the record show the Warriors lost on the road after an epic two-overtime prize fight against a tough and motivated Boston Celtics team. Let the same record show that the Bucks played at Toronto the night before and still managed to put up over 100 against the stingy Dubs' defense. Finally, the record isn't complete without noting the clever troll job Bucks fans pulled when they showed up wearing t-shirts that read “24-1”. Bold move, right? Not to be outdone, Golden State gave away “10-18” t-shirts when the teams met again in Oakland less than a week later. Good show, everyone.

2. Kyrie Irving's Return

After being out since last June with a fractured kneecap that may have cost the Cavs a championship, point guard Kyrie Irving returned to action December 20th against the 76ers. A key cog in the Cleveland offense since arriving on the scene in 2011, Irving's presence on the floor is a welcome sight for Cavs fans. The team was playing fast and loose before his return, and once LeBron James, Kevin Love, and company get reacquainted with the All-Star point guard, the Cavs could very well run away with the East.

3. The Spurs and the Thunder Reintroduce Themselves to the NBA

For about six weeks of the season, NBA reporters, writers, and bloggers wondered aloud who could challenge the Warriors out West. Now that the distraction of the Dubs' winning streak is behind us, the stellar play in OKC and San Antonio is getting its due. It's like the scene in a 1990s teen movie where the heartthrob varsity quarterback who's been longing to date a girl with a brain finally notices the cute, quiet brunette in his art history class. What we've been looking for has been here the whole time. Can you believe it?

LaMarcus Aldridge has found his place in the Spurs' offense and Kawhi Leonard is having an MVP-type season. Combine that with Tim Duncan's ageless post-play and the team's relentless backcourt passing, and it's no wonder the team is 13-2 in December and showing no sign of slowing down.

After a month of adjusting to new head coach Billy Donovan, things are clicking in Oklahoma City. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are as offensively dominant as we've grown accustomed to, and Donovan's found a nice balance between Steven Adams and Enes Kanter. Andre Roberson is building a reputation as an elite defender, plus Dion Waiters, a guy who has never met a jumper he doesn't like, is actually playing within a system. The Thunder have won 11 of 14 this month and look like the real thing.

4. Philly Front Office Shakeup

You know what my favorite Christmas movie is? Scrooged, the re-imagining of Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol set in the 1980s TV industry. I laugh every time I watch it, and I've watched it a lot. This year, Scrooged made me think of poor Sam Hinkie, GM of the Philadelphia 76ers.

There's a scene in the movie where Bill Murray (playing the title character) loses it after learning the network has brought in an L.A. hotshot to “consult” on the live network special under Murray's control. The news validates the character's showbiz paranoia and causes him to see visions most foul.

That must be how Sam Hinkie is feeling after the NBA forced the team to hire Hall of Famer Jerry Colangelo as Special Advisor to the Managing General Partner and Chairman of Basketball Operations. Hinkie's been the man in Philly for some time now, but installing Colangelo above him in the front office hierarchy makes it appear that other teams and perhaps Adam Silver himself are running out of patience with the process and want Hinkie to actually field a competitive basketball team.

Colangelo has already made a difference in Philly, as the team has extended head coach Brett Brown's contract and hired Mike D'Antoni as associate head coach. Time will tell how long this relationship lasts and whether Hinkie will be around to see his grand plan bear fruit. But hey, it works out for Bill Murray in Scrooged. Maybe Hinkie will have a happy ending as well.

5. Early All-Star Returns

We're about six weeks away from the 2016 All-Star game in Toronto. All-Star voting has already begun and the early returns show the retiring Kobe Bryant is leading all players with nearly 720,000 votes. With the Lakers going nowhere fast, Bryant's 18th All-Star appearance will serve as a fitting swan song for a surefire Hall of Famer. Well done, voters.

As of Christmas Day, Bryant, Steph Curry, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Dwyane Wade round out the top five vote-getters.

And now for some way-too-soon playoff projections. We hopped in a Black Hawk helicopter, flew to an undisclosed island and simulated the season 50,000 times. Here are the results. Division winners are bolded.

Eastern Conference
1. Cleveland Cavaliers (54-28)
2. Boston Celtics (50-32)
3. Toronto Raptors (50-32)
4. Atlanta Hawks (49-33)
5. Indiana Pacers (48-34)
6. Charlotte Hornets (47-35)
7. Chicago Bulls (46-36)
8. Orlando Magic (46-36)

Biggest change: Call your Mama—we've got a Florida switcheroo on our hands. In last month's simulation, the Miami Heat made the postseason. They've been replaced by Orlando as the two teams went opposite directions in the month of December.

Western Conference
1. Golden State (71-11)
2. San Antonio Spurs (67-15)
3. Oklahoma City Thunder (58-24)
4. Los Angeles Clippers (47-35)
5. Dallas Mavericks (43-39)
6. Memphis Grizzlies (41-41)
7. Utah Jazz (38-44)
8. Sacramento Kings (38-44)

Biggest change: Not much change in terms of teams, but it's worthy to note that the last time we did this, Utah was the only team sub-.500 team in the Western Conference playoffs. Now we're projecting the Kings to get in with the same record. You'll notice that all the teams on the Eastern half of the bracket have a winning record, signaling a shift in the NBA's competitive balance.

2016 is just about here, and if the last few months of 2015 are any indication of what we can expect, we're all in for some thrilling moments and amazing games. See you next year.