The adage says most sports fans don't check into the NBA until Christmas Day, when the league takes over television sets everywhere with a quintuple-header. (Others believe the casual fans show up after the Super Bowl or in the playoffs. Alas.) To help you catch up with what you may have missed, here are five big storylines from the regular season to date. (We'll exclude this week's huge shocker: the Josh Smith waiver.)
1. The West is really really stacked. For about 15 years, the Western Conference has been deeper and more competitive than the East. But this season, there are a solid eight championship contenders in the West alone, plus a handful more intriguing squads. Consider that the two teams most frequently picked as potential West champs -- the Spurs and the Thunder -- are currently No. 7 and No. 10 in the conference. Oklahoma City is likely to get the No. 8 spot or better since Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant returned from injury absences on time, but there are still six teams better than both OKC and San Antonio.
The Warriors (23-4) have been the best team in the league to this point, with Stephen Curry competing for the MVP and Klay Thompson making a huge leap to All-Star level. Memphis (21-7) and Portland (23-7) have each been even better than last year thanks to health and bolstered benches. Houston (20-7) lost Dwight Howard for a while but survived because James Harden is fighting Curry for those MVP votes. Dallas (20-10) has the best offense in the NBA and just added Rajon Rondo. The Clippers (19-10) have been a beat off at times, but remain in the picture.
Meanwhile, the Suns, Pelicans and perhaps the Nuggets and Kings would be playoff contenders in the East, and the first two are currently playoff contenders in the West. We just expect the Thunder to nab that spot, and no one in the top seven shows signs of being destined to slip.
The West playoffs are going to be wonderful. Just block out every night from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. ET throughout April and May.
2. The East has three exciting upstarts. While the majority of the Eastern Conference is various levels of sad, there are three very interesting, exciting teams near the top of the charts. We thought the East would be an 82-game battle between Chicago (19-9) and Cleveland (17-10) for the No. 1 seed. Instead, those teams are Nos. 4 and 5, respectively. Ahead of them are the Raptors (22-7), Hawks (21-7) and Wizards (19-8).
Everyone expected Toronto and Washington to make the playoffs again, and maybe even be really good. But competing for the No. 1 seed? That's a real surprise for most of us. Kyle Lowry hasn't let up, John Wall is looking like a top-five point guard and both teams are competitive basically every night.
The real stunner here is Atlanta, though. While many prognosticators had them in the playoff picture, did anyone think they'd be reeling off winning streaks and dominating their schedule? Kyle Korver is a dark horse All-Star candidate, Jeff Teague is going to be in barring an extended injury absence and the Al Horford-Paul Millsap frontline is doing damage. The offseason controversy surrounding Bruce Levenson and Danny Ferry is deep in the rear view mirror at this point.
So yes, the West playoffs will be incredible. But the East postseason should be fun, too ... if you skip the first round.
3. The Cavaliers aren't quite there. Cleveland was the story of the offseason after landing the No. 1 pick, then landing LeBron James, then trading the last two No. 1 picks for Kevin Love. Unfortunately, there's a learning curve here for LeBron, Love and Kyrie Irving, as well as rookie NBA coach David Blatt. Cleveland's defense is somehow worse than everyone feared -- and plenty of folks were rightly skeptical -- and the offense has periods where it's not as dominant as it should be. The season is long and the playoffs determine whether a season is failed or not. But the early returns have shown that LeBron's quest to win a championship for northeast Ohio will not be easy.
4. Kobe Bryant is performance art. The Lakers are a rare awful team in the West and have little to collectively play for, especially considering rookie Julius Randle broke his leg early on. No one on the court is likely to be on the next great Lakers team. How depressing!
But Kobe is making it all better by being the most Kobe he can be every night. He's one of the league's top scorers ... while shooting 37 percent from the field. (Kobe leads Anthony Davis by 0.1 points per game in scoring, but Davis shoots 57 percent to Kobe's 37.) Right now Bryant is missing more field goals per game than any other Laker is attempting. And he shows no self-consciousness about it!
We're at the point where Kobe got DNPed by Byron Scott on Tuesday and stayed home to rest ... only for the Lakers to wallop the best team in the league and for Nick Young to drop a Django Unchained reference afterward. Get your popcorn.
5. The Knicks are as bad as the Sixers. Everyone knew Philadelphia would be an embarrassment this season -- that's the plan, after all. But New York kept Carmelo Anthony, traded for a legitimate starting point guard (Jose Calderon) and hired promising head coach Derek Fisher. Alas, as of Christmas Eve, the Sixers are a half-game ahead of the Knicks in the standings. This is a major embarrassment for New York, one that can only be cured with ... more national TV games for the Knicks!