Christmas could have been a showcase for Kawhi Leonard against the Spurs. But alas. (Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press via AP)

The NBA has turned Christmas Day into the most important date on its regular season calendar. Basketball season begins that day for many casual fans, who finally shift their focus to the hardwood as the NFL’s regular season winds down.

That is what makes this year’s NBA Christmas Day schedule, which was released in a televised special Wednesday, such a missed opportunity.

Sure, there are compelling games among the five-game slate, which will run from noon Eastern until well after midnight. Having the Philadelphia 76ers play the Boston Celtics, two massive markets with entertaining teams bursting at the seams with young, exciting talent, makes complete sense. So, too, does having marquee attractions in the defending champion Golden State Warriors and stars including LeBron James, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and James Harden all take the stage.

But it still is far less than what it could have — really, should have — been.

Let’s start with the first game, the Milwaukee Bucks facing the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Yes, having Giannis Antetokoumpo playing on a big stage is a good call. But the Knicks? That’s another story.

Despite largely being a wreck for two decades, the Knicks have remained a staple on Christmas Day simply because they play in New York and bring a large audience as a result.

Now, to be fair, the Knicks do — finally — seem to be providing some light at the end of the tunnel. The team’s two draft picks this offseason, Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson, were impressive at the NBA’s annual summer league last month in Las Vegas, and New York is well positioned to have max cap space next summer to lure another star free agent to the Big Apple.

But Kristaps Porzingis, the team’s star player, almost certainly won’t be playing after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in February — and, even if he is, he will be on a minutes restriction. Most people within the league think he won’t be back until next February, which would be right in line with recovery times for recent returns from ACL injuries. With him, the Knicks would struggle to be relevant. Without him? They are destined to be one of the NBA’s worst teams.

So why grant them some of the most precious inventory the NBA has at its disposal? Because of where they play? It’s lunacy. And, in doing so, it does a disservice to the league’s very successful attempt to turn Christmas Day into a prime way to showcase its product.

The obvious omission from the Christmas schedule — having Kawhi Leonard’s current team, the Toronto Raptors, play his former team, the San Antonio Spurs — is also undoubtedly a market-based decision. While Toronto is one of the largest cities in North America, its television audience isn’t factored into American television ratings because it is outside of the United States. There is no other reason that a team that won 59 games last year and added one of the league’s most talented players — acquired from one of the league’s flagship franchises the past two decades — wouldn’t be made a central component of the league’s Christmas slate.

Even some of the games that are attractive are missing an element that would make them better. James facing the Warriors on Christmas for a fourth year in a row isn’t surprising, but it also isn’t compelling. The Los Angeles Lakers will be fine this season, but they are not a championship contender as constituted. And while having Donovan Mitchell, one of the league’s brightest young stars, playing on Christmas is an inspired choice, having his Utah Jazz host the Portland Trail Blazers leaves something to be desired.

What should the schedule have been? The one matchup the league nailed, the Sixers facing the Celtics, should have led the slate, followed by the NBA Finals rematch that the NBA has placed in the second slot each of the past four years — though replacing the Cleveland Cavaliers should have been the Houston Rockets, who pushed Golden State to the brink in the Western Conference finals.

Next up would be the Oklahoma City Thunder visiting the Lakers, where Paul George and Westbrook — the Southern California natives who both chose to sign long-term to remain in Oklahoma City over the past 12 months — would face the revitalized Lakers with James at the helm, followed by the Raptors traveling to face the Spurs for Leonard’s return to San Antonio. Capping off the night would be Mitchell and the Jazz hosting Anthony Davis — the man who may be the NBA’s most valuable player this coming season — and the New Orleans Pelicans, who happened to sweep the Blazers from the playoffs last spring.

That would be a day featuring five compelling games with emerging young stars and captivating story lines. More importantly, it wouldn’t include the Knicks.

Oh, well. Maybe next year.

Here’s the full Christmas Day schedule (all times Eastern):

  • Bucks at Knicks, noon, ESPN
  • Thunder at Rockets, 3 p.m., ABC
  • 76ers at Celtics, 5:30 p.m., ABC
  • Lakers at Warriors, 8 p.m., ESPN/ABC
  • Blazers at Jazz, 10:30 p.m., ESPN

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