Christmas Day Observations: Paul George is an MVP Candidate
Christmas Day Observations: Paul George is an MVP Candidate

The NBA's five-game Christmas Day slate was bookended by a pair of blowouts but featured a competitive matchup between a pair of Eastern Conference contenders, as well as a surprisingly one-sided affair in Oakland.

Nick Whalen breaks down the biggest takeaways from Christmas Day, as well as other news and notes midway through Week 11:

Paul George is a legitimate MVP candidate. OK, so unless Giannis, Harden, LeBron, Kawhi and Anthony Davis all get hurt, George probably isn't going to win it. But he absolutely belongs in the conversation. George is having a career year at age 28, putting up 26.3 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 2.2 steals and 0.7 blocks, while hitting 39 percent of his 8.7 three-point attempts per game. He's easily been the Thunder's best player and, at this point, it's not even close. After Tuesday's performance, George ranks as the fourth-most-valuable player (by average production) in Yahoo leagues this season, behind only Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry and James Harden.

Part of the reason George's production is up is he's had to compensate for Russell Westbrook taking a step back. Despite leading the league in assists and steals, Westbrook has barely been a top-35 player in Yahoo leagues – that's tough to do. After another rough shooting game Tuesday, Westbrook's scoring is in danger of dipping below 20 points per game, and he's down to just 42.2 percent from the field and a Draymondian 24.8 percent from three.

Westbrook has never been a knockdown three-point shooter – career 30.8% 3PT – but he's never sunk this low. And it's even more of an issue when you consider he's taking more threes per game (4.7) than a season ago (4.1), when his shooting fell off significantly after his MVP campaign.

On top of that, Westbrook has been abysmal from the free throw line. After seven consecutive seasons at least 80 percent, Westbrook dropped to 73.7 percent last season in what at the time seemed like an anomalous, one-year blip. But he's careened to just 61.2 percent this season, and it's impacted his free throw rate, which has fallen to .229 after hovering around .400 for the last decade. Westbrook's usage rate (30.3%) is also at its lowest since his second season in the NBA.

While the Bucks cruised to an easy win in the early game, Khris Middleton finished with only six points on 2-of-12 shooting in 29 minutes. Middleton has quietly slumped over the past month, averaging 14.0 points on 32.6 percent shooting (27.9% 3PT) in his last 12 games. He's reached 20 points only twice in that span, though he has maintained his contributions in other counting stat categories. Middleton has fallen out of the top-60 for the season, and over the last 30 days he ranks outside the top 200 in Yahoo leagues.

The 27-year-old's struggles haven't necessarily impacted the Bucks' bottom line, but it's not the most encouraging development heading into the biggest offseason of Middleton's career. A free-agent-to-be, Middleton is expected to command close to a max deal. The Bucks don't have a ton of appealing options outside of paying – and possibly overpaying – to keep Middleton, but if his struggles continue that situation will become increasingly interesting.

The Knicks continue to be the most frustrating rotation to project. David Fizdale has been prone to drastic changes from game-to-game all season, and he's recently taken to doling out DNPs on what seems to be a rotating basis. Emmanuel Mudiay has been the flavor of the month at point guard, with Trey Burke serving as an ineffective backup.

Despite playing at least 14 minutes in each of the last eight games, Frank Ntilikina was a surprising DNP-CD on Tuesday. Ntilikina shouldn't be on many fantasy radars, but his removal from the rotation was still a fairly perplexing decision from a development standpoint. Mario Hezonja also failed to see the floor, which may or may not have been a direct order from the NYPD for safety reasons.

In other Knicks news, Allonzo Trier made his return after missing two weeks with a hamstring injury. The rookie played 18 minutes off the bench and finished with eight points and a pair of rebounds.

Noah Vonleh was arguably the Knicks' most effective player, putting up 14 points and 15 rebounds while doing a decent job of providing resistance at the rim against Giannis Antetokounmpo. Vonleh has played 33, 37 and 36 minutes over the last three games and holds averages of 10.3 points, 11.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.7 blocks in that span. He's available in more than half of Yahoo leagues as of Wednesday.

Kyrie Irving would not let the Celtics lose. He needed 33 shots to get there, but Irving finished with 40 points in 40 minutes, including a pair of back-to-back, clutch three-pointers to put the Celtics ahead for good in the overtime period. The Celtics still have issues to iron out – they lost at home to the Suns last week and were drubbed by Milwaukee on Friday – but Irving has found himself after a tepid start to the season.

Irving is averaging 25.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, 6.3 assists and shooting 45 percent from three in the month of December, helping make him the seventh-most-productive player in Yahoo leagues on the season.

The unthinkable happened in Oakland in the fourth game of Christmas Day: LeBron James suffered an injury. Typically, when James misses any time it's of his own volition, but he fell awkwardly while reaching for a loose ball in the third quarter and came up favoring his left side. On the telecast, it was clear James told a medical staffer that he "felt a pop," and he was quickly diagnosed with a strained groin. As the Lakers pulled away, it became clear James wouldn't return, and the Lakers have since ruled him day-to-day following an MRI on Wednesday morning.

James, himself, implied Tuesday night that he hopes to play Thursday in Sacramento, but given that it's the first night of a road/home back-to-back, that seems rather unlikely. Given his track record of borderline-unbelievable durability, James almost has to be evaluated on his own scale when it comes to injuries, but it wouldn't be a surprise if the 20-14 Lakers hold him out for multiple games as a precaution.

If James does miss time, Brandon Ingram would be in position to benefit. Ingram played only 24 minutes Tuesday, but he was on the floor during the stretch when the James-less Lakers extended their lead from four to 14 points in the third and fourth quarters.

The early returns are positive on the Rockets' addition of Austin Rivers. Playing his first game with his new team, Rivers finished with a rather unremarkable 10 points and two rebounds, but he played 31 minutes and knocked down a pair of key threes late in the fourth quarter, one of which extended Houston's lead to seven points with less than three minutes to play. While the immediate 30-plus-minute game is a positive indication, Rivers' ceiling as a fantasy commodity remains low. Even if he strings together a few strong outings over the next week, he'll likely take on a lesser role once Chris Paul returns from his latest hamstring injury.

On the Trevor Ariza front, the veteran seems to be somewhat rejuvenated by the move to Washington. He's still struggling to knock down open threes, but Ariza has already been thrust into heavy minutes as Otto Porter deals with an injury. Ariza saw 38 and 36 minutes in his first two games in a Wizards uniform before playing 54 minutes in a triple-overtime win over Phoenix on Saturday. That game throws off Ariza's averages, though things did somewhat balance out, as he was "limited" to 28 minutes Sunday in Indianapolis. All in all, through four games, Ariza is averaging 13.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 3.3 steals. Also encouraging: Ariza has taken 31 threes in four games. Not-so-encouraging: He's only made eight.

Injuries to Monitor

Zach LaVine: After missing the last five games, LaVine is somewhat surprisingly listed as a game-time call Wednesday night against Minnesota. His absence was initially expected to extend into January, but it looks as though he'll be back in time for Week 12.

John Collins: Collins has a strong chance to return for Wednesday's game against Indiana, so it looks as though he'll only miss one game with a sprained ankle.

Taurean Prince: Lloyd Pierce said Wednesday that he doesn't expect to get Prince back before the calendar turns to 2019. Prince has already missed more than three weeks and is set to sit out at least four more games, so he'll likely need to be held out of Week 12 lineups.

Marvin Bagley: Bagley will sit out Wednesday's game, marking his sixth straight absence with a bone bruise on his left knee. He'll have two more chances to play in Week 11 (Thursday vs. LAL; Sunday at LAL), so hopefully his status becomes less clouded before Week 12 lineups lock.

Dennis Smith, Jr.: The second year guard will not play Wednesday against the Pelicans, but coach Rick Carlisle sounded optimistic about Smith's chances to return for Friday's rematch with New Orleans. After Wednesday, Smith will have missed six straight games and 10 of the last 11.

Will Barton: The Nuggets haven't revealed many details, but Barton appears to be day-to-day for the time being. He'll sit out Wednesday but could return as early as Friday (vs. San Antonio) or Saturday (at Phoenix). Even if that is the case, however, Barton could have his minutes restricted for a few games, considering he hasn't played since mid-October.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nick Whalen
RotoWire's NBA Editor and award winning host of the RotoWire NBA Podcast. Many years ago, Stromile Swift gave Nick his unbelievably sweaty headband after a preseason game. Despite its failure to match his school colors, Nick went on to wear that headband for the entirety of his sixth grade basketball season. Catch Nick on Twitter @wha1en.
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