The NBA has long played games on Christmas, but roster moves on December 25th have only recently started happening with any sort of regularity. At least one move has taken place on three of the past four Christmases, but before that, only three transactions are known to have taken place on December 25th in any year since the NBA began in 1949.
The start of the recent Christmas moves coincided with opening day of the lockout-shortened 2011/12 season. Teams usually don’t make roster moves on opening day, but given the mad scramble that took place as the NBA hustled to start its season that year following the ratification of the collective bargaining agreement, it shouldn’t have been a surprise when the Rockets waived Jeremy Lin and Charlotte claimed Cory Higgins off waivers from the Nuggets on December 25th, 2011. Higgins is the son of Rod Higgins, who was then Charlotte’s president of basketball operations, so even though it had been 30 years since anyone pulled off a transaction on Christmas, this move in particular was no shocker.
Lin was not yet the household name he would become a few weeks later after the Knicks picked him up, so his release didn’t cause much of a stir, even given its holiday timing, though some records contend that it took place on Christmas Eve, not Christmas. A Houston Chronicle report indicates that the Rockets waived Lin on the night of December 24th, 2011, and Basketball-Reference and Pro Sports Transactions reflect the same date. However, the RealGM transactions log shows December 25th, and that jibes with a reference that Marc Stein of ESPN.com made to it when he wrote about the Knicks claiming Lin off waivers on December 27th. NBA waivers entail a two-day waiting period, and RealGM, Pro Sports Tranactions and Basketball-Reference are all in agreement that the Knicks acquired Lin on the 27th (Basketball-Reference shows Lin as having signed as a free agent that day, though that appears to be incorrect.) So, Lin’s release goes down as a Christmas move.
Lots more activity happened a year later. The Wizards made a pair of signings on December 25, 2012, adding Garrett Temple and Shelvin Mack, two days after opening a pair of roster spots with their release of Earl Barron and Shaun Livingston, and one day before their December 26th game against the Cavaliers. Cleveland also made a pair of moves on December 25th that year, influenced by the timing of Washington’s decision to cut Livingston. Players are on waivers for two days regardless of whether those are business days or not, meaning that on Christmas, Livingston would either clear waivers or go to a team that submitted a claim. The Cavs pounced on him, putting in a claim and waiving Donald Sloan to make room. For Sloan, the Christmas release was an icy winter’s greeting, though he landed on his feet, signing with New Orleans shortly after the new year.
NBA teams haven’t changed the compositions of their rosters on Christmas either of the past two years, but the Suns and Raptors made D-League assignments on December 25th last year. They were the first D-League assignments ever to take place on Christmas, but given the growing number of one-to-one affiliates, they probably won’t be the last.
Just as with Lin, the historical record differs on a Christmastime move that involved another well-known name. The Cincinnati Royals, the forebears of today’s Sacramento Kings, traded former All-Star Game MVP Adrian Smith to the Warriors in 1969 for a 1970 second-round pick that the Royals used to select future Hall-of-Famer Nate “Tiny” Archibald. RealGM shows that transaction as having taken place on December 26th, 1969, but Basketball-Reference and Pro Sports Transactions list it on December 25th that year. A UPI account that appeared in multiple newspapers says it took place on a Thursday, and Christmas fell on Thursday that year. Since that trade happened much longer ago than the Lin waiver, it’s more difficult to say with any degree of certainty when the move actually took place, so we’ll list it with an asterisk, unlike with Lin, as it seems fairly clear he was released on Christmas.
Whenever it happened, the Smith-Archibald trade was a boon for the Royals, who moved to Kansas City in 1972, right before Archibald became the only player ever to lead the NBA in points and assists per game in a single season. Smith only played 66 games for the Warriors before moving on to the ABA. The Warriors captured the NBA title in 1975, but if they had hung on to the pick they traded for Smith and used it on Archibald, they’d have had a decent chance to win more championships.
In any case, Christmas transactions are rare but not as rare as they used to be. Here’s a look at them all:
- The Suns assigned Tyler Ennis, Archie Goodwin and T.J. Warren to the D-League.
- The Raptors assigned Bruno Caboclo to the D-League.
- The Cavaliers waived Donald Sloan and claimed Shaun Livingston off waivers.
- The Wizards signed Shelvin Mack and Garrett Temple.
- The Pacers signed Raymond Townsend.
- The Rockets signed Alonzo Bradley.
- *-The Royals traded Adrian Smith to the Warriors for a 1970 second-round pick (Nate Archibald).
* — Whether this trade happened on Christmas 1969 or the day after is a matter of historical dispute (see introduction).