The rest of opening week will feature no shortage of top-notch games with intriguing storylines: On Oct. 17, Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans will open against the Western Conference runner-up Houston Rockets, then two premier rookies will ...and more »
The NBA released its full schedule Friday, and let me tell you something: That first week is going to be nuts.
Opening night will have two of the top three teams in the East duking it out when the Philadelphia 76ers visit the Boston Celtics, and then the Oklahoma City Thunder will try to make a statement when they head to visit the reigning champion Golden State Warriors.
The rest of opening week will feature no shortage of top-notch games with intriguing storylines: On Oct. 17, Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans will open against the Western Conference runner-up Houston Rockets, then two premier rookies will debut as DeAndre Ayton's Phoenix Suns host Luka Doncic's Dallas Mavericks. The next night LeBron makes his debut in Portland as a Los Angeles Laker before two nights later having his first home game at the Staples Center when the Lakers host the Rockets. In between, on Oct. 19, Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors will host the Celtics, followed by the Utah Jazz, one of the biggest surprises of last season, getting a shot at an opening-week statement when they host the Warriors.
I'd like to raise a glass to the NBA schedule-maker for a job well done. That first week is top-notch. And Christmas Day will be top-notch, too; eight of the 13 vote-getters for last season's MVP award will be in action. Everyone knows Christmas morning is for Santa Claus, but afternoon and evening mean great hoops.
But in between the opening week and the Christmas extravaganza there is no shortage of great matchups.
Here are the 10 early-season NBA games between opening week and Christmas Day that I have circled on my calendar.
Philadelphia 76ers at Milwaukee Bucks (Wednesday, Oct. 24, ESPN)
The 76ers finished last year's regular season on a 16-game winning streak and gained themselves a three-seed. But exactly three of those final 16 wins were against playoff teams. I'm not saying the 76ers are an absolutely captivating young team. They are. But I'm saying they might have arrived a year ahead of schedule last season, and I'm not sure they improved much in the offseason.
The 76ers may be in the top tier in the Eastern Conference, but it's pretty clear that the Toronto Raptors and the Boston Celtics are a tick above the 76ers in that tier. And if the Sixers young players don't improve at the rate you'd hope for, perhaps another Eastern Conference team could slide into that top tier. My money's on the Milwaukee Bucks as that team. With the continued ascendance of Giannis, and just importantly with a new head coach giving the Bucks a stronger offensive identity, the Bucks ought to be one of the most fascinating teams in the East. This early-season matchup could give an indication of what to expect from these Bucks. (Bonus matchup on this night: The Dallas Mavericks at the Atlanta Hawks, where we'll get to make snap judgements on the Trae Young/Luka Doncic trade.)
New Orleans Pelicans at Portland Trail Blazers (Thursday, Nov. 2, TNT)
The last time we saw these Blazers they were a No. 3-seed being unceremoniously (and embarrassingly) shoved into the offseason courtesy of a sweep at the hands of Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday. The Blazers made some changes around the margins last season, but largely will run it back as the same group. What's the ceiling for the Blazers in the West? And what's the ceiling for Anthony Davis and his Pelicans? The top two seeds in the West feel pretty clear in the Warriors and Rockets, but that No. 3 seed is up for grabs. Either of these teams could take it.
Houston Rockets at Oklahoma City Thunder (Thursday, Nov. 8, TNT)
Oh, the drama as Carmelo Anthony makes his emotional return to Oklahoma City! Just kidding, I already forgot he even played there. Plenty of pundits have argued the Rockets got worse in the offseason by switching out Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute for Carmelo Anthony, James Ennis and, um, Michael Carter-Williams. I'd concur, and I'd also argue that the Thunder, if healthy, can only get better with Melo off the floor and Andre Roberson back on it. This team's most-used lineup last season was really, really good – a 14.1 net rating when Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Steven Adams, Roberson and Melo were on the floor – and I don't think Melo was the reason why. This is a meaningful, telling November game.
Boston Celtics at Utah Jazz (Friday, Nov. 9, ESPN)
Gordon Hayward makes his return to Utah, although I think the potential hate from spurned Jazz fans will be rather muted for two reasons: Hayward's season-ending injury on opening night last season turned him from a deserter into a sympathetic character to anyone with a heart. And the Jazz moved on just fine when the player they selected with the 13th pick in the 2017 draft, Donovan Mitchell, turned into an all-world player. I expect the Jazz fans to reflect all that, and keep the boos mostly to themselves. The game itself ought to be fascinating, with two of the NBA's top defensive teams – and best-coached teams – going at it.
Golden State Warriors at Houston Rockets (Thursday, Nov. 15, TNT)
James Harden and the Rockets gave Golden State everything it could handle in the NBA Playoffs. USATSIThe last time we saw these two teams playing each other, the Rockets had the NBA's best dynasty since Michael Jordan's Bulls on the ropes. If Chris Paul hadn't pulled a hamstring, the Rockets had a better-than-even chance at winning it all last year. Hell, if the Rockets hadn't shot one-of-2,395 from 3-point range in Game 7, they might have won it all. Simply put, these are the two best teams in the NBA for the second consecutive season.
Toronto Raptors at Boston Celtics (Friday, Nov. 16, ESPN)
Did I just say the Warriors and the Rockets are hands-down the two best teams in the NBA? Well, here are two teams who might have something to say about that. Adding Kawhi Leonard to a Raptors team that set a franchise record for wins last season means a team that may be the best in the East, and could – could – topple the Warriors. And adding a healthy Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving to a team with one of the best young cores in the NBA means the Celtics are really the only other option for the best team in the East, and also are a team that could – could – topple the Warriors.
Phoenix Suns at Philadelphia Sixers followed by Oklahoma City Thunder at Sacramento Kings (Monday, Nov. 19, NBA TV)
It's rookie night in the NBA! It will be really fun to see DeAndre Ayton get trash-talked from here to the Bahamas when he faces Joel Embiid, and then see Steven Adams show Marvin Bagley III that basketball is a game for grown men. But hey, the youngsters could flash some highlight reel plays.
Los Angeles Lakers at Cleveland Cavaliers (Wednesday, Nov. 21, ESPN)
LeBron returns, Part II. Like Hayward's return to Utah, I expect LeBron's return to Cleveland to be rather muted. After all, he did return to Cleveland after his years in Miami, and he did give the city what it needed most, its first major sports title in 52 years and a major dose of self-confidence. Plus, LeBron just opened a daggone school in his hometown. He's a hometown hero and should always be lauded as such. I expect this return to Cleveland to be filled with nostalgia, not animus. (Bonus matchup on this night: Denver Nuggets at Minnesota Timberwolves, where the two teams who had a play-in game for the No. 8 seed last season will face off.)
Golden State Warriors at Cleveland Cavaliers (Wednesday, Dec. 5, NBA League Pass)
No, it's not because this is a rematch of last season's NBA Finals. I don't care about the Finals rematch element of this, because the Cavaliers without LeBron are just another also-ran. The rematch I care about is Tristan Thompson versus Draymond Green. There was the spat those two got in during the 2018 Finals, which was followed by their fight at a LeBron-hosted party after the recent ESPYs. Give me more NBA soap opera. Give it to me all day long.
Houston Rockets at Utah Jazz (Thursday, Dec. 6, TNT)
The record shows that, in last year's NBA Playoffs, the Rockets whipped the Jazz, 4-1. But my memory tells me that series could have been a lot closer than that, especially if the Jazz hadn't been ravaged by injuries. Maybe I'm too much of a stan for Donovan Mitchell, but I think he's a 2019 All-Star, and I also think that the Jazz are one of the best-run organizations in the NBA, and that Quin Snyder is one of the best coaches in the NBA. If things break the right way – and if the Jazz are healthy – they could be the third seed in the West.
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