When the NBA released the full 2013-14 regular-season schedule on Tuesday evening, intrepid Yahoo! Sports NBA columnist Marc J. Spears immediately made his picks for the 10 must-see matchups of the forthcoming season, giving hoop fans the dates he believes most merit circling on the brand new NBA calendar. While we'd never presume to contradict our colleague, in a slate this massive, there's bound to be a slew of other games worth keeping an eye on, so why not dig a little deeper?
Denver Nuggets at Sacramento Kings: Oct. 30. When the Kings last played in mid-April, their future was uncertain, with the NBA's Board of Governors yet to weigh in on their potential sale to the Seattle-based ownership group led by Chris Hansen and Steve Ballmer. May's resolution and subsequent sale to the local group headed by Vivek Ranadivé has kept the team in Sacramento, as well as given the entire franchise new hope after several years of subpar leadership from Joe and Gavin Maloof. It's a new day for the team and its fans.
The last few years have seen passionate support from devoted Kings fans on game nights when it seemed as if the franchise was near relocation. This season's home opener will be a different, an event defined not so much by desperation as the pride and optimism that comes with a fresh start. It will be a beginning, not the potential end of a long journey. — Eric Freeman
Minnesota Timberwolves vs. Oklahoma City Thunder: Nov. 1. As I wrote earlier this offseason, I'm not totally sure that bringing in/back Kevin Martin, Chase Budinger, Corey Brewer and first-round pick Shabazz Muhammad (especially while subtracting Andrei Kirilenko) will make the Wolves a demonstrably better basketball team this season. I do, however, think those acquisitions will help make Minnesota a better offensive team, especially when combined with a fully healthy (fingers crossed) Kevin Love, a version of Ricky Rubio who's had a full NBA offseason without rehabbing from a catastrophic knee injury and (provided this glacial contract process eventually culminates in a re-signing) a healthy, rested and paid Nikola Pekovic.
I think that Minnesota team will be, if not excellent, then at least immensely watchable on a night-to-night basis thanks to improved outside shooting, punishing inside-out play from Love and Pekovic, the always-appointment-viewing passing of Rubio and a new slew of active wings capable of activating offense in Rick Adelman's corner scheme. I'm also willing to consider the possibility that they'll be better than I expect defensively, as they were in 2011-12 before Rubio's torn ACL sent the team careening off the path. At worst, they'll be fun; at best, they could be a threat. So let's line them up against perhaps the best team in the Western Conference — a team led by Love's Team USA buddy, Kevin Durant, and whose second-in-command, Russell Westbrook, is on track to be back from the knee injury he suffered during the playoffs — and see which path these Wolves are on.
Also, I remember this happening:
... and, seeing the prospect of early-season health for all involved, I am very amped. — Dan Devine
Detroit Pistons vs. Washington Wizards: Oct. 30 (Opening Night), Dec. 28, Dec. 30, Jan. 18. At first glance, this is the sort of mid-profile game that pops up on the NBA schedule every night, a nondescript contest between two playoff hopefuls with relatively small margins of error (and injury). Yet, from another vantage, it's a matchup that makes League Pass one of the best bargains on your cable company's order form.
This offseason, the Pistons committed themselves to watchability after several seasons in the aesthetic doldrums, obtaining point guard Brandon Jennings and mercurial forward Josh Smith to join man-child Andre Drummond and the skilled Greg Monroe. The Wizards, on the other hand, have one of the most promising young trios in the league in max-level point guard John Wall, shooting guard Bradley Beal, and rookie forward Otto Porter. Their four matchups this season may not qualify as major games between contenders, but they provide startling potential for the random entertainment that makes the NBA so watchable on a nightly basis. — EF
Philadelphia 76ers vs. Cleveland Cavaliers: Nov. 8 and Nov. 9. A home-and-home, back-to-back, Friday-and-Saturday pair featuring the team that just signed boom/bust lottery ticket Andrew Bynum and the team whose new CEO just had to apologize for the previous regime trading for him feels like a pretty heavily emotional and compelling set. Plus, the double-dip takes place early enough in the season that Philadelphia can neither be mathematically eliminated from anything yet or do too much damage to their tanking strategy by winning, so they might find some compelling incentive to try to win. Honest(ish) competition!
If Bynum is, as planned, ready to go for training camp and able to stay upright/mobile through the start of the season — hey, it's still the offseason, let's stay optimistic — this could represent the first opportunity for Sixers fans to actually see the 7-foot center play live professional basketball, which the Wells Fargo Center faithful will likely reward with either polite applause or hurled hunks of jagged, flaming debris. It's unlikely that eventual centerpiece/2013 lottery pick Nerlens Noel will have returned from rehabbing his torn ACL in time to do anything more than watch this one from the sidelines, but even if that's all he does, as we learned last year, there's fun to be had just watching an interestingly coiffed big man ride the pine for Philly.
Also, in on-court terms, it ought to be fun to see which weapons All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving brings out to combat Sixers rookie Michael Carter-Williams, whose 6-foot-6 frame and quickness suggest an intriguing defensive prospect. My guess? Whichever weapons Kyrie wants, early, often and repeatedly, continuing a brutal beginning to the Syracuse product's NBA career that will see him face the Miami Heat, then have to check Irving twice, John Wall twice, Derrick Rose (hopefully), Stephen Curry and Tony Parker within his first two weeks as a pro. Welcome to the NBA, young fella. — DD
Houston Rockets at Oklahoma City Thunder: Dec. 29. The James Harden trade is sure to define any matchup between these teams for the next several seasons, or at least as long as it represents the moment at which the Thunder inadvertently turned a rival into a contender while simultaneously hurting their own chances at a title. Despite whatever events got them to this point, though, these two teams figure to be two of the West's top teams for the foreseeable future, longer than the aging (if also ageless) San Antonio Spurs, the Chris Paul-dependent Los Angeles Clippers, and the more tenuously successful Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies. Both rosters feature young-ish stars with room to grow (or, in the case of Dwight Howard, return to prominence), and their general managers appear to have enough flexibility to improve their teams when necessary.
The Harden trade, then, is almost a distraction from the immediate pleasure of watching two exciting, very good teams play each other several times per season. The season's first matchup should remind us that all our chatter about storylines exists to prepare us for what really matters: the games. — EF
Houston Rockets at Golden State Warriors: Dec. 13. Two seasons ago, these teams finished in the draft lottery. Last season, they climbed up into the Western Conference's top eight behind the electric guard play of James Harden and Stephen Curry, with Houston giving the (shorthanded) Thunder a rough go of it in Round 1 and the Dubs becoming postseason people's champs by knocking off the Denver Nuggets and scaring the daylights out of the San Antonio Spurs. This season, they've made arguably the two biggest pickups of the offseason, especially on the defensive end, with the Rockets landing All-Star center Dwight Howard to anchor the interior and the Warriors executing a three-team sign-and-trade to import Andre Iguodala to lock down the perimeter. (And lest we forget, the Warriors were one of the few teams granted a free-agent audience with Howard, who reportedly came away very impressed with Golden State's staff and organization.)
Both ranked in the top five in possessions per game last season, so they like to get up and down the floor. Both ranked in the top 11 in points per possession, too, so they know what to do with the ball once they cross half-court. They both appear to have improved across the board, supplementing their major acquisitions with smart lower-key add-ons that appear to have bolstered their benches and smartly fleshed out their rotations. And their four meetings last season were bookended by Houston hanging 140 on the Warriors before Mark Jackson ordered intentional fouls to keep the Rockets from setting an NBA record for made 3-pointers, and Curry going off for 29 points and 11 dimes as Golden State blew Houston out by 30. Draymond Green says he doesn't like the Rockets; the feeling, we're sure, is mutual, and I'm betting Howard hasn't forgotten that stray elbow from Golden State power forward David Lee while Dwight was wearing purple and gold.
Add up the scoring, the speed, the sparks that have flown between the two teams and the inimitable spirit of the Oracle fans, and I'm betting that Friday night matchup's going to be worth staying home to catch. — DD
Philadelphia 76ers at Orlando Magic: March 2. Although much is subject to change over the next 10 months, the 2014 NBA draft looks to be the strongest at the top since Greg Oden and Kevin Durant entered the league in 2007. It figures, then, that the league's worst teams will engage in a similar rush to the bottom to increase their lottery odds, all in the hopes of nabbing a future superstar in June.
The Sixers and Magic aren't certain to end up as the NBA's bottom two squads in 2013-14, but they're likely to challenge for the league's dunce cap. As such, their final matchup in March could have a big impact on the lottery, and by extension the next decade of basketball. (Or, you know, maybe the team with the second pick will end up with the far better player.) — EF
New Orleans Pelicans at Portland Trail Blazers: Dec. 21. If not for the Pistons, the Pelicans might have entered the season as the league's most intriguing team. A lottery squad in each of the last two seasons after Chris Paul's departure, the Pelicans elected to make a push for respectability next year by trading its top picks in 2013 (which wound up being Kentucky center Noel) and 2014 (a top-five protected selection) to the 76ers for All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday. They then engineered a three-team deal to import former Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans, with visions of versatile wing lineups featuring some combination of those two, reportedly-now-healthy maxed-out shooting guard Eric Gordon and 2012 first-rounder Austin Rivers making things happen on the perimeter, opening up opportunities for emerging beast Anthony Davis and floor-stretching marksman Ryan Anderson ... provided, of course, it all comes together.
Quiet as it's kept, though, the Blazers (who have also missed the playoffs in each of the last two seasons) have made a similar push toward relevance, drafting exciting small-school combo guard C.J. McCollum to both pair with and back up reigning Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard, and making several shrewd moves (signing swingman Dorell Wright, snaring 2011 lottery pick Thomas Robinson for a pair of second-round picks, landing center Robin Lopez in the three-teamer that sent Evans to New Orleans) that appear to have fortified what was arguably the league's worst bench last season ... provided, of course, it all comes together.
By the time these teams meet at the Rose Garden, Portland will have played 27 games and New Orleans will have played 24. They'll have had nearly three months since the start of training camp to have worked out rotations, started to develop chemistry among all the new and existing pieces, and have had the opportunity to figure out whether their respective pushes toward capital-m Mattering in the NBA playoff conversation seem ready to take off or have stalled, which is interesting enough in a macro sense. And from an immediate run-of-play perspective, the sheer array of interesting mix-and-match talents on the floor — Davis' awkward-yet-smooth apositional frontcourt box-checking, LaMarcus Aldridge's somewhat Boshian four/five bristling, more ball-handling guards who can play the nominal one or two than you could shake a stick at, oversized threes/small-ball fours Nicolas Batum and Al-Farouq Aminu, etc. — to make this a fun watch in and of itself that could wind up telling us something more about the Western playoff picture.
And if all that doesn't tickle your fancy, I've got four words for you: Robin Lopez Revenge Game. — DD
Atlanta Hawks at Milwaukee Bucks: April 16. The final night of the 2012-13 season featured a great deal of excitement, with Stephen Curry setting a new record for 3-pointers in a season, the Los Angeles Lakers avoiding embarrassment and clinching a playoff berth, and Sacramento Kings fans potentially watching their team for the last time. Only time will tell what 2013-14's finale brings, but we can bet it'll be magical.
One thing we do know, at least as of this writing, is that a national TV audience will get to enjoy the season-closing tilt between the Hawks and Bucks on ESPN. It appears as though the Worldwide Leader has banked on these squads battling for a playoff spot, and it sure looks like a doozy. Will Jeff Teague score 20 points and turn the tide in several fantasy leagues? Will Ersan Ilyasova take a nap in the middle of the third quarter? Will Al Horford and Paul Millsap even have to play? Stay tuned for "SportsCenter!" — EF
Toronto Raptors at Memphis Grizzlies: Nov. 13. The Raptors and Grizzlies faced off once last season after the trade that sent Rudy Gay north of the border, but the meeting took place at the Air Canada Centre — Gay scored 13 points on 15 shots, Mike Conley and Zach Randolph scored 17 apiece and the Grizzlies earned a six-point road win. This will represent Gay's first trip to FedEx Forum as a visitor after 6 1/2 seasons and more than 8,500 points scored in a Grizzlies uniform ... and yet, you wonder if Memphians really miss his iso-heavy, accuracy-light, volume-shooting wing game as much as his prior level of productivity would seem to dictate.
As I've written in the past, Memphis improved on both ends of the floor after the three-team deal that sent Gay to the Raptors, redistributing the possessions previously used by the athletic swingman to more efficient players like Conley, Randolph and (most notably) Marc Gasol while continuing to lock down on the defensive end en route to a trip to the Western Conference finals — a level of success they never reached with Gay playing a pivotal role. But would that approach — ditch shot-jacking, spread responsibility around, emphasize increased player and ball movement, operate more through the two big guys and score just enough to let your clamp-down D take you home — be lauded quite as much as it has been if Memphis isn't winning?
What if the Grizzlies — who look strong again after re-upping perimeter defending ace Tony Allen, snaring amnestied shooter Mike Miller and trading for steady backup big man Kosta Koufos — get off to a slow start against a tough slate featuring the likes of the San Antonio Spurs, revamped Pistons, reloaded Warriors and Eastern Conference doppelganger Indiana Pacers? What if Gay — his jumper suddenly scorching after long-overdue offseason vision correction surgery — gets off to a hot start and has Toronto looking like they could compete for one of the East's lower-tier playoff spots? Might those few lingering voices that look at Memphis and say, "It'd be nice to have someone who could reliably create his own shot," find some more friends? Or has the Grindhouse come far enough to rest on what it knows about its team's identity, salute Rudy for his service and go back about the business of not bluffing?
I suspect I know the answer to that question, but like everything else we're talking about today, we won't really know for sure until the season gets going in earnest; then, all the questions we pore over during the summer will be replaced by whole new sets of quandaries that we'll spend the next eight months trying to solve. It's going to be great. — DD
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