The NBA offseason is when hope springs eternal. But with 4½ months between the final buzzer that crowned the Denver Nuggets champions and tipoff of the next marathon for the Larry O’Brien Trophy, the offseason can also just feel eternal.
That’s one reason why so many people seem to get geeked up about the release of the NBA schedule each summer. Beyond the nitty-gritty specifics to analyze and yell about — who’s not getting enough national television exposure and who’s getting too much, who has the most brutal road trips, who gets the cushiest home-cooking-heavy run through the tape in April, etc. — it gives us a chance to start laying down track for the new set of stories we hope to see written.
We finally know when each draft pick will begin his ascent to stardom, when that premier free-agent signing or trade acquisition will start shining just the way the front office drew it up, and when the hometown team will have the opportunity to transform last season’s heartbreak into mere prologue for the glory to come. It’s the first step toward turning everything we’ve been thinking about into reality.
And if all that sounds a bit hoity-toity for the publication of 30 grids of 41 home games and 41 away games … well, at least it gives us something new to look forward to.
Let’s find it together, taking a quick trip through the calendar to highlight some of the most anticipated games on the just-released 2023-24 NBA schedule.
Nuggets at Heat, Feb. 29, 10 p.m. ET (TNT)
An NBA Finals rematch! When last we saw these two teams tangle, Denver’s combination of size, skill and top-end offensive talent proved too much for Miami — as evidenced by the physical manifestation of all three of those traits, All-Galaxy center Nikola Jokić, turning in one of the most dominant Finals performances of all time. Will Erik Spoelstra and Co. be able to gain a measure of regular-season revenge on the opponent that extinguished the Heat’s hopes for a first post-LeBron ring? Or will Jokić, Jamal Murray, Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope remind everybody why they were the class of the West and the ones who wound up hoisting the Larry O’B back in June?
Mavericks at Spurs, Oct. 25, 9:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
With all due respect to the Dallas Mavericks, this game would’ve made the list no matter whom San Antonio’s opponent was, because the headline-grabber here is the official beginning of Victor Wembanyama’s career. That two-game summer stint in Las Vegas — one dismal performance, one extremely productive and tantalizing one — was just an amuse-bouche. (French guy, French term. Professional writer.) Now we get to see what kind of meal the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft (and that famous sommelier he’s got on the sideline) can deliver after a full training camp to ramp up for the real thing. How Wembanyama fares against NBA strength, physicality and schemes aimed at slowing him down — to say nothing of what’s sure to be a long line of dudes licking their chops at the prospect of dunking on him — could go a long way toward determining just how quickly San Antonio can turn its fortunes around. I, for one, can’t wait to get my first look at how it all shakes out when the games actually count.
Lakers at Nuggets, Oct. 24, 7:30 p.m. ET (TNT), opening night
A rematch of the 2023 Western Conference finals, which Denver swept in four straight — by a total of just 24 points, yes, with three of the four wins coming by two or fewer possessions, but a sweep nonetheless. The Nuggets — well, mostly head coach Michael Malone — had plenty to say about the Lakers during and after that series:
Michael Malone was asked about his comments about narrative being all about Lakers and not Denver in last round and if narrative will be same for Nuggets entering Finals: “If anyone is still talking about the Lakers, that’s on them. They’ve gone fishing. We’re still playing.”
— Ohm Youngmisuk (@NotoriousOHM) May 26, 2023
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) June 15, 2023
"He came into this world as the son of a coach, but in these playoffs, he became the Lakers daddy!"@VicLombardi while talking about Michael Malone at the Nuggets championship rally 😂pic.twitter.com/h28iR5kLHq
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPoints) June 15, 2023
— Pat McAfee (@PatMcAfeeShow) June 14, 2023
Unsurprisingly, the Lakers, led by not actually retiring star LeBron James and head coach Darvin Ham, didn’t appear to take too kindly to all that chatter. Now, a motivated LA side that bolstered its depth this summer, profiling as one of the bigger winners of the offseason, gets a chance to let its game do the talking against Malone’s crew, and maybe stuff something deeply unpleasant into his pipe to smoke.
(Like, maybe, paint chips? Or dog fur. Or a car air freshener. I don’t know. Something gross.)
NBA In-Season Tournament semifinals and final, Dec. 7 and 9
If you’re anything like me, you haven’t really invested too much time and energy in digesting the specifics of how the in-season tournament is going to work beyond the broad strokes: all the games taking place on Tuesdays and Fridays in November; group stage leading to a knockout stage like in a FIBA tournament; an eight-team quarterfinal leads to a final four in Las Vegas. I’m not yet positive that “adding a new thing for teams to play for that isn’t a championship” will result in meaningful and exciting December basketball. I’m going to keep an open mind, though, because I was skeptical about the play-in tournament and that’s turned out fine, and because I’d probably be watching December basketball anyway, what with it being my job and all.
Heat at Bucks, Oct. 30, 8 p.m. ET
Bucks-Heat has become one of the league’s premier rivalries in recent years. No team has won more games over the past four regular seasons than Milwaukee; no team has won more postseason games in that time than Miami.
They’ve split 14 regular-season games in that span, and traded off decisive, reality-shaping playoff series victories. A 4-1 Heat smackdown in the 2020 bubble seemed to put the Bucks on the brink of disaster ahead of Giannis Antetokounmpo becoming eligible for a supermax contract extension; that existential dread helped prompt Milwaukee’s blockbuster deal for Jrue Holiday. A four-game Bucks sweep in 2021 propelled them toward the championship and revealed Miami’s need for another playmaker, leading the Heat to swing a sign-and-trade for ex-Raptors championship point guard Kyle Lowry. And this past spring’s 4-1 Miami win — a huge upset, with the eighth-seeded Heat dismantling an injury-weakened but stunningly shellshocked top-seeded Bucks — sent Jimmy Butler and Co. on the way toward their second Finals trip in four seasons and left Milwaukee facing some massive decisions in free agency.
The Bucks answered them, ponying up to bring back championship-core members Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez, while the Heat spent their summer trying to land their own big fish to supplement the title-caliber battery of Butler and Bam Adebayo. Will the full-strength Bucks have payback on their mind after last spring’s embarrassment? Or will the Heat offer a reminder that, last we checked, they were the class of the Eastern Conference?
Heat at Celtics, Oct. 27, 7:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
A pairing that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Bucks-Heat as the best rivalry in the East over the past few seasons (and, really, much longer than that). Miami enters this season with the upper hand, having outlasted Boston in a seven-game Eastern Conference finals victory. That series saw the Heat race out to a 3-0 lead before the Celtics came all the way back to tie things up, thanks to an unbelievable buzzer-beating putback by Derrick White, only to get their doors blown off in Game 7 at home — a defeat made all the more bitter by Jayson Tatum injuring his ankle on the opening play, leaving a slew of questions about what could’ve been.
A retooled Celtics team — so long, Marcus Smart and Grant Williams; hello, Kristaps Porzingis — will greet a Heat squad boasting a new backcourt after Max Strus and Gabe Vincent cashed out this summer. Something tells me, though, that while some of the faces will be new, the age-old antipathy will remain the same.
Rockets at Raptors, Feb. 9, 7:30 p.m. ET
In the summer of 2016, Fred VanVleet — a two-time Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year at Wichita State, but also a four-year player charitably listed at 6-foot even — passed on several chances to be drafted in the second round by NBA teams with designs on stashing him on their D-League teams, because he believed going undrafted would give him a better chance of finding a fully guaranteed deal on a team of his choosing. He was right: He balled out in Summer League and the Raptors signed him to a two-year deal, validating VanVleet’s bet on himself. Seven years later, that initial bet — and the subsequent gambles that resulted in him becoming a steady backup point guard, a starting two-guard, an NBA Finals hero and NBA champion, a starting point guard and then an All-Star point guard — paid off to the tune of a three-year, $128.5 million maximum-salaried deal to leave Toronto and head south to Houston. Now, he’ll suit up in the other locker room at Scotiabank Arena and take the court from the visitors’ tunnel for the first time. The bet here? He’ll receive a hero’s welcome — the latest step in one of the more improbable and awesome stories in recent NBA history.
Wizards at Warriors, Dec. 22, 10 p.m. ET (ESPN)
I’m going to be honest: I can’t necessarily vouch for watching this whole game.
It might be fine! The Warriors are probably going to be at least pretty good, provided everyone’s healthy — and if Chris Paul gets comfortable with the notion of coming off the bench, he’s the kind of keep-everybody-organized-and-get-a-midrange-bucket presence Golden State hasn’t had since Shaun Livingston retired. Washington … well, it’s got a chance to score some points, at least. The main draw, though, will obviously be Every Interaction Between Jordan Poole and Draymond Green.
Will they hug it out and make up? Will Poole start yelling out loud and on-mic all that stuff that Cam’ron reported he said off-camera? Will Green challenge Poole’s dad to shoot the fair one at half-court? Will Bilal Coulibaly stay as far away from all of that as humanly possible? The answer to that last one absolutely needs to be yes; we await the others with bated breath.
Hornets at Trail Blazers, Feb. 25, 9 p.m. ET
With any doubts over who’d be taken with the No. 1 pick effectively ended back in October, the most heated debate in the days leading up to the 2023 NBA Draft centered on which prospect would go second: Alabama forward Brandon Miller or G League Ignite guard Scoot Henderson. Charlotte went with Miller, opting for his prototypical size, length and two-way potential on the perimeter over Henderson, who went to Portland one pick later and whom some scouts saw as a better overall prospect due to his explosive athleticism and superior upside as a game-breaking scorer.
We won’t know for years which team got the better of that particular exchange. That doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t watch the first matchup between this summer’s other top picks with great interest. A would-be tilt at Summer League was scuttled after Henderson suffered a shoulder injury in his first appearance in Vegas; now, though, we’ll get to see them square off under the bright lights.
Warriors at Kings, Oct. 27, 10 p.m. ET (ESPN)
A rematch of what might’ve been the best series of the 2023 NBA playoffs — an opening-round heater in which Draymond Green got suspended for stomping on Domantas Sabonis’ chest, the precocious Kings were a Harrison Barnes 3 away from a 3-1 lead, Golden State took a 3-2 lead with De’Aaron Fox struggling through a fractured finger, Malik Monk went nuts to force a Game 7 and Stephen Curry reminded us all exactly who he is by shutting the door with a 50-ball on the road.
Steph’s still Steph, and the Warriors are still (mostly) the Warriors. The Kings aren’t shook, though, and they brought the whole gang back this summer. Round 2 ought to be a hell of a lot of fun.
Grizzlies at Hawks, Dec. 23, 7:30 p.m. ET
All eyes will be on the Grizzlies for Ja Morant’s return from the 25-game suspension he received after posing with a gun on Instagram Live — less than two months after being suspended eight games for doing the same thing. (It’s possible that the return won’t come in Game 26; in its statement announcing the suspension, the NBA said Morant “will also be required to meet certain conditions before he returns to play,” meaning his absence could extend if he doesn’t cross every T and dot every I that the league mandates.)
As dismal as the final couple of months of Memphis’ season were — from the injuries to key big men Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke to Morant’s off-court drama to The Whole Dillon Brooks Thing and the disappointing six-game dismissal at the hands of the lower-seeded Lakers — the Grizzlies were the West’s No. 2 seed last season, a team that finished third in the NBA in net rating and cooked opponents by nearly 12 points per 100 possessions when the core trio of Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane were on the floor. When everything’s right, Memphis is a title contender; if Ja’s not right, though, then nothing is.
Nuggets at Suns, Dec. 1, 10 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Phoenix was the only team to really put a scratch on the Nuggets’ armor throughout their 16-4 bum-rush to the title, bouncing back from two big losses in Denver to knot the series at 2-2 and heading into halftime of Game 5 down only three points. (Jokić and Co. opened the third quarter with a 17-4 run, pushed the lead to 20 three minutes later, and never looked back.)
On one hand, it took a pair of monstrous performances from Devin Booker and Kevin Durant in Games 3 and 4 to get even. On the other, though, those guys can … y’know … do that, and they’re back, and now they’ve got a new third-star running buddy in Bradley Beal to help them put defenses in the Figure Four.
Are the new-look Suns a little better? Are the Nuggets sans Bruce Brown and Jeff Green a little worse? And when we watch this game, are we watching the two best teams in the West?
(That sound you heard was a vigorous and collective harrumph emanating from the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and probably at least a couple of other localities west of the Mississippi. Parity!)
Suns at Wizards, Feb. 4, 3:30 p.m. ET (NBA TV)
Bradley Beal’s first game back in D.C.! Everybody will probably be pretty nice about it, considering he exited this summer in the top three in Washington history in games and minutes played, points, assists and steals. But given the state of affairs for the franchise in his wake — a long-delayed, likely pretty painful rebuild — they might not be that nice about it.
Suns at Warriors, Oct. 24, 10 p.m. ET (TNT), opening night
I’m not saying that Chris Paul — hastily jettisoned this summer in favor of a younger, more scoring-forward third option in Bradley Beal — is definitely going to find a way to hit somebody wearing a Suns uniform in the beans in this game, or, if he sees Isiah Thomas sitting next to Mat Ishbia, possibly chase a loose ball straight into the first row at a jaw-dropping rate of speed. But I’m not not saying it, either.
Also: Kevin Durant against the Warriors in a high-profile meeting of championship hopefuls! A couple of years ago, it would’ve seemed unthinkable for that piece of information to be the second paragraph in a blurb like this. Time might not heal all wounds, but its onward march does make space for other stuff to happen that needs to get mentioned first. A truly poetic thought.
Thunder at Bulls, Oct. 25, 8 p.m. ET
After nine Summer League games separated by one Lisfranc injury and a rookie season deferred, Chet Holmgren will finally play in an actual NBA game that really counts, and I, for one, am here for it. The shot-swatting 7-foot swizzle-stick feels like the perfect missing piece for an Oklahoma City team with a ton of ball-handling and playmaking talent, but not much rim protection or offensive juice up front. He might not look like an All-Star from the opening tip. If he fits as snugly as it seems, though, the Thunder might be this year’s version of the Kings or Cavs — a young squad that roars out of the gate to cement its position in the playoff picture sooner than many anticipated.
Pacers at Nuggets, Jan. 14, 3:30 p.m. ET
On a narrative level: Bruce Brown comes back to Denver to get his championship ring after getting paid on the heels of playing an integral role in the Nuggets’ run to the title. There’s also a non-trivial chance that Michael Malone tries to trick his ol’ pal Brucey B into coming into the home locker room for a sec, and then barricades the door to prevent him from leaving, and we’ve got kind of a “The Clippers won’t let DeAndre Jordan go sign with the Mavericks” situation on our hands, which would be a fun way to spend an evening. (Although, presumably, not for Brown.)
It ought to be a fun one in terms of actual game play, too. The Nuggets averaged 118.3 points per 100 possessions last season, tied for third in the NBA … which is the same offensive efficiency mark the Pacers put up when Tyrese Haliburton was on the court. Indiana played at a much faster pace than the champs last season, but both the Pacers and Nuggets were lethal when they cranked it up, ranking second and third, respectively, in points scored per possession in transition. Their pace-pushing might reach new levels, too, with Indy welcoming in Brown as well as gazelle-striding ex-Knicks forward Obi Toppin and athletic first-round pick Jarace Walker, and Denver likely complementing its championship starting five by putting youngsters Christian Braun and Peyton Watson in larger roles. This one feels like it could leave the scoreboard smoking.
Grizzlies at Celtics, Feb. 4, 6 p.m. ET (ESPN)
For close to a decade, Marcus Smart more or less defined what the Celtics were: physical, versatile and nasty; miserable to try to score on, and nearly as miserable to try to watch score; more likely than not to be playing in close and important games late into the season, with a pretty damn good chance of winning them. (It also didn’t hurt that his name — the balance, lift, vowel structure of it — is basically the “cellar door” of Things to Scream in a Boston Accent.)
He’s one of the textbook guys you’d hate if he was on the other team, but love with all your heart when he’s on yours — and now, for the first time since he came out of Oklahoma State with the sixth pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, he’ll play in Boston for someone else. I suspect Celtics fans will afford a bit of a grace period on the whole “hate him since he’s on the other team” thing, and that we’ll hear a few more chants of that perfect name in that decidedly imperfect accent ringing through the stands at TD Garden.
Pistons at Rockets, Jan. 1, 8 p.m. ET
Before the 2023 NBA Draft, Ausar Thompson told David Gardner of The New York Times that the longest he’d ever been apart from his twin brother Amen was two days: “I went to Florida last year, and he stayed in Atlanta. He called me like 30 times!” The twins have spent the first 20 years of their lives by one another’s side; they spent their time in Overtime Elite playing together with the City Reapers. I’m not sure when they last played against one another in a real game. Watching them do it for the first time on the NBA level ought to be awfully interesting. With Amen lining up for Houston and Ausar landing in Detroit, at least it’ll be easy to tell them apart. (Unless, before tipoff, they do the funniest thing in NBA history.)
Suns at Lakers, Oct. 26, 10 p.m. ET (TNT)
When last we saw the Lakers, Darvin Ham and Co. rode a trade-deadline makeover that prioritized surrounding LeBron James and Anthony Davis with tough defenders who could shoot all the way to the Western Conference finals. If that formula sounds familiar, perhaps it’s because it’s the one that they rode to a championship under Frank Vogel … who now takes the reins of a Suns team with tons of offensive firepower, but in need of a tuneup and tightening on the defensive end to get where it wants to go. If Vogel can be half as successful in Phoenix at getting the kind of buy-in he got in L.A., the Suns could be poised for another deep playoff run — one that might require them to cross paths with Ham’s Lakers, making this a potential postseason preview worth tuning in for.