LeBron's return and the five must-see NBA games on the 2018-19 schedule

Yahoo Sports
The <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/teams/lal" data-ylk="slk:Los Angeles Lakers">Los Angeles Lakers</a> posted pictures of <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/3704/" data-ylk="slk:LeBron James">LeBron James</a> practicing in purple and gold to their Twitter account on Thursday.
The Los Angeles Lakers posted pictures of LeBron James practicing in purple and gold to their Twitter account on Thursday.

The NBA released its full schedule on Friday afternoon, and before we get to the five must-see games on the 2018-19 slate, let’s quickly walk through some of the changes to the league’s 82-game season.

Once again, no team will play a stretch of four games in five nights, and the NBA this year eradicated strings of eight games in 12 nights. There has also been a sharp reduction in the number of back-to-back games, with the average per team dropping to an all-time-low 13.3 this season — down from 14.4 last season and 19.3 during the 2014-15 campaign. The league also lowered the number of so-called “rest advantage” games — in which a rested team faces a team on the second night of a back-to-back.

Here’s the number of back-to-back games for each team this season:

Now, on to the fun stuff …

LeBron comes home
Los Angeles Lakers at Cleveland Cavaliers, Nov. 21 (ESPN)

The last time LeBron James returned to Quicken Loans Arena after taking his talents elsewhere, he was booed by a Cleveland crowd furious that he’d skipped town through a nationally televised announcement that ripped the hearts out of an entire region. This time, though, he’ll do so after having come back to fulfill a promise, delivering the Cavaliers’ first-ever NBA championship, breaking the city’s 52-year title drought, carrying the Cavs to four straight NBA Finals appearances and building a damn school in Akron. One suspects the fans will be a little more forthcoming with the praise this time around. (Doesn’t mean rookie point guard Collin Sexton won’t try to flex-D him up, though.) Dan Devine

Hayward’s year-delayed return to Utah
Boston Celtics at Utah Jazz, Nov. 9 (ESPN)

Gordon Hayward fractured his ankle six minutes into his debut season on the Celtics, so he’s never played as a visitor in the city he spent his first seven NBA seasons. Hayward developed from a back-of-the-rotation rookie to an All-Star during his tenure with the Jazz, but confusion surrounding his free-agency departure soured teammates, fans and media members in Utah. The season-long injury and emergence of rookie Donovan Mitchell softened the blow of Hayward’s departure, so it will be interesting to see the reception the 28-year-old receives on his first trip back to Salt Lake City. Heck, it’ll be interesting to see how Hayward plays anybody early in the season after such a scary injury. Ben Rohrbach

A rivalry renewed
Lakers at Celtics, Feb. 7 (TNT)
Celtics at Lakers, March 9 (ABC)

Every generation of Celtics and Lakers fans has renewed reason to hate the opposition, and after a downturn in the rivalry saw the retirements of Paul Pierce and Kobe Bryant, there’s fuel to reignite this fire. There’s LeBron James in L.A. and Kyrie Irving in Boston, two ex-teammates on the 2016 championship Cavs whose relationship soured to the point that Irving demanded a trade from LeBron’s team, and James reportedly belittled him on his way out the door. There’s also former Celtics star Rajon Rondo playing sidekick to James now. Both teams picked 2-3 in the 2016 and 2017 drafts, with fanbases arguing who’s better — Brandon Ingram or Jaylen Brown, Lonzo Ball or Jayson Tatum. Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley, Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris are also involved. It’s going to be wild. — BR

The West’s best get back at it
Golden State Warriors at Houston Rockets, Nov. 15 (TNT)

Last season, the Rockets responded to what looked like the dawning of a Golden State dynasty by doing absolutely everything in their power to topple the champs … only to come up one hamstring injury and one historically frigid shooting display short in a seven-game slugfest. (That’s not how the Warriors saw it, naturally.) After the Dubs steamrolled to their second straight title, Houston swapped in Carmelo Anthony and James Ennis for Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, while the Warriors replaced JaVale McGee with … wait, it says here “DeMarcus Cousins.” That can’t be right.

I have been informed that it is right, which, wow, but also that Boogie likely won’t be available when these two squads first resume their unpleasantries. In the meantime, we’ll have to settle for finding out how ‘Melo will hold up in Houston’s defense against the Warriors’ brutally efficient offense (I have my doubts) and whether James Harden and Chris Paul can continue to keep a slightly shuffled Rockets roster within striking distance of the league’s top guns. — DD

Tony Parker returns to San Antonio
Charlotte Hornets at San Antonio Spurs, Jan. 14 (NBA TV)

After 17 mostly glorious years in silver-and-black — a tenure that included six All-Star selections, four All-NBA nods, four NBA championships and 2007 Finals MVP honors — the greatest point guard in Spurs history will return to AT&T Center in visitors’ colors for the first time, after agreeing to a two-year, $10 million deal to back up Kemba Walker with the Charlotte Hornets. Given his significant role in one of the greatest periods of sustained success for any franchise in NBA history, and how effusive he was in his praise for San Antonio’s players, coaches, executives and fans on his way out the door, you’d imagine this’ll be some kind of lovefest. I will now resume my summer-long hope that Manu Ginobili will once again be on the court in a Spurs uniform to properly celebrate the occasion. — DD

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