The NBA schedule release induced a wave of reaction on Monday, with every marquee matchup, national TV tilt and revenge battle set for the 2019-20 season. We looked at the cream of the scheduling crop on Monday, but another day of reflection has led to some intriguing takeaways from the slate of games unveiled over two months before opening night.
Who got the short end of the stick, and who will be thanking the scheduling czar’s come March and April? We at The Crossover examined the full 2019-20 schedule and identified the top takeaways from the latest holiday on the NBA calendar.
Clippers Face Early Test
Kawhi Leonard may not be able to take any load management days in the first few weeks of the season, especially if Paul George is injured. The Clippers face a brutal stretch through mid-November, beginning with the Lakers and Warriors to start the season. Los Angeles has a home-and-home with Utah in the first week of November, and they host the Bucks, Blazers and Raptors. Add in trips to Houston and New Orleans before Thanksgiving, and Doc Rivers will be desperate for some time at the Bel-Air Country Club. 10 of Los Angeles’ first 16 are against teams that finished above .500 in 2018-19, and that doesn’t include the Lakers or Pelicans. The Clippers will be just fine in the West, and the top seed is firmly in play. But they could start a step behind the field given their early schedule
Kings Battle Uphill April
It’s easy to feel bad for the Kings. They’ve built a solid young core led by a truly thrilling point guard, only to begin their potential ascent in one of the most stacked conferences of the century. De’Aaron Fox and Co. won 39 games last year; can they hit 40 for the first time since 2006 this season? They face a tough battle.
The Clippers, Lakers, Rockets and Warriors are likely playoff locks, and Denver and Utah are as well barring bad injury luck. There are plenty of quality teams remaining for few spots, Sacramento included. Fox may jump a level after an impressive summer with USA Basketball, but the roster’s upside remains questionable. Regardless, the Kings will need to bank enough wins through March to sustain the league’s toughest April stretch. Sacramento faces the Lakers twice and the Clippers, Warriors and Nuggets once in its final eight. The Kings travel to San Antonio in April, then fly to Minnesota two days later. The only bankable win is at home against the Cavs on April 5. The Kings then close with a four-game road trip, then one home matchup with the Warriors. That’s tough sledding for a potential bubble team. Sacramento has plenty of home games in December and January, and the schedule naturally evens out. But the Kings’ last stretch is undeniably difficult.
Let’s run through a quick ranking of the expected homecoming receptions for returning stars, from friendliest to furious. (Note: Chris Paul and D’Angelo Russell don’t quite make the cut, and Kevin Durant is unlikely to play by March 12.)
You’d expect a standing ovation right? Walker is the leading scorer in franchise history and the team’s only success story over the last decade. He would have taken close to $190 million by all accounts, and an offer $60 million below his $221 million max is just untenable. That decision rests on Michael Jordan. Walker should remain beloved in Charlotte for years to come.
Kawhi Leonard – Clippers at Raptors, Dec. 11
Winning a championship means never having to say you're sorry. Not that Kawhi will say much at all, but any idea of anger from Toronto fans is foolish. The Raptors knew what they were getting into. Their title will last a lifetime.
Russell Westbrook – Rockets at Thunder, Jan. 9
There are likely more complicated feelings with Thunder fans than those in Charlotte. Westbrook’s return closes the book on a historic decade of basketball in Oklahoma City, though one that will end with no championship and three MVPs out the door. Perhaps Sam Presti did all he could, though the Harden trade will still lie as one of the greatest what-ifs of the modern era.
Westbrook remains the most beloved player in franchise history. He stuck around when Durant left and made an indelible mark, storming back in 2016-17 with one of the most memorable MVP seasons of all-time. A Westbrook tribute video could run 45 minutes and Thunder fans will continue to applaud. It may be better than most Thunder games this year. Expect a raucous ovation from Westbrook, and some tears in the stands as well. The Westbrook era ended as a historic missed opportunity. It was also one of the most exciting decade-long runs the league has seen.
Kristaps Porzingis – Mavericks at Knicks, Nov. 14.
Really a toss-up here. There’s a large segment of Knicks fans who will recognize how the franchise is ultimately to blame for the Porzingis debacle, choosing to cheer for the moments he made Madison Square Garden electric again. The putback dunks and 25-foot threes will remain on highlight reels forever as the Knicks slump toward 25 wins time and again. New York’s incompetence isn’t Kristaps’ fault.
Yet there’s another chunk of Knicks fans, who like James Dolan perhaps, will opt to sneer at Porzingis and decry his escape to Dallas, hurling boos at the faux-savior of the franchise. Maybe a strong start from R.J. Barrett can soften these fans’ hearts enough to cheer Porzingis. Don’t hold your breath
Paul George – Clippers at Thunder, Dec. 22
Now we’re getting into hard feelings territory. George was damn good for the Thunder in the regular season, but what should Oklahoma City fans really thank him for? Some nice nights in February? A 2-16 effort in Game 6 against Utah? It’s a touch unfair to discard George’s production, and it may earn him a smattering of applause. Yet the fact remains he asked for a trade 12 months after he appeared to commit to Oklahoma City, effectively detonating the franchise in the process. The assets from the George trade may set the team on a better path anyway. It won’t garner George any sympathy in December.
Anthony Davis – Lakers at Pelicans, Nov. 27
Davis is firmly in the Dwight Zone when he returns to the Pelicans with Los Angeles the night before Thanksgiving. Howard was booed with authority by the Magic fans when he returned to Orlando in 2013, and Davis deserves a similar treatment. New Orleans had some genuinely fun moments with Davis, and even if he left in free agency in 2020, there would have been a mutual understanding. But when you attempt to force your way out a year-and-a-half early, the reception is guaranteed to be negative. Davis likely knows this; we’ll see if it’s jarring anyway.
Kyrie Irving – Nets at Celtics, Nov. 27
Expect the early game to have a little more edge on Nov. 27. The Boston fans appear to have a special reserve of animosity for Kyrie Irving, and the public is quick to hold him accountable for Boston’s 2018-19 failures. Irving didn’t help himself all season, not by criticizing teammates in the press and certainly not with his now-infamous “ask me July 1.” Perhaps Brooklyn will prove to be greener pastures for Irving. There still won’t be any good vibes when he returns to TD Garden.
Boston Cruises to the Finish
Kemba Walker and the Celtics should be able to make up ground in the standings in their final 12 games. After matchups at Washington and at Memphis, Boston plays seven of its last 10 at home. The Celtics face Miami and Orlando twice in April, and they close with a matchup in Detroit and home against Chicago. None of the four teams are expected to be punching bags in 2019-20 (there’s slight optimism bubbling in Chicago) but Boston is a step ahead of each franchise by a marked margin. The final weeks of the season will be a nice break for the Celtics if they stay above water in a difficult February stretch.
Christmas Day has long been the jewel of the regular season, but every year seems to still come with a dud of the day. Sometimes the Knicks get blown out at MSG (though Christmas at the Garden has its charms) and sometimes a middling West squad closes out the night. But this year’s slate is truly stacked. Nine of the 10 teams are near-locks for the playoffs, and the other team has Zion Williamson. The Lakers and Clippers could battle on Christmas for the next half decade, and Rockets-Warriors is presently the best rivalry in basketball. Perhaps the Raptors and Celtics don’t warrant ignoring your family at noon ET, but the Bucks and Sixers certainly do two hours later. Have Zion in Denver as a nightcap, and that’s a perfect way to kickstart the second leg of the NBA season.
There is some marginal benefit for the 10:30 p.m. start for the east coast crowd, especially among the insomniacs who find some perverse pleasure in watching Sacramento and Phoenix on a Tuesday night . But by-and-large the ultralate starts are brutal for those who want to watch the Lakers, Clippers or Warriors on a given night. Staying awake for west coast fourth quarters requires a serious commitment from the average fan.
The NBA has looked to ratify the issue to a degree for 2019-20. The number of 10:30 east coast starts have been slashed from 56 last season to 33 this year, according to Sports Illustrated’s Jacob Feldman, and there will be no 10:30 tips for ESPN Wednesday doubleheaders. 10:00 or 9:30 isn’t a massive change, but it can be the difference between missing a buzzer beater and staying up for the dunk of the year. The earlier the better for those of us who live east of the league’s superstars.