After offering up the opening-week national TV slate and Christmas Day quintuple-header as appetizers last week, the NBA gave us the full five-course meal on Monday, releasing the whole 2017-18 NBA schedule. As we count down the hours until tipoff on Oct. 17, here are a dozen(ish) games we’ve already circled on our calendars as must-see matchups for one reason or another.
1. “The Main Event,” Season 4, Episode 1
Cleveland Cavaliers at Golden State Warriors, Dec. 25, 3 p.m. ET
The Warriors and Cavs have met 24 times over the past three seasons, including each of the past three NBA Finals, with Golden State holding a 15-9 overall edge and 2-1 championship lead in that span. Still, we apparently we can’t get enough. The 2017 Finals were the most watched since Michael Jordan’s final title run, and that set wasn’t even all that great, save for Game 3 — mainly because Kevin Durant transformed a 73-9 team into (arguably) the greatest of all time.
Still, we want to see LeBron James face the Warriors in perpetuity, because one of the best players in history trying to take down a super-team of epic proportions is the good sports stuff. Whether Cleveland will still feature Kyrie Irving when the rivals first meet this year remains in question, but both teams made minor adjustments — the Cavs added Derrick Rose, Jeff Green and Jose Calderon, while the Warriors brought in Omri Casspi and Nick Young — so let’s get to that 25th meeting and see if another entire season is just a precursor to a fourth straight Finals. — Ben Rohrbach
2. Harden and CP3 get their first shot
Houston Rockets at Golden State Warriors, Oct. 17, 10:30 p.m. ET
After his team capped a sterling 55-win season by sputtering out in the second round of the 2017 postseason, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey swung a blockbuster deal for All-World point guard Chris Paul to team with MVP runner-up James Harden and increase Houston’s offensive firepower. He also made lower-wattage moves — signing defensive-minded and versatile wings P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute — aimed at giving the go-go Rockets a better chance of preventing points, too.
Faced with a choice between stepping up or stepping back, the Rockets chose to try to compete. This’ll give us our first look at whether they’ll actually be able to do it. — Dan Devine
3. The C’s take aim at the throne again
Boston Celtics at Cleveland Cavaliers, Oct. 17, 8 p.m. ET
Even if Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge recently said, “We’re not reacting” to the Cavs, that doesn’t mean Boston’s entire offseason wasn’t geared towards closing the gap on the three-time reigning Eastern Conference champions. And while attempts to land both Paul George and Jimmy Butler reportedly fell short this summer, the Celtics did add All-Star Gordon Hayward, Marcus Morris, Aron Baynes and No. 3 overall pick Jayson Tatum to a team that already features All-Stars Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford plus a host of other young talents on the rise. So, it’s time to find out if a Celtics team that won an East-best 53 games and nearly took Cleveland to six games in the conference finals without the injured Thomas last year can actually threaten LeBron’s streak of seven straight Finals appearances this season. — BR
4. Paul George returns to Indianapolis
Oklahoma City Thunder at Indiana Pacers, Dec. 13, 7 p.m. ET
George will play at Bankers Life Fieldhouse wearing a different uniform for the first time in his career. (Well, every Pacer will be wearing a different uniform this time around, I guess. But you know what I mean.) Over the span of seven years, George grew from an enticing reserve swingman out of Fresno State into the linchpin of a Pacers club that made it all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, a four-time All-Star and Olympic gold medalist, and one of the dozen or so best players in the world. He also, however, grew into someone who wanted to play somewhere else.
Whether or not George really was or is “hell-bent” for Los Angeles, new Pacers general manager Kevin Pritchard responded by sending George to Oklahoma in exchange for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, in the interest of getting what return he could before his franchise centerpiece could skip town. (Whether he could have gotten more, of course, remains a matter of some debate.) Thunder fans greeted George like a conquering hero; will Pacers fans do likewise in appreciation of all he gave to the franchise, or give PG-13 an R-rated response for the way he worked himself out of town? — DD
5. CP3 returns to Staples Center
Houston Rockets at Los Angeles Clippers, Jan. 15, 10:30 p.m. ET
Speaking of return trips, it’ll be interesting to see what kind of response Paul gets in his first visit to Staples Center following his move to Texas.
On one hand, he’s inarguably one of the greatest players in franchise history, averaging a shade under 19 points and 10 assists per game in L.A., leading the league in steals three times and assists twice, and helping kickstart the longest period of sustained success the Clips have ever had, a half-dozen-year stretch of .600 winning percentages and playoff appearances. Plus, by choosing to opt into the final year of his contract and structure his exit to Houston as a sign-and-trade, Paul allowed the Clippers to secure a pretty solid haul — guards Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams, swingman Sam Dekker, big man Montrezl Harrell, and a top-three-protected 2018 first-round pick — that left Doc Rivers and company in much better position than they would have been had Paul opted out and just left in unrestricted free agency.
On the other, though, all of those winning seasons and postseason trips ended before the Western Conference finals due to various ill-timed injuries and outright collapses, meaning the best era in team history also doubles as a frustrating and disappointing period of missed opportunity. And while the Clips followed Paul’s departure by re-upping Blake Griffin, trading for Danilo Gallinari, and importing flashy Serbian playmaker Milos Teodosic, they’ll be hard-pressed to remain in the upper half of the Western Conference playoff bracke, and it’s very much an open question just how relevant they’ll be in the year ahead. So will CP3 get a warm welcome for all he did to turn the Clippers into a contender, or the cold shoulder for never getting them over the hump? — DD
6. Lonzo Ball’s debut
Los Angeles Clippers at Los Angeles Lakers, Oct. 19, 10:30 p.m. ET
He wasn’t the No. 1 pick in June’s 2017 NBA draft, but no rookie’s NBA debut will draw more eyeballs or generate more intrigue than Lonzo Ball. Some of that, obviously, is due to hype stoked by the outlandish things his father, LaVar Ball, has said and done in the run-up to Lonzo reaching the pros. Credit where it’s due, though: Lonzo has done a pretty good job of stoking the fire himself, following his stellar year at UCLA with an MVP-winning turn at Las Vegas Summer League. There’s no doubt that the Big Baller Brand standard-bearer’s going to have a bullseye on his back every night in the NBA; now, we start to find out how he’s going to deal with that pressure. — DD
7. Russell, reloaded
Golden State Warriors at Oklahoma City Thunder, Nov. 22, 8 p.m. ET
Last season was the year of the Russell Westbrook-Kevin Durant feud, with one torching his way to the regular-season MVP and the other delivering a dagger during a Finals MVP run. But the guy who was left in OKC with a roster of misfits didn’t have the weapons to properly battle the guy who joined a 73-win team. The result was a Warriors four-game season sweep of the Thunder — by an average of 20 points, no less — which of course didn’t stop Westbrook from suggesting his opponents were cupcakes, posers and “b**** a**es.”
It’s unclear whether or not Westbrook and Durant are on speaking terms again, but the former made sure to let us know “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit” took precedence over the Finals and the latter responded by wearing a cupcake hat with a ring on top. See: This is as petty as it gets, and this league gets extremely petty. And with the Thunder’s additions of Paul George, Patrick Patterson and Raymond Felton, Westbrook has his reinforcements to go once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more. — BR
8. LeBron takes L.A.
Cleveland Cavaliers at Los Angeles Lakers, March 11, 9 p.m. ET
James can opt out of his contract and enter unrestricted free agency next summer. Many people around the NBA think he’s interested in heading to L.A., where he keeps an offseason home and has multiple entertainment-industry ventures. The Lakers, for their part, have been clearing cap space in hopes of making a run at two maximum-salaried free agents next summer, with president of basketball operations Magic Johnson reportedly having his sights set on James and Paul George (who were evidently one text message away from being teammates in Cleveland this year).
All those rumblings and rumors should hit a fever pitch when LeBron makes his lone Hollywood appearance against the purple-and-gold next season. We can only wonder how many enterprising Lakers fans will make Skylar Grey-soundtracked homecoming videos to commemorate the occasion. (Here’s hoping the answer is, “Oh so many.”) — DD
9. Kawhi-et revenge
Golden State Warriors at San Antonio Spurs, Nov. 2, 8 p.m. ET
The Spurs have long been considered Golden State’s biggest threat in the West, even if they were ousted before they ever even had a chance of preventing the Warriors from getting to the 2015 and 2016 Finals. They feature arguably the top two-way player going and inarguably the game’s best active coach, and they seemingly win 60 games without breaking a sweat, all of which seems like an interesting recipe to give Golden State a run.
So, the 2017 Western Conference finals figured to be a classic, despite 35-year-old former Finals MVP Tony Parker suffering a season-ending ruptured quad in Round 2, and the Spurs were giving the Warriors the business for the first 28 minutes of Game 1 — until Kawhi Leonard suffered a season-ending foot injury, the Warriors went on an 18-0 run and Golden State went on to sweep San Antonio.
We were robbed of the “what if” we’d been waiting three years to see, and as both teams run it back this season — with a dash of Rudy Gay here and a sprinkle of Nick Young there — we’re still waiting. And the back-and-forth barbs between Gregg Popovich and Zaza Pachulia over whether it was the Warriors center who ended Leonard’s 2016-17 campaign adds some much-needed gasoline to the fire. — BR
10 (tie). Lonzo vs. Fultz/Lonzo vs. Fox
Los Angeles Lakers vs. Philadelphia 76ers, Nov. 15, 10:30 p.m. ET, and Lakers vs. Sacramento Kings, Nov. 22, 10:30 p.m. ET
Three of the top five picks in June’s draft play point guard, and enter the league with some ready-made beef to bring to the next level.
Lonzo Ball’s UCLA team hammered Markelle Fultz’s Washington squad twice during their lone season on campus, but the 76ers still thought enough of Fultz’s overall talents to trade up to the top spot in the 2017 draft and make him the first pick off the board. In the run-up to the draft, Ball made it crystal clear that he believed himself to be a better player than Fultz, full stop. Fultz, for his part, later said that as “a competitor” first and foremost, “I’m going to try to beat him in everything I do. Just tie my shoes faster and everything.”
The burgeoning rivalry between the top picks pales in comparison to the one between Ball and Fox, though. Fox got the better of Ball in college, outplaying Lonzo in a pair of head-to-head meetings between UCLA and Kentucky, including a dominating performance in the Elite Eight that ended the Bruins’ season and vaulted Fox’s name to the higher reaches of many draft boards.
After the game, LaVar Ball dismissed the one-game sample, saying, “No one is going to take De’Aaron Fox over [Lonzo] because of one game. It’s about your body of work, and people know what he can do.” Over the summer, Fox admitted that part of his motivation behind that NCAA tournament performance was a desire to “shut LaVar Ball up.” Ultimately, LaVar was right — the Lakers picked Lonzo at No. 2, while Fox went to Sacramento at No. 5 — but there was no getting around the commentary offered by Fox’s father, Aaron, before the draft: “My son already ate his ass up twice.”
The Fultz-Ball and Ball-Fox matchups were two of the most anticipated pairings on the board for the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League slate last month, but ankle injuries to Fultz and Ball prevented us from getting our first head-to-head looks in their initial pro appearances. Those summertime bummers only delayed our enjoyment, though, and come the fall, we’re going to get the opportunity to see these talented young triggermen go at it in live action, when the games actually count. — DD
11. Gordon Hayward returns to Salt Lake City
Boston Celtics at Utah Jazz, March 28, 9:30 p.m. ET
It may not have been LeBron James breaking up with Cleveland on live TV or Kevin Durant ghosting Russell Westbrook via text, but Gordon Hayward’s bizarre split with Utah — with both cities held captive by conflicting reports on July 4 before he announced his decision to join the Celtics on The Players’ Tribune — was still met with media barbs, burning jerseys, Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey telling fans, “There’s probably a few adjectives” to describe how the All-Star left, and ex-teammate Rudy Gobert expressing those words.
Hayward spent his first seven NBA seasons in Utah, transforming from a gangly lottery pick from Butler to one of the game’s most well-rounded wings, so it’ll be interesting to see how he’s received upon his homecoming. Let’s just say LeBron and KD weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms. — BR
12. Jimmy Butler goes back to the Windy City
Minnesota Timberwolves at Chicago Bulls, Feb. 9, 8 p.m. ET
The Bulls could’ve chosen last summer to strip everything down and make a concerted effort to rebuild around Jimmy Butler, an in-his-prime All-Star wing and one of the best two-way players in the league. Instead, they signed Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo, awkwardly shuffled their way to .500 and a first-round playoff exit, and ultimately decided to reboot the franchise on draft night by shipping their best player to old pal Tom Thibodeau in exchange for Zach LaVine (an offensively gifted/defensively challenged restricted-free-agent-to-be coming off an ACL tear), Kris Dunn (a 23-year-old second-year point guard who struggled mightily on offense as a rookie) and Lauri Markkanen (a rookie 7-foot shooter whose rebounding and defensive work have frequently been described as uninspiring and/or concerning). This, um, did not go over well with Bulls fans.
Butler ought to hear loud, raucous cheers upon his return to the United Center at the head of a Wolves team with designs on making a big leap up the Western standings. Until, of course, he joins with Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and company in busting up what looks like it ought to be a bad, bad Bulls team. — DD
Oh, and, just to cover our bases …
13. Kyrie Irving’s return to Cleveland and Carmelo Anthony’s return to Madison Square Garden, TEAMS AND DATES TK.
Still a lot to be worked out here, but given the way things have gone this summer, it seems like a pretty good idea to go ahead and pencil these in. — DD