Aug 12, 2019
CloseESPN Senior WriterBaxter Holmes (@Baxter) is a senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print, focusing on the NBA. He has covered the Lakers, the Celtics and previously worked for The Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times.
CloseESPN Staff WriterOhm Youngmisuk has covered the Giants, Jets and the NFL since 2006. Prior to that, he covered the Nets, Knicks and the NBA for nearly a decade. He joined ESPNNewYork.com after working at the New York Daily News for almost 12 years and is a graduate of Michigan State University.
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Mark your calendars — the full NBA schedule is here.
The regular season tips off Oct. 22, a week later than last year, and ends on April 15, with the playoffs beginning just three days afterward. There are 1,230 games on the schedule (trust us, we counted), but we’ve circled these as our must-see regular-season matchups for 2019-20. The calendar is complete with plenty of reunions, debuts, rookie showdowns and, of course, the biggest contests featuring the new-look Lakers and Clippers.
Editor’s note: This list does not include the league’s five Christmas Day games, which were revealed Aug. 2.
Must-see season openers
The banner will be raised to the rafters. The shimmering championship rings will be presented. Montage videos of the Toronto Raptors’ run to the 2018-19 championship will be played. A packed house of roaring fans will relive the first NBA title for a Canadian team. It’ll be a special night in Toronto, even if the team is picking up the pieces in the wake of superstar Kawhi Leonard‘s leaving after one memorable season to join the LA Clippers in free agency.
This also marks the start of the Zion Williamson era for the New Orleans Pelicans, with a ton of attention focused on the No. 1 overall pick’s NBA debut. Fans will expect an array of high-flying acrobatics from the athletic wunderkind. And a few highlight-reel-worthy slams from the ex-Duke standout should help New Orleans fans move on from their former star, Anthony Davis. Let’s Dance!
— Baxter Holmes
The season opens with the battle for supremacy over Los Angeles and perhaps the Western Conference. Leonard makes his Clippers debut — it remains to be seen whether Paul George will be ready after his shoulder surgery in June — against the team’s Staples Center-hallway rival, the Los Angeles Lakers. LeBron James unveils his newest All-Star big man as the Anthony Davis era begins to the delight of the purple-and-gold nation.
This game will be the debut for several Lakers, from head coach Frank Vogel to DeMarcus Cousins, Danny Green and former Clipper Avery Bradley, among others. On the other side, Doc Rivers might have two new superstars, but he has plenty of continuity with veterans such as Patrick Beverley and the best bench in basketball (with Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell) returning. Let the Battle for L.A. begin.
— Ohm Youngmisuk
Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images
It won’t take long for Al Horford to welcome his old team to his new town, as the Celtics visit the Sixers on the second night of the season. A recent resurgence of top talent has helped awaken this dormant Eastern Conference rivalry, one of the best in NBA history. And though this year’s rivalry will be without Jimmy Butler and Kyrie Irving, both the Celtics and 76ers have more than enough talent to remain in contention in the East — and to keep these matchups spicy.
The 2019-20 Brooklyn Nets will debut without Kevin Durant, who will be rehabbing a torn Achilles tendon for what is expected to be the entire season, barring any unforeseen circumstances. But this will be Kyrie Irving’s first game with Brooklyn — and that alone is worth tuning in for.
The superstar point guard had a rocky final season in Boston — to say the very least — on a talented team that fell far short of expectations. Irving’s array of biting comments about leadership and more throughout the campaign raised questions and seemed to sour his on-court relationships and overall perception as a teammate. But Irving is still an elite talent and one of the game’s most dynamic scorers, and it’ll be fascinating to see how he leads his new squad.
This goes into the ledger as our first look at the new-look Houston Rockets with the reunion of Russell Westbrook and James Harden. The two were teammates what feels like lifetimes ago in Oklahoma City, but so much has changed. They’ve each since taken home an MVP award and established themselves as the dominant star of their respective teams, so who will cede a bit of control to help make this reunion work? How will floor spacing work? Who will be the dominant ball handler?
Of course, their partnership — and Westbrook’s overall fit in Houston — will evolve over the course of the season. Even if gets off to a bumpy start, that might not mean it will be that way for the next 81 regular-season games — though it could be a preview of things to come and what kind of season the Rockets can expect.
Reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo will take on the newly formed duo of Westbrook and Harden, the 2017 and 2018 MVPs, respectively. There should also be an added layer of competition between Antetokounmpo and Harden, who competed for MVP honors in a heated race last season and could potentially do so again this season.
The Warriors may have lost Kevin Durant in free agency and still have Klay Thompson (knee) on the mend, but Oct. 24 will be a night for the Warriors to celebrate the unveiling of their shiny new home arena — the Chase Center. The Warriors move from Oakland to San Francisco and they’ll bring a new All-Star guard with them in D’Angelo Russell.
And who better for Steph Curry and Draymond Green to open their new digs against other than reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard? The last thing we saw when the NBA season ended was Leonard and the Raptors hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy at Oracle. Now Leonard returns to the Bay Area as a member of the Clippers, which should only reignite this California rivalry.
More can’t-miss games
The slate of great games doesn’t end when opening week does. Here are 10 more matchups worth circling on your calendar once the page turns past October:
Who has the best duo in the NBA? The Clippers and Rockets will put that argument to the test when Leonard and George visit Harden and Westbrook in Houston. Just watching Mike D’Antoni’s high-powered offense against Doc Rivers’ defense will be fascinating to watch, as will the reunion between former Thunder teammates Westbrook and George.
LeBron renews his rivalry with Stephen Curry and the Warriors, but this time, he brings perhaps his best All-Star big man in Davis and a new cast of veteran shooters around him.
This game features a couple of notable reunions. D’Angelo Russell faces the organization that drafted and later jettisoned him to make room for Ball. And Cousins returns to the Bay to face his former teammates and coach, looking to prove he can still return to his All-Star form. It also wouldn’t be a surprise to see Quinn Cook try to hit a few 3s against his old mates.
There was a time when Kristaps Porzingis was the savior for the New York Knicks, a unicorn from Latvia who helped awaken Madison Square Garden and was going to help return the Knicks to prominence. Now, Porzingis and his new teammate, reigning Rookie of the Year Luka Doncic, form a duo that could lift the Dallas Mavericks back into title contention. After missing more than 20 months of basketball, Porzingis should finally be healthy and will likely want to show Knicks fans what they’ll be missing as he makes his return to MSG.
The boos will be raining down from all over TD Garden when Irving’s name is announced in the opposing starting lineup. And those boos will probably continue almost every time he touches the ball in his former home arena, given the bitter end and sour split.
Not even a year ago, Irving said he’d love to re-sign with the Boston Celtics if the fans would have him, and said he wanted to be the reason no other Celtic would ever wear No. 11 again. And then everything went about as disastrously as it could have. That backdrop should provide plenty of fireworks — especially with many of Irving’s former teammates looking to prove the team can more than move on without him.
Kyrie Irving will return to TD Garden for the first time since his tumultuous final season in Boston. Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
Davis returns to New Orleans for the first time since being traded to L.A. Normally this would be more than enough drama and reason to tune in, but Davis’ likely rude Big Easy reception is only the start of what could be must-see TV. The Lakers will also see some familiar faces in NOLA, a group once meant to be the future in Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart — the Lakers’ three former first-round picks sent to New Orleans in the Davis trade.
Oh, and let’s not forget: LeBron vs. Zion. Two of the most freakishly athletic and physically intimidating players we’ve seen will square off when Williamson hosts James for the first time.
The last time we saw Leonard in Toronto, a helicopter was tracking his vehicle from the sky as he went to meet with the Raptors during free agency. Now, the Finals MVP, who delivered Canada its first championship, returns when the Clippers make their only trip north of the border. It should be an opportunity for Toronto — and even for Drake — to thank Leonard again, as he could receive his championship ring on this night.
Jimmy Butler makes his return to Philadelphia for the first time since signing with the Miami Heat in free agency. There was a lot of top-end talent with the Philadelphia 76ers during Butler’s final season, and it always felt like there was a log jam of sorts for the alpha dog/scorer role between Butler, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris.
Was the fit perfect? Not always. But now, whatever issues arose are less so with Butler taking his talents to South Beach, where he is the unquestioned top option. His reception back in Philadelphia will probably be mixed because it’s Philadelphia, but Butler is a feisty competitor and will no doubt bring something extra for this matchup.
The Portland Trail Blazers will be eager to erase the nasty taste of the Western Conference finals sweep suffered at the hands of the Warriors. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum hope to show they have learned from last season’s playoff run and are ready to take another step forward. They’ll also have a new big man, Hassan Whiteside, who was brought in to help with Jusuf Nurkic still on the mend.
Of course, Portland has to find a way to slow down Curry, who averaged 36.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.3 assists in that series. And then there’s Green, who was a virtual walking triple-double after he had two triple-doubles and averaged 16.5 points, 11.8 rebounds and 8.8 assists against Portland.
After dropping two games each to the Clippers and Rockets in the earlier rounds of the playoffs, the Warriors swept CJ McCollum and the Blazers in four games. Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images
It’s hard to believe the Oklahoma City Thunder era is officially over now with Westbrook’s departure. Westbrook’s first game back in Oklahoma City will be incredibly emotional for the city, the fans and even Westbrook, who came of age in OKC and rose to MVP stardom there.
If Chris Paul is still in a Thunder uniform, then this game will have extra intrigue as he faces off against his old team. Paul has deep roots in Oklahoma City; he played there when the New Orleans Hornets were displaced during Hurricane Katrina.
The floor will be littered with MVPs. LeBron, Harden and Westbrook have five MVP trophies from the past decade between them, and Davis is another MVP-caliber player. The Lakers and Rockets are poised to be two of the best teams in the Western Conference, and there should be no shortage of highlights and scoring when these two teams face off.
And there also could be a triple-double or two in this game. Westbrook, James and Harden respectively rank second, fifth and ninth overall on the all-time triple-doubles list.
The Greek Freak takes Paris! The NBA is heading across the pond to play its first regular-season game ever in the French capital, which is fitting, as France has long been a hotbed for NBA talent: Tony Parker, Boris Diaw and Rudy Gobert, to name a few.
Here’s hoping neither team is jet-lagged from the six-hour time difference between Paris and the East Coast. The Charlotte Hornets are, shall we say, not at the title-contending level of the Milwaukee Bucks, but it’s the stage that matters most in this one.
More reunion specials to watch
What do you get when dozens of stars change jerseys over the summer? Even more reunions! Here are seven other showdowns featuring stars headed back to face their former franchises:
Paul was a part of some deep playoff runs in Houston, but he and the Rockets were never able to overcome the Warriors to reach their ultimate goal. Now back in Oklahoma City, where his NBA career has some of its oldest roots, he’ll face off against the point guard for whom he was dealt in Westbrook and former teammate Harden, with whom he didn’t always see eye to eye. This should be a fun one.
Chris Paul’s final months in Houston were overshadowed by rumors of a trade demand and falling out with teammate James Harden. Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports
From the moment they selected him ninth overall in the 2011 draft, Kemba Walker gave eight strong seasons to Charlotte. The three-time All-Star, who signed with the Celtics in free agency, should — and almost certainly will — receive a rousing ovation from Hornets fans, witnesses to his rise to NBA stardom.
But this game will also be a reunion of sorts for new Hornets point guard Terry Rozier, whom the Hornets inked in free agency after Walker headed for greener pastures in Boston. The point guard dual should be an enticing matchup, but come for the reception Walker receives in Charlotte.
Point guard Mike Conley was an integral part of the Memphis Grizzlies’ Grit and Grind era, one that has since been dismantled with Marc Gasol, Tony Allen, Zach Randolph and — as of this summer — Conley all moving on. But that era will always be a special one for die-hard NBA fans, and its end arrived, officially or not, when Conley was traded to the Utah Jazz this offseason.
Conley will receive tons of love from the Memphis fans — and rightly so. He’ll also face off against the point guard who will more or less be tasked with trying to live up to everything Conley was: rookie Ja Morant, the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft.
If Green is the heart of the Warriors’ dynasty, and Curry and Thompson the faces of the franchise, then Andre Iguodala was the soul of the Warriors’ run. When he was traded in a cap-clearing move in the aftermath of Durant’s departure, it felt like a key part of what made the Warriors special was out the door.
Iguodala should receive a huge roar from the crowd as he plays his first game in the Bay — albeit in San Francisco and not Oakland — since he left after making five straight Finals appearances with the Warriors.
The schedule-makers made sure not to put this game on the slate too early in the season. With the Clippers expected to take things slow with George and his surgically repaired shoulders, the All-Star swingman should be available when the Clippers visit Oklahoma City. It should be interesting to see the reception George gets after he re-signed with the Thunder only to ask for a trade this past summer to return home to Los Angeles and join forces with Leonard. That trade immediately sent his former team into rebuilding mode.
While Durant will be having to wait a season before playing in the new Chase Center in a Nets uniform, the player the Warriors got back in the sign-and-trade deal will be making his return to Brooklyn. Russell, who rose to All-Star status a year ago, will have plenty of motivation to remind the Nets what they gave up. And, of course, let’s not forget about the marquee matchup between Kyrie and Steph.
Gasol is an NBA champion, and although he didn’t win it with the Grizzlies in Memphis, the city and its fans will certainly appreciate their former star returning home with his résumé expanded to include the championship he won in Toronto.
But wait, more L.A. games to watch
Let’s face it — we won’t be able to keep our eyes off Los Angeles hoops this season. With both the Lakers and Clippers amassing star power this offseason, here is a look at more Hollywood drama sure to dominate the 2019-20 season:
Antetokounmpo wished Leonard had chosen to remain in Toronto as a free agent. “For me personally, I would love for Kawhi to stay in the East and stay in Toronto because I would love to go through the series [with them] again,” the reigning MVP told ESPN in July.
With Leonard in the Western Conference now, the Bucks should be the favorites to win the East. But this will be just one of two nights when we get to see the NBA’s MVP square off against the Finals MVP. Unless, of course, the Bucks and Clippers meet in the NBA Finals.
Once upon a time, Magic Johnson boasted that Ball would have his No. 2 jersey raised to the rafters to join all the other Lakers legends with retired jerseys. But after just two seasons, Ball is no longer a Laker. Neither is another former No. 2 overall pick: Ingram. Once considered to be the future of the Lakers, Ball and Ingram, along with former Lakers’ first-round pick Hart, make their return to Staples Center looking to remind the Lakers how much they gave up to get Davis. As if that wasn’t enough to bring out the Hollywood stars courtside, Zion faces the Lakers for the first time at Staples Center. Get Jack and Denzel ready.
One of the most storied rivalries in all of sports is renewed with a little twist. The Celtics and Danny Ainge long coveted Davis, collecting a boatload of assets to pursue the New Orleans big man once he became available. But Davis wanted to become a Laker, and now Ainge has to stomach the sight of him in purple and gold. This, though, will be an opportunity for some Celtics, such as Jayson Tatum, to remind people it was a good thing Boston didn’t trade them away.
The Greek Freak believes the best team in the NBA — not necessarily the one with the best star duo — will win it all this season. Here’s one chance for Antetokounmpo to prove that as the Bucks visit Staples to face LeBron and AD. This will also be a reunion for Antetokounmpo and his former Bucks coach, Jason Kidd, who now is Vogel’s lead assistant. It will also be interesting to see whether Kostas Antetokounmpo, who signed a two-way contract with the Lakers, will be up with the team on this night. After all, it’s never too early to look ahead to Giannis’ free agency in 2021.
Zion games to watch
On any given night, the Rookie of the Year favorite is a good bet to provide highlight of the night material. Here are three more Pelicans games to watch this season, starring No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson:
The hype surrounding Zion Williamson is seldom seen, and Scoop Jackson lists the important dates for when Zion and the Pelicans hit the road.
This is not only a matchup of two top rookies in New Orleans’ Williamson and New York’s RJ Barrett — who also were teammates a season ago at Duke — it’s Williamson’s debut on the NBA’s biggest stage: Madison Square Garden.
The presence of the top overall pick in last year’s draft will help create an electric environment in which it’s expected his other-worldly athleticism will be on display — and it figures Williamson, ever the showman, will want to put on a show after his Las Vegas Summer League debut against Barrett was cut short after just nine minutes.
The 76ers’ star point guard Simmons won Rookie of the Year in 2018, and in this matchup, he’ll face Williamson, the rookie who is expected to take that honor this coming season.
Williamson and Morant, the first and second overall picks in this year’s draft, respectively, will face off as the Pelicans take on the Grizzlies on MLK Day. Both are especially athletic and boast a penchant for attacking the rim, so there should be plenty of highlights in this one.
Every team’s schedule
Atlantic: BOS | BKN | NYK | PHI | TOR
Central: CHI | CLE | DET | IND | MIL
Southeast: ATL | CHA | MIA | ORL | WAS
Pacific: GS | LAC | LAL | PHX | SAC
Southwest: DAL | HOU | MEM | NO | SA
Northwest: DEN | MIN | OKC | POR | UTAH
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