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The One Game You Can't Miss for Every NBA Team This Year

Ben LeibowitzCorrespondent IIIOctober 14, 2013

The One Game You Can't Miss for Every NBA Team This Year

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    Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

    What is the one game you simply cannot miss for every NBA team during the 2013-14 season?

    Heated rivalries, big-name players returning to their old stomping grounds and showdowns that could swing the 2014 playoff picture make up an assortment of key games in the NBA this year. Fortunately, most are of the nationally televised variety.

    Not every roster will be as compelling as the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, Oklahoma City Thunder or San Antonio Spurs, but each team has at least one interesting game to watch over the course of the season.

     

    Note: All games and TV schedules are courtesy of ESPN.com.

Atlanta Hawks

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The Game:

    Wednesday, November 20, vs. Detroit Pistons.

     

    Why You Can’t Miss It:

    Josh Smith spent the first nine years of his NBA career with the Atlanta Hawks. There was some success during J-Smoove’s Atlanta tenure—namely making the playoffs in six straight seasons—but his stint with the Hawks was mostly tumultuous.

    The talented swingman never made an All-Star team while he was with the Hawks, which is both surprising and not surprising at the same time. He also became defined by poor shot selection and ugly late-game execution.

    In short, there’s a reason why many Hawks fans responded like this when he signed elsewhere during the offseason.

    On Nov. 20, Smith will return to Atlanta as a member of the Detroit Pistons. The matchup is compelling as a result of the familiar face, but these two Eastern Conference foes will also be in the hunt for the lower playoff seeds in 2014.

    As a result, their head-to-head matchups will be very important before the season ends.

Boston Celtics

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    Cameron Browne/Getty Images

    The Game:

    Sunday, January 26, vs. Brooklyn Nets (on ESPN).

     

    Why You Can’t Miss It:

    After the blockbuster offseason trade that sent Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets, the two future Hall of Famers will make their return to Boston on Jan. 26.

    The Boston Celtics are no longer a championship contender after losing KG and “The Truth,” but Brad Stevens is an intriguing young coach who knows how to get the best out of his players. They may end up being better than people think.

    Considering that the game occurs in late January, there’s also a very good chance that Rajon Rondo will be suiting up to compete against his former teammates.

    If nothing else, this game is worth watching just to see the warm welcome Celtics fans give the two aging stars. It’s sure to be a bittersweet moment, and it will be interesting to see how the Celtics compete against a legitimate championship contender.

Brooklyn Nets

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    The Game:

    Friday, November 1, vs. Miami Heat (on ESPN).

     

    Why You Can’t Miss It:

    The Brooklyn Nets start the 2013-14 season with a cupcake schedule. Of their first 15 games, only four of them are against teams that made the playoffs in 2013.

    Despite the potential to jump out to a phenomenal start, the Nets will also be tested. Their first big challenge is Nov. 1 versus the two-time defending champion Miami Heat.

    Not only is this the Nets' home opener where the revamped roster can prove itself against one of the NBA’s truly elite teams, but Brooklyn will also be without head coach Jason Kidd.

    The future Hall of Fame point guard was suspended for the first two regular season games after pleading guilty to DWI-related charges, per Mike Mazzeo of ESPN. So he won’t be on the sidelines for the home opener or the season opener.

    Will that have a big impact on the Nets to start the year? It’s possible, but Brooklyn has enough veterans on board to eliminate that excuse.

Charlotte Bobcats

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    Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    The Game:

    Saturday, December 14, vs. Los Angeles Lakers.

     

    Why You Can’t Miss It:

    Honestly speaking, the Charlotte Bobcats aren’t a very compelling NBA team (putting it lightly). Signing Al Jefferson was the huge splash of the summer, but his presence won’t be enough to propel Charlotte into the playoff picture.

    As a result, the biggest storyline is new head coach Steve Clifford.

    He came over to embrace the challenge of coaching one of the league’s most desperate franchises. He’ll be tested all season long, but facing off against his previous employer is sure to get his juices flowing.

    Clifford spent time as an assistant with the New York Knicks from 2001-2003, Houston Rockets from 2003-2007 and Orlando Magic from 2007-2012. Most recently, however, he was an assistant with the Los Angeles Lakers.

    I bet he’d like nothing more than to beat the purple and gold as the leader of an underdog.

Chicago Bulls

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    The Game:

    Tuesday, October 29, at Miami Heat (on TNT).

     

    Why You Can’t Miss It:

    The 2013-14 NBA season kicks off on Oct. 29 with three games: Indiana Pacers versus Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers versus Los Angeles Clippers and Miami Heat versus Chicago Bulls.

    Unless (or perhaps even if) you’re heavily invested in the “Battle of L.A.,” the most exciting matchup of those three is Heat/Bulls by a wide margin.

    Derrick Rose will finally make his much-awaited return to the court for the first time since the 2012 NBA playoffs. He won’t be able to ease his way back into regular-season action because he’ll square off with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the defending champion Heat.

    These two teams are among the championship favorites for obvious reasons. Chicago managed to take Miami to five games in the Eastern Conference semifinals last season despite missing D-Rose and Luol Deng. The Bulls can make a very early statement against their budding rivals by starting the season 1-0.

    I know it’s the first game, and you should never read too far into wins early in the year, but this has a different feel. If you consider yourself an NBA fan, you can’t miss this game.

Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    The Game:

    Wednesday, November 27, vs. Miami Heat (on ESPN).

     

    Why You Can’t Miss It:

    It’s always exciting when LeBron James makes his return to face off against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

    There are certainly Cavs fans that hate LBJ, but there are also those who are willing to rush the court to show they want him back.

    In any case, this game is sure to stir up emotions from the fanbase. Now that the Cavaliers actually have a decent product to put out on the court, there’s a chance duels between the Cavs and Heat could be consistently competitive this season.

    Andrew Bynum may never stay healthy again, but he will be a thorn in Miami’s side if he’s able to play. Nobody on Miami’s roster will be able to guard him in the post, and he can dominate Miami on the glass (which was their Achilles' heel last season).

    Cavaliers fans probably want a playoff berth in 2014, but beating James and the Heat during the regular season wouldn’t be a bad consolation prize if they fail to do so.

Dallas Mavericks

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    Glenn James/Getty Images

    The Game:

    Tuesday, March 25, vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (on TNT).

     

    Why You Can’t Miss It:

    The Dallas Mavericks last made the playoffs in 2012. In the first round of that postseason, the Oklahoma City Thunder swept them.

    The Mavs will be out to prove they’re a legitimate team after missing the playoffs last season for the first time since 1999-00. Facing off against OKC will be a huge test with regards to the Mavericks playoff chances in 2014.

    Although only four members of the 2011-12 Mavericks team remain—Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, Vince Carter and Brandan Wright—the new-look Mavs are a potential playoff threat in the Western Conference.

    Winning a big game at home against a Western Conference favorite may ultimately be the difference between the Mavs making the playoffs or finishing behind fringe rosters. Look for the Los Angeles Lakers, Portland Trail Blazers, Minnesota Timberwolves or New Orleans Pelicans to compete for the final playoff openings in the west if the Mavs fail to meet expectations.

Denver Nuggets

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    The Game:

    Wednesday, January 15, at Golden State Warriors (on ESPN).

     

    Why You Can’t Miss It:

    This isn’t the first matchup of the new season between the Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors (which will occur on Dec. 23), but it’s the first between the two Western Conference foes that will be nationally televised.

    Following a first-round playoff exit at the hands of the Warriors, the Nuggets and new head coach Brian Shaw will be out for redemption.

    Losing to Golden State in the playoffs was part of the reason why Coach of the Year George Karl got fired after the 2013 playoffs. If Denver can’t beat Golden State under coach Shaw, the move to fire Karl will be called into question.

    Additionally, since this game won’t be played in the friendly confines and altitude of the Pepsi Center, the test will be that much more difficult for the Nuggets.

    Denver finished with an astounding 38-3 record at home last season. As a result, road games will be a huge barometer to their success in 2013-14.

     

    Honorable Mention: Wednesday, April 16, vs. Golden State Warriors (on ESPN). (The last game of the season.)

Detroit Pistons

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    J. Dennis/Einstein/Getty Images

    The Game:

    Tuesday, November 5, vs. Indiana Pacers.

     

    Why You Can’t Miss It:

    The revamped Detroit Pistons will have no shortage of tough games in 2013-14 as a result of occupying the Eastern Conference's Central Division.

    The Milwaukee Bucks and upstart Cleveland Cavaliers should provide stiff competition. However, playing against Eastern Conference juggernauts like the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers will be the real barometer of success for Detroit.

    On Nov. 5, Detroit’s fourth game of the season, the Pistons face Indiana in a difficult divisional test. Look for the marquee matchup on the interior in this one.

    The Pacers, who were arguably the league’s best defensive team a season ago (finishing first in rebounds and second in points allowed), will start David West and Roy Hibbert. The Pistons, meanwhile, have young big men in Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond who can battle it out down low.

    If Monroe and Drummond can match the intensity of West and Hibbert in the post, Detroit may be a bigger threat to Indiana than fans realize.

Golden State Warriors

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    The Game:

    Wednesday, December 25, vs. Los Angeles Clippers (on ESPN).

     

    Why You Can’t Miss It:

    A Christmas day matchup between two Western Conference contenders that features Stephen Curry vs. Chris Paul and David Lee vs. Blake Griffin; what am I missing?

    Both of these teams live to get up and down the court. Griffin loves to receive alley-oop lobs in transition, and Curry loves to pull up for open threes on the fast break. This game has all the makings of a high-octane, offensive slugfest. But that isn't the only storyline.

    Can CP3, one of the league’s best defensive point guards, slow down Curry’s shooting barrage? Will Griffin be improved enough defensively to stifle Lee’s offensive prowess?

    Even the matchup between Andrew Bogut and DeAndre Jordan (who is in desperate need of a breakout year) will be intriguing.

    These two teams have equivalent strengths and weaknesses and a slew of NBA stars. Consider this game an additional holiday present.

Houston Rockets

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    Joe Murphy/Getty Images

    The Game:

    Wednesday, December 25, at San Antonio Spurs (on ESPN).

     

    Why You Can’t Miss It:

    The phrase, “Everything’s Bigger in Texas,” may never be more accurate.

    The second Christmas game on this list features Dwight Howard and Tim Duncan, two of the biggest (literally and figuratively) stars in the NBA.

    These in-state rivals will be out to prove who holds the title of best team in Texas. The San Antonio Spurs possess that moniker until the Houston Rockets can prove otherwise. However, Houston finished with just 13 fewer regular season wins than San Antonio last season without D12. His presence hints at a big improvement.

    The Rockets certainly have youth on their side since nobody in the starting lineup is older than 27. With that said, San Antonio’s experience may prove to be the trump card.

Indiana Pacers

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    Michael Hickey/Getty Images

    The Game:

    Wednesday, November 6, vs. Chicago Bulls (on ESPN).

     

    Why You Can’t Miss It:

    The rivalry between Indiana Pacers fans and Chicago Bulls fans has become increasingly intense leading up to the 2013-14 season.

    Pacers fans believe they’re still the team to beat after winning the Eastern Conference's Central Division and finishing with the No. 3 seed in the East.

    Bulls fans believe they’re the favorites now that Derrick Rose is set to make his much-awaited return to the court. Chicago did finish with the No. 5 seed without him, so it makes perfect sense that they’ll be more competitive with him.

    The drama continues to build between each fanbase. Ultimately, however, the winning team in this head-to-head matchup gains bragging rights.

    Will the Pacers defensive dominance lead to continued success against Chicago? Indiana won the season series 3-1 last year, but that doesn’t mean all too much now that both teams have a clean slate.

    In any case, we won’t have to wait much longer until getting treated to this showdown.

Los Angeles Clippers

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    The Game:

    Wednesday, April 9, vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (on ESPN).

     

    Why You Can’t Miss It:

    The Los Angeles Clippers have a whopping 21 nationally televised games throughout the 2013-14 season. None of those may be as important as the April 9 meeting against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

    The Clippers and Thunder are among the favorites to nab the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference for the 2014 postseason. Doing so would ensure home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, which is a luxury that can’t be understated.

    Simply getting into the playoffs with a healthy roster is the goal of most NBA teams. If said team has a shot at the No. 1 seed, however, going all out to attain it is often the best decision.

    Watching Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook square off is reason enough to tune in to this game. With that said, there’s a reasonably high chance this late-season matchup could have serious postseason ramifications for the losing team.

    This game will undoubtedly have a playoff atmosphere.

Los Angeles Lakers

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    Evan Gole/Getty Images

    The Game:

    Wednesday, February 19, vs. Houston Rockets (on ESPN).

     

    Why You Can’t Miss It:

    Dwight Howard’s return to Lakerland is easily the can’t-miss game of the season for the Los Angeles Lakers.

    It’s no secret that the fans in L.A. aren’t too fond of D12 and will lustily boo him given the opportunity. Fans around the league want to know how Howard responds to the hostile atmosphere.

    In addition to fan interaction, the bad blood between Howard and Kobe Bryant makes this a truly interesting encounter.

    When asked how surprised he was when Howard decided to leave Los Angeles, Bryant said, “Honestly man, I don’t really give a s---,” per Sean Deveney of Sporting News via Twitter.

    Considering that Bryant questioned Howard’s urgency when the two were teammates, according to ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan, it’s safe to say he doesn’t think much of Howard now that the big man signed with the Houston Rockets.

    Healthy or not, I’d be utterly shocked if Bryant missed this game. He’s nearly impossible to stop on a game-to-game basis, but with the extra motivation of facing Howard’s new team?

    Look for a vintage Black Mamba in this one. Don’t be surprised if he scores 40 points or more to spite his former teammate.

Memphis Grizzlies

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    Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

    The Game:

    Friday, November 22, vs. San Antonio Spurs (on ESPN).

     

    Why You Can’t Miss It:

    The Memphis Grizzlies are coming off the most successful playoff run in franchise history. They reached the Western Conference finals for the first time ever, but were quickly disposed by the San Antonio Spurs in a four-game sweep.

    During an offseason in which numerous Western Conference playoff contenders improved, the Grizzlies' key changes were trading for Kosta Koufos and promoting Dave Joerger to head coach.

    Will that be enough to remain competitive in the West? Well, the November matchup against San Antonio will be a solid measuring stick.

    It would be silly to ignore the Grizzlies championship chances this season, but they certainly benefited from Russell Westbrook’s knee injury in 2013.

    If the Grizz continue to struggle against the Spurs during the regular season, it may hint that they need to make a move before the trade deadline.

Miami Heat

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    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    The Game:

    Wednesday, January 29, vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (on ESPN).

     

    Why You Can’t Miss It:

    This rivalry features the best player in the NBA (LeBron James) versus the second-best player in the NBA (Kevin Durant). No further explanation should be necessary.

    If you need more inspiration to tune in, though, the recent feud between KD and Dwyane Wade should do the trick.

    D-Wade is sure to play with a chip on his shoulder after the Oklahoma City Thunder’s superstar said James Harden should be considered one of the league’s top-10 players instead of him, according to a Cinesport.com video interview.

    The Miami Heat guard responded via Instagram, writing a note to himself to, “Make (Durant) respect (my) place in history.”

    So while the major battle will be that between James and Durant, this rivalry became even more heated due to the beef between Durant and Wade.

    Don’t be surprised if this contest gets chippy.

Milwaukee Bucks

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The Game:

    Wednesday, December 4, vs. Detroit Pistons.

     

    Why You Can’t Miss It:

    Speaking of bad blood, things are sure to get awkward when the new-look Detroit Pistons visit the Milwaukee Bucks.

    Brandon Jennings—who was sent to Detroit via sign-and-trade from Milwaukee this summer—said that he will no longer have to take bad shots because the Pistons frontcourt is, “Going to make my job a lot easier,” per Andrew Gruman of Fox Sports Wisconsin.

    Those comments ruffled the feathers of former Bucks' teammate Larry Sanders.

    With regards to Jennings’ comments that he plays with better bigs in Detroit, Sanders said, “He has to pass it to them first,” per Andrew Gruman via Twitter.

    After firing those barbs toward Jennings, the point guard responded by saying the following, according to Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press:

    I had to, I had to, though. I mean, I had to take the shots. That’s just what it is. Me and Monta had to take those shots. Regardless for us to even get into the eighth spot in the playoffs, we had to take those shots. That’s just what it is.

    Prepare for Sanders to try and swat a would-be layup into the 16th row if Jennings drives into his domain.

Minnesota Timberwolves

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    David Sherman/Getty Images

    The Game:

    Friday, November 8, vs. Dallas Mavericks.

     

    Why You Can’t Miss It:

    Kevin Love versus Dirk Nowitzki is the major reason why this matchup between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Dallas Mavericks is a can’t-miss game.

    If you were a general manager picking a team solely for next season, would you rather have Love or Nowitzki? To me, this is one of the most polarizing questions to pose within the NBA community.

    If you want a guy who can dominate in terms of filling the box score with ridiculous stats, the answer is clearly Love. If you’d rather have a proven NBA champion who can lead a supporting cast and step up in (playoff) crunch time, the answer is Nowitzki.

    In my opinion, they are the top two power forwards in the NBA today (if we label Tim Duncan a center). One has a championship ring; the other has never made the playoffs. Both have experienced recent injury woes (Love more so than Nowitzki).

    In terms of watching a pure positional battle, Love vs. Nowitzki is a bout between two heavyweights.

    Will Love finally stay healthy and solidify his “best power forward in basketball” moniker? Or will Nowitzki continue to prove that he’s an elite talent capable of leading a mediocre supporting cast?

    Either way, this key game is worth watching.

New Orleans Pelicans

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    The Game:

    Friday, February 7, vs. Minnesota Timberwolves.

     

    Why You Can’t Miss It:

    The New Orleans Pelicans and Minnesota Timberwolves will, in many ways, be in direct competition for one of the final Western Conference playoff spots.

    Jrue Holiday vs. Ricky Rubio.

    Eric Gordon vs. Kevin Martin.

    Ryan Anderson and Anthony Davis vs. Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic.

    This matchup features intriguing talents, head-to-head battles and a variety of players who have had issues staying healthy.

    By the time February rolls around, NBA fans should have an easy time separating contenders from pretenders. This game may very well act as a precursor to a playoff berth in the Western Conference.

New York Knicks

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    The Game:

    Wednesday, December 25, vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (on ABC).

     

    Why You Can’t Miss It:

    The third and final Christmas day game on this list is sure to be a high-scoring affair.

    This encounter between the New York Knicks and Oklahoma City Thunder will include the winners of the last four NBA scoring titles: Kevin Durant from 2010-2012, and Carmelo Anthony, who dethroned him in 2013.

    These two superstars are sure to trade buckets from start to finish, but whoever finishes with more assists is my predicted winner.

    Both ‘Melo and KD should look to expand their offensive repertoires this season by setting up teammates for scores. Durant (4.6 assists per game) wasn’t nearly as one-dimensional as Anthony (2.6 assists per game), but both players should take advantage of the attention they garner on offense.

    Anthony and Durant may duel to a stalemate, so the supporting cast will make the difference in this one.

Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

    The Game:

    Thursday, February 20, vs. Miami Heat (on TNT).

     

    Why You Can’t Miss It:

    The Miami Heat’s must-watch game is a home contest against the Oklahoma City Thunder. OKC’s marquee meeting is different only in the sense that they’ll have the home crowd behind them.

    Again, the Thunder/Heat battle is simply too intriguing to ignore. Kevin Durant and LeBron James will be duking it out on the court once again.

    Although that's the most exciting dynamic, added storylines like KD’s feud with Dwyane Wade, whether or not Jeremy Lamb can successfully fill the void left by James Harden and if Serge Ibaka can make strides offensively make this one of the most polarizing showdowns in the NBA.

Orlando Magic

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    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    The Game:

    Wednesday, March 5, vs. Houston Rockets.

     

    Why You Can’t Miss It:

    Is Dwight Howard’s return to face the Orlando Magic in a Houston Rockets jersey old news? Perhaps, but I still expect fans in Orlando to get a little more riled up for this game than for others the rebuilding Magic are set to encounter.

    Trading D12 away was a difficult decision, but the right one, especially with hindsight.

    Orlando landed Nikola Vucevic, Arron Afflalo and Maurice Harkless, while simultaneously becoming bad enough to net the second-overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft (which became Rookie of the Year front-runner Victor Oladipo).

    The Los Angeles Lakers acquired Dwight, then lost him in free agency. The Denver Nuggets obtained Andre Iguodala, then lost him in free agency. The Philadelphia 76ers “added” Andrew Bynum (who didn’t play a single minute due to injury), then let him go via free agency.

    The Magic are the clear winners of the four-team trade almost by default.

    Beating Howard’s newest team won’t be an easy task for the lowly Magic, but at least their fans have the excitement of being in the majority of people who dislike the bubbly big man.

Philadelphia 76ers

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    Barry Gossage/Getty Images

    The Game:

    Saturday, December 28, at Phoenix Suns OR Monday, January 27, vs. Phoenix Suns.

     

    Why You Can’t Miss It:

    This is the showdown you’ve been waiting for folks!

    Bad against worse; tank versus tank; the worst team in the East taking on the worst team in the West. It’s rotten eggs versus the skunk. Who can stink more?

    Okay, so this matchup is only interesting on an ironic level, but it is interesting.

    These two teams are in the sweepstakes to land Andrew Wiggins in the 2014 draft, so the loser of these games will earn increased lottery odds.

    The Phoenix Suns may have the upper hand with a backcourt that includes Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe (two capable and exciting guards), but they may wind up trading Dragic or Marcin Gortat before one of the two meetings with the Philadelphia 76ers.

    In addition to the “Tankapalooza” duels, it’s worth pointing out that the Sixers open the season Oct. 30 versus the Miami Heat and end the season April 16 at the Miami Heat. They have a chance to bookend the 2013-14 season with two ugly blowout losses.

    At least if seeding is already determined at the end of the year they’ll have a chance to beat Miami’s second unit...Or not.

    Sorry for being harsh, Philly fans, but the Sixers had the league’s worst offense a year ago by scoring just 93.2 points per game. They have since traded Jrue Holiday, their best offensive player.

    That’s an ugly equation.

Phoenix Suns

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    The Game:

    Monday, December 30, at Los Angeles Clippers.

     

    Why You Can’t Miss It:

    The Phoenix Suns organization is expecting big things from Eric Bledsoe this season. Teammate Goran Dragic even called Bledsoe “a mini-LeBron James,” according to Matt Petersen of Suns.com.

    While those types of expectations aren’t fair to Bledsoe and need to be tempered, he should still be considered the front-runner for the league’s Most Improved Player award.

    On Dec. 30, the former Los Angeles Clipper will face off against his former team. What’s more exciting is that he’ll be in a head-to-head battle against former teammate Chris Paul.

    Both Bledsoe and CP3 are defensive juggernauts at the point guard position. Look for Bledsoe to play with a massive chip on his shoulder to prove that the Clips should have kept him on board.

    If nothing else, fans will be treated to a tremendous duel between two electric players, even if the final score doesn’t match that hype.

Portland Trail Blazers

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    Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

    The Game:

    Thursday, December 26, vs. Los Angeles Clippers (on TNT).

     

    Why You Can’t Miss It:

    You can’t miss this day-after-Christmas treat because of three key matchups: Damian Lillard vs. Chris Paul, LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Blake Griffin and the Portland Trail Blazers revamped bench vs. the Los Angeles Clippers “Tribe Called Bench.”

    These Western Conference opponents have a lot of similarities, which should make for a closely contested game.

    Now that the Trail Blazers have a second unit that won’t rank dead last in the NBA in minutes per game and points per game (as it did a year ago), Lillard, Aldridge and Co. should be targeting a playoff berth.

    If Portland can’t compete with contenders within the conference, however, it will have to yield a playoff spot to Minnesota, Dallas, New Orleans or the Lakers.

    This is also the second game of a back-to-back for the Clips, so there’s no excuse for the Trail Blazers not to take advantage with a big win.

Sacramento Kings

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The Game:

    Monday, December 23, vs. New Orleans Pelicans (on NBATV).

     

    Why You Can’t Miss It:

    This date on the Sacramento Kings' calendar represents the return of Tyreke Evans.

    ‘Reke stole the hearts of Kings fans after winning the 2009-10 Rookie of the Year award for averaging 20.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game. He appeared to be well on his way to becoming the league’s next superstar, but he simply couldn’t build off a stellar rookie campaign.

    In three seasons with Sacramento after winning ROY, Evans regressed statistically in each year:

    2010-11: 17.8 points, 5.6 assists, 4.8 rebounds.

    2011-12: 16.5 points, 4.5 assists, 4.6 rebounds.

    2012-13: 15.2 points, 3.5 assists, 4.4 rebounds.

    He finally got a change of scenery by bolting for the New Orleans Pelicans this summer, but that doesn’t ensure a return to dominance.

    Kings fans will have to move forward with DeMarcus Cousins as the franchise centerpiece. As a way to further embrace “Boogie,” they’ll probably let Evans know they don’t miss him.

    It will be interesting to see how Evans responds to a harsh environment.

San Antonio Spurs

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    The Game:

    Sunday, January 26, at Miami Heat (on ABC).

     

    Why You Can’t Miss It:

    Last season, in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, the San Antonio Spurs were a Ray Allen missed three-pointer away from winning their fifth championship since 1999.

    If they could have secured the rebound off a LeBron James miss, Tim Duncan could lay claim to winning championships 14 years apart for the same team. That would have been a masterful feat.

    As they say, it wasn’t meant to be.

    The bitter taste in the mouths of the Spurs players and their fans will linger for a while. They won’t get a chance to quell that bitterness until Jan. 26, the first meeting between last year’s finalists.

    As a finals rematch displayed on national television, this has all the makings of a must-see encounter. That is, of course, if head coach Gregg Popovich decides not to bench his starters.

Toronto Raptors

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    Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

    The Game(s):

    Friday, December 27, at New York Knicks.

    Saturday, December 28, vs. New York Knicks.

     

    Why You Can’t Miss It:

    During the 2013-14 season, the Toronto Raptors will be televised on basic cable stations as many times as they’ve won NBA championships: zero.

    A Raptors game will be available on NBATV against the Milwaukee Bucks in April, but that matchup isn’t all that compelling.

    Instead, the must-see games for the Raptors—which will be relegated to local audiences and eccentric NBA League Pass owners—come against the New York Knicks. They play Andrea Bargnani’s new squad in back-to-back games on Dec. 27 and 28—first in New York, then in Toronto—and there will be no shortage of storylines.

    Can Toronto compete with one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference?

    Will Bargnani play with a chip on his shoulder and perform like a No. 1 overall pick?

    Will Raptors fans boo the Italian big man?

    Can Jonas Valanciunas outplay Bargnani and endear himself further to Raps fans?

    All of those questions will be answered before the end of December.

Utah Jazz

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    Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

    The Game:

    Monday, December 30, vs. Charlotte Bobcats.

     

    Why You Can’t Miss It:

    After years of mediocrity, the Utah Jazz are finally embracing young players on the road to rebuilding.

    Al Jefferson took advantage of the change in philosophy by netting a three-year, $40.5 million contract with the Charlotte Bobcats this summer.

    On Dec. 30, “Big Al” will return to Utah where he spent three years of his NBA career. This will be an exciting opportunity for Utah’s young bigs.

    Instead of facing off against Jefferson in practice only to get bench minutes during games, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter will have starting gigs for the 2013-14 season.

    Now they have the ability to outperform Jefferson on their home floor. It will be worth it to see if the youngsters can take advantage by showing maturity beyond their years.

Washington Wizards

31 of 31

    Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

    The Game:

    Friday, February 7, vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (on ESPN).

     

    Why You Can’t Miss It:

    In the eyes of many (including myself), the Washington Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers are two teams vying for the final Eastern Conference playoff seeds.

    The Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics are likely bound for the NBA draft lottery after making the playoffs last season. A case could be made for the Atlanta Hawks to join them, but I personally believe ATL will make the playoffs again in 2014.

    In that scenario, there are just two playoff spots up for grabs in the East. As a result, head-to-head matchups between Washington and Cleveland will be huge in the grand scheme of things.

    Watching John Wall and Kyrie Irving go head-to-head as two of the league’s elite young point guards is worth watching even if these teams aren’t in contention. It’s far more exciting now that they are potentially playoff-bound.

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