2017-18 NBA Schedule: Breaking Down Top 10 Games of the Season

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured ColumnistAugust 14, 2017

2017-18 NBA Schedule: Breaking Down Top 10 Games of the Season

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    It's time for basketball fans to start looking at their calendars with the official release of the 2017-18 NBA regular-season schedule Monday. 

    Last year demonstrated that beauty can lie in the journey itself, as the 2016-17 regular season far outpaced the postseason in terms of drama. With the Golden State Warriors entering this year as heavy favorites to repeat as champions, the same may prove to be the case again.

    Regardless of what happens in the playoffs, these 10 matchups should provide plenty of entertainment in the months ahead.

Nov. 15: Philadelphia 76ers at Los Angeles Lakers

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    Markelle Fultz's ankle injury denied fans the opportunity to see the top two picks in the 2017 NBA draft face off in the Las Vegas Summer League.

    The ailment limited the No. 1 overall selection to one game in Vegas, whereas No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball earned the summer-league MVP award after averaging 16.3 points, 9.3 assists and 7.7 rebounds per game.

    Fultz and Ball faced off once in college, and the Washington Huskies lost 107-66 to the UCLA Bruins in February at Alaska Airlines Arena in Seattle. While Ball walked away with the win, he and Fultz had nearly identical stat lines. Ball finished with 22 points, six rebounds, five assists and four steals compared to 25 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals for Fultz.

    Given the pair's draft connection, many fans will be eagerly anticipating every time Ball and Fultz step on the court against one another.

Nov. 22: Golden State Warriors at Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Russell Westbrook threw plenty of shade at Kevin Durant following his move to the Golden State Warriors in July 2016. The subtle nature of Westbrook's shots at his former teammate was particularly impressive, be it the seemingly benign photo of cupcakes or an orange "official photographer" vest.

    But the Warriors dominated the Oklahoma City Thunder on the court, winning all four of their meetings by an average of nearly 20 points.

    The gap between the two teams should've closed after the Thunder acquired Paul George in a trade with the Indiana Pacers this offseason. Oklahoma City couldn't continue to be a one-man show and expect to compete with Golden State, so George gives the Thunder the star-level talent they needed to pair with Westbrook.

    It bears watching just how much George's presence will mean for the Thunder, especially since he can opt out of the final year of his contract following the 2017-18 campaign.

    If Oklahoma City can consistently challenge Golden State, it could entice George to re-sign with the team next summer. But should the Thunder still be well behind their West rivals, general manager Sam Presti may consider another recalibration and deal George before the trade deadline.

Dec. 25: Cleveland Cavaliers at Golden State Warriors

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    While the Cleveland Cavaliers endured close to their worst-case scenario this summer, they still may be the Eastern Conference's best team by virtue of LeBron James' presence.

    Had the Cavaliers acquired Jimmy Butler or Paul George this offseason, they seemingly would have been better equipped to challenge the Warriors in the NBA Finals. Instead of adding one of those two stars, however, Cleveland signed Derrick Rose, Jose Calderon and Jeff Green. Cedi Osman, a 2015 second-round pick, is also joining the team after spending the last few years overseas.

    The Warriors' response to losing the 2016 Finals was signing Kevin Durant. The Cavaliers' response to losing the 2017 Finals has been almost a complete implosion.

    On Christmas Day, Cleveland can quell concerns about its drama-filled offseason having an adverse effect on the team. Perhaps Green and Rose prove far better fits with the Cavs than anybody could've anticipated.

    Should the Warriors outclass the Cavaliers, however, the playoffs could shape up to be even more disappointing than they were in 2017.

Dec. 25: Washington Wizards at Boston Celtics

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    In an era when NBA rivalries seem few and far between, the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards share a genuine level of animosity that adds something extra to their encounters. Their meetings should be even more heated after their seven-game duel in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

    John Wall had perhaps his single greatest moment in a Wizards uniform as he hit the go-ahead three-pointer in the final seconds in Game 6 of the second round. Washington proceeded to lose Game 7 by 10 points, putting a minor damper on Wall's heroics.

    Still, the Celtics and Wizards could well cross paths again in the 2018 playoffs. Before that, both teams will be eager to gain an edge over one another in the regular season, particularly given the potential ramifications for home-court advantage.

Jan. 3: Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics

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    The 2017 offseason wasn't a home run for the Boston Celtics. Their inability to trade for Jimmy Butler or Paul George continues to be puzzling considering what the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers received for them in their respective trades.

    However, Boston did sign Gordon Hayward, who is coming off a career year in 2016-17. He averaged a career-high 21.9 points and shot 39.8 percent from beyond the arc on 5.1 attempts per game. His three-point shooting is sorely needed on a team that traded Avery Bradley to the Detroit Pistons to clear cap space and finished 14th in three-point percentage (35.9) last season.

    Prior to the start of the summer, signing Hayward wouldn't have seemed like enough for the Celtics to supplant the Cleveland Cavaliers for Eastern Conference supremacy. After the miserable offseason the Cavs have endured, though, Boston may be able to take Cleveland down.

    During the 2016-17 regular season, the Cavs went 3-1 against the Celtics, which included a 114-91 win in April that portended how the conference finals would unfold.

    Boston will want to avoid a repeat when it sees Cleveland right after the calendar flips to 2018.

Jan. 15: Houston Rockets at Los Angeles Clippers

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    A league executive told SportsCenter anchor Michael Eaves in June that the relationship between Chris Paul and Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers deteriorated prior to Paul's trade to the Houston Rockets.

    Austin Rivers was reportedly the biggest issue between the pair, with Paul believing Doc gave Austin favorable treatment. According to Eaves, Paul was particularly upset that Doc turned down a trade including Austin that would've brought Carmelo Anthony to the Clippers. Austin refuted that account in an interview with USA Today's Sam Amick, telling Amick that he had called Paul to clear the air.

    Regardless of the circumstances behind Paul's departure, his return to Los Angeles will be captivating.

    In addition, the game will offer some insight into whether the Clippers can continue to compete for a top-four seed in the Western Conference without Paul. Los Angeles acquired Patrick Beverley in the Paul trade and signed dazzling passer Milos Teodosic at the beginning of July, but it may struggle without Paul helping to create open opportunities inside for Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.

Jan. 22: Portland Trail Blazers at Denver Nuggets

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    One game separated the Portland Trail Blazers from the Denver Nuggets in 2016-17, allowing the Blazers to barely secure the eighth seed in the West.

    The Nuggets may have the last laugh, though. Whereas Portland's bloated payroll prevented the team from making any significant improvements this offseason, Denver signed four-time All-Star Paul Millsap.

    The Blazers will, however, have Jusuf Nurkic for a full season. The Bosnian big man averaged 15.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in 20 games for Portland after the Nuggets sent him there just prior to the All-Star break. If Nurkic continues playing that well, the Blazers may make their fifth straight playoff appearance.

    If last year is any indication, the regular-season clashes between Denver and Portland could have significant postseason implications.

Jan. 29: Philadelphia 76ers at Milwaukee Bucks

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    Both the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers should significantly improve in 2017-18.

    For the Bucks, 2016-17 Most Improved Player Giannis Antetokounmpo is a year older, and they should have the services of Khris Middleton for the entire season. Middleton missed the first half of the 2016-17 campaign (and then some) after undergoing hamstring surgery, but upon his return, the Bucks had a team-high 5.7 net rating when Middleton was on the court, per NBA.com.

    The 76ers, meanwhile, finally appear poised to see the fruits of their multiyear process. They selected Markelle Fultz with the No. 1 overall pick in June's draft and signed JJ Redick to a one-year, $23 million contract. With the Atlanta Hawks, Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls—three playoff teams from last year—seemingly plunging headfirst into rebuilds, the Sixers could make a significant climb up the standings.

    It's not out of the question to think the Bucks or the 76ers could break into the top four of the East. 

March 11: Golden State Warriors at Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Nobody is expecting the Minnesota Timberwolves to win a title in 2018. But when it comes to the teams best poised to challenge the Golden State Warriors in a few years, the Timberwolves are near the top of the list.

    Minnesota already had a promising young core—albeit one that finished 10 games out of the playoffs—before trading for Jimmy Butler and signing Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford this offseason. Not only does Butler make the Timberwolves stronger on the court, but he also makes the franchise more of an enticing destination for other stars. Kyrie Irving included it among his four favored trade destinations in July, per ESPN's Chris Haynes.

    Playing the Warriors will be a good measuring stick to see how close the Timberwolves are to competing with the best in the Western Conference.

March 28: Boston Celtics vs. Utah Jazz

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    Breakups are never easy, which was the case with Gordon Hayward's decision to sign with the Boston Celtics.

    Naturally, some Utah Jazz fans burned his jersey. Rudy Gobert appeared to take a shot at Hayward on Snapchat (warning: link contains NSFW language). Even the Jazz's social media team seemingly threw shade at Hayward, sharing a picture of Gobert in a since-deleted tweet after Hayward announced his decision.

    Jazz fans chanted Hayward's name following Utah's second-round playoff exit at the hands of the Golden State Warriors. He won't get anywhere near as warm a reception when he makes his return to Salt Lake City for the first time.