Must-See Games from 2019-20 NBA Schedule

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 12, 2019

Must-See Games from 2019-20 NBA Schedule

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    NBA teams have their 2019-20 marathon routes.

    The Association released everyone's schedule Monday afternoon, and there is no shortage of can't-miss matchups on the upcoming docket.

    Given this summer's wealth of landscape-shifting player movement, a slew of superstar returns highlight our list of must-see games.

    Keep your personal schedule handy, as this chronological guide to the best contests will help you know when to reserve couch time (or in-arena time) during the upcoming campaign.

Oct. 22: Opening Night

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    Mark Blinch/Getty Images

    New Orleans Pelicans at Toronto Raptors

    How's this for an appetizer? The Raptors hoist their first-ever championship banner into the Scotiabank Arena rafters, while the Pelicans officially open the Zion Williamson era.

    Toronto will be one of the top teams to monitor—not for its repeat chances (not happening), but the patience of president Masai Ujiri. A teardown feels inevitable without Kawhi Leonard, especially as this is a contract year for Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. But will the Raptors blow up it midseason—and outfit contenders with plug-and-play vets—or take a victory lap and carry maximum flexibility into next summer?

    New Orleans, meanwhile, belongs on everyone's watch list. Williamson is a sight to behold by himself, and Jrue Holiday is one of the league's most underrated players. Add Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, JJ Redick, Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes to the mix, and this roster looks fascinating for reasons beyond its high-flying freshman.

                        

    Los Angeles Lakers at Los Angeles Clippers

    The fight for Los Angeles could deliver control of the entire Association, and it starts on opening night.

    It's possible this won't be the Clippers debut of Paul George (shoulder surgeries), but this should be L.A.'s first glimpse of Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis. This is a matchup of championship contenders who happen to share an arena in one of the nation's premier markets—it won't be easy for the basketball gods to top this.

    "The battle for L.A. is by far the most compelling storyline for me entering next season," Chris Broussard told Fox Sports' Martin Rogers. "I believe the Clippers and Lakers have the best duo and the best teams in the league. Which one comes out on top will have the basketball world on the edge of its seat from October through June."

    The Lakers-Clippers rivalry has never been this close or carried such leaguewide ramifications. Each has legitimate championship aspirations, and one Staples Center resident will likely run over the other to realize its goal.

Nov. 7: Boston Celtics at Charlotte Hornets

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    If you're susceptible to #TheFeelz, be careful with Kemba Walker's return to the Charlotte Hornets.

    Any buzz from Buzz City over the past eight years likely stemmed from the 6'1" scoring guard, who visited the franchise record books as often as the rest of us go to the grocery store. Upon his exit, he was Charlotte's all-time leader in—clears throat—minutes, field goals, threes, free throws, points, offensive win shares and total win shares, among other categories.

    This summer seemed a natural time to split. The 29-year-old Walker was itching for the kind of team success he'd never enjoyed with the Hornets, and they knew that signing him to a super-sized contract would blow up their budget and restrict their ability to build around him. Even then, he wrestled with the decision.

    "I couldn't see myself just being on another team," Walker told The Athletic's Shams Charania. "It was just hard. That's all I've known was Charlotte. ... I had a feeling that I wasn't going to get the offer that I wanted, and maybe not close to it, because of cap space. I had to get my head wrapped around the feeling and picking another team."

    His first time as a visitor at Spectrum Center will be a therapeutic exercise for him and the team he masterfully led for almost a decade. If the basketball action is lacking (these teams are in different stages), the moments with Walker⁠—the arrival to the arena, the introduction, the tribute video⁠—will be powerful enough to compensate.

Nov. 27: Brooklyn Nets at Boston Celtics

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    Kyrie Irving's two-year tenure with the Boston Celtics was an emotional roller coaster.

    They appeared championship-round locks until they weren't, losing during the conference finals in his first year and the conference semis in his second. He was the loyal superstar until he wasn't, first pledging his loyalty "if you guys will have me back," then backing off that commitment by saying "ask me July 1" and finally bolting to the Brooklyn Nets.

    When he returns to TD Garden with his new team, there probably won't be such a wide range of emotions. While some fans may salute his efforts (he was an All-Star starter each season), many will surely greet him with a chorus of boos, both for his about-face on his future and the miserable finish of his final season there.

    Irving's return is the headline of this contest, but the on-court action should be sharp, too.

    Both Uncle Drew and his replacement, Kemba Walker, can erupt on any given night. Up-and-comers on each side of this contest have takeover abilities (Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen for Brooklyn; Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown for Boston). Plus, basketball junkies will appreciate the coaching battle between Brad Stevens and Kenny Atkinson.

Nov. 27: Los Angeles Lakers at New Orleans Pelicans

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    Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press

    Anthony Davis back in the Big Easy as a member of the all-powerful Purple and Gold? That's a ball, folks.

    The single-browed superstar's cold feet about a future in the Crescent City radically reshaped two franchises. Once the Lakers and Pelicans finally agreed to their blockbuster swap, three teams were involved and eight players changed jerseys. L.A. found its second star to pair with LeBron James, while New Orleans assembled a young nucleus of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart to help support Zion Williamson.

    "The Lakers, the Pelicans, Rich Paul, LeBron James, they all can take a victory lap," the Associated Press' Tim Reynolds wrote. "The trade ... is perfect for both sides."

    Because New Orleans seemingly did so well for itself in the exchange, it'll be interesting to see the reception for Davis. Chances are it won't be kind—his fashion choice for the season finale was a tough look—but maybe it'll be less harsh than it could have been. He did, after all, give them the first seven years of his career, three of which included All-NBA first-team honors.

    Basketball-wise, it seems like we should cherish every time James and Williamson share the hardwood. Their combination of physical gifts and skills are seldom seen and should be appreciated. L.A.'s vets vs. New Orleans' youngsters—several of whom were formerly known as L.A.'s youngsters—is a potentially enjoyable watch, too.

Dec. 11: Los Angeles Clippers at Toronto Raptors

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    It took Kawhi Leonard just one season to leave an indelible mark on a nation and forever change the identity of the Toronto Raptors.

    This is their chance to thank him for that magical run.

    He was everything the Raptors could have wanted and then some. If the volume of his stats wasn't limited by load management, he might have been at the forefront of the MVP discussion. As it was, he still finished the season with second-team spots on the All-NBA and All-Defensive teams, despite making only 60 appearances.

    Even if any hard feelings linger from his offseason exit, they should be left at the Scotiabank Arena's door for his return. No one else had ever steered this franchise to the NBA Finals. He took them there and powered them to a championship history will never forget.

    Fans can treat him as an opponent once the opening tip gets tossed. But he deserves a hero's welcome for the Herculean effort he put in last season.

Dec. 25: Christmas Gifts

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Boston Celtics at Toronto Raptors

    This is Christmas appearance No. 1 for Kemba Walker and only No. 2 for Toronto. It only took the former heading up the Atlantic coast to Boston and the latter winning a world title to make this happen.

    Assuming the Raptors don't pull the plug, these clubs could find themselves battling it out in the East's second tier. That probably isn't the storyline the NBA will try to sell, though. Between Walker locking horns with Kyle Lowry and up-and-comers Jayson Tatum and Pascal Siakam going toe-to-toe, there's a decent amount of individual intrigue here.

                       

    Milwaukee Bucks at Philadelphia 76ers

    This isn't the holiday's highest-profile matchup, but it could be the five-game slate's most significant.

    "While the Western Conference next season is going to be a dogfight, Milwaukee and Philadelphia are the massive favorites to finish atop the East," ESPN's Tim Bontemps wrote. "They appear destined for a showdown in the conference finals."

    There might be a top-five talent on each team—Giannis Antetokounmpo for Milwaukee, Joel Embiid for Philly—and they seem to bring the best out of each other. In last season's three meetings, Embiid averaged 34.7 points, 15.7 rebounds and 8.3 assists, while Antetokounmpo went for 43.0 points, 15.7 boards, 7.7 dimes and 3.0 rejections. 

                  

    Los Angeles Clippers at Los Angeles Lakers

    Please let Paul George be healthy for this. Please let Paul George be healthy for this. Please let Paul George be healthy for this.

    There could be four top-10 players sharing the Staples Center stage and dueling it out in front of a global audience. Am I the only one already drooling?

                      

    Houston Rockets at Golden State Warriors

    OK, maybe this isn't the West's can't-miss matchup anymore, but any time Stephen Curry and James Harden occupy the same hardwood, the game has all-time-classic potential. When they battled on Jan. 3—a one-point Houston overtime win—Harden delivered 44 points, 15 assists, 10 rebounds and 10 triples (including the game-winner), while Curry countered with 35 points, six dimes and five triples.

    While Curry and Harden are the headliners, the newcomers might be the game's most interesting participants. How will Russell Westbrook adapt to Mike D'Antoni's system? How can D'Angelo Russell blend his game to Golden State's? Each team's ability to integrate its new star will go a long way toward deciding if either (or both) still belong among the West's elite. 

                  

    New Orleans Pelicans at Denver Nuggets

    The Nuggets might not have a national pull just yet, but they probably should. They were the West's second seed last season, and they have a wildly intriguing (and under-25) tandem in point-center Nikola Jokic and scoring guard Jamal Murray. Jokic might be the best passing big man we've seen, and Murray is so electric he was one of only a dozen players with multiple 45-plus-point outbursts in 2018-19.

    The Pelicans, meanwhile, already feel like a brand given the arrival of Zion. Getting them on the holiday slate was a no-brainer, and they could become Christmas regulars with a strong showing.

Jan. 9: Houston Rockets at Oklahoma City Thunder

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Oklahoma City Thunder fans should start buying facial tissues now, as there's sure to be a shortage ahead of Russell Westbrook's emotional return in early January.

    He was OKC's last star standing, a wrecking ball of fierce competitiveness and absurd statistical excellence who outlasted all of Thunder's recognizable names: Kevin Durant, James Harden, Serge Ibaka and even Paul George. Westbrook, a nightly triple-double supplier each of the past three seasons, bared his heart and soul in a farewell Instagram post after his 11-year run with the Thunder came to an end this summer:

    "I can't even begin to put into words all of the emotions I have right now. It's been one heck of a journey Oklahoma! When I came here, I was 18 years old, bright eyed, and completely unaware of all the amazing things that would soon take place. I grew up in Oklahoma with an amazing bunch of people.

    "... I hope I have impacted the Oklahoma community as much as Oklahoma has made an impact on me and my family. I'm leaving Oklahoma with so many friends and so much gratitude. I could never thank you all enough for sticking with me. It's been a dream and a whirlwind."

    Since Westbrook has teamed back up with Harden in Houston, this could be an especially soul-stirring night for the Sooner State. The Thunder team that made the 2012 Finals featured three future MVPs (these two and Durant). All three have now flown the coop, and the franchise is facing a full-scale rebuild.

Jan. 20: New Orleans Pelicans at Memphis Grizzlies

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    Ethan Miller/Getty Images

    They got next.

    While NBA futures are unpredictable, few long-term outlooks are as promising as those in front of the Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies. In fact, it isn't difficult imagining these clubs eventually fighting for control of the Western Conference.

    New Orleans could have a generational talent in Williamson (this summer's top pick), plus another future All-Star or two in its young core. Memphis might have a pair of future elites in Ja Morant (this summer's second selection) and Jaren Jackson Jr., a do-it-all combo big who had an uncommonly productive rookie year this past season.

    The Pelicans should be ahead of the Grizzlies, as they've acted with far more win-now intentions. But Memphis' youngsters will surely view this first of four meetings as a measuring-stick matchup, which should make for a highly competitive contest.

    While the marquee probably reads "Zion vs. Ja," the actual on-court matchups might be even more compelling. Williamson could spend most of his night going at Jackson, which might as well be an art exhibit on the versatility of modern bigs. Morant, meanwhile, potentially draws 2017's No. 2 pick, Lonzo Ball, pitting a pair of young, preternatural passers against one another in a game surely played at a whirlwind pace.

Feb. 5: Golden State Warriors at Brooklyn Nets

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    Matteo Marchi/Getty Images

    It might either take a year or a rapid recovery by Kevin Durant to give a rivalry feeling to future Warriors-Brooklyn Nets clashes, but even a KD-less contest has interesting angles.

    Let's start with the Brooklyn return of D'Angelo Russell, who grew from a volume scorer to a full-fledged All-Star during his two seasons in Biggie's old borough. History may not remember his era with the Nets, but both matured a massive amount over their two years together.

    Then, you have another Curry vs. Kyrie clash, which is as good a head-to-head point guard meeting as you'll find. They tussled twice last season, combining for 98 points, 28 assists and 16 threes in those contests. In Jan. 2018, they tallied 86 combined points—on only 42 shots—in a single shootout.

    "We try to bring the best out of each other," Curry told reporters after that fireworks display.

    Come for the Russell return, stay for the latest round of Curry vs. Irving, and while you're there, don't forget to savor the strong support play. Draymond Green is always a must-watch, DeAndre Jordan and Willie Cauley-Stein are aerial acrobats, Caris LeVert is super shifty off the bounce, Spencer Dinwiddie can dominate as a scorer or passer⁠—any one could make this a game to remember.

Feb. 8: Los Angeles Lakers at Golden State Warriors

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    Ethan Miller/Getty Images

    For four consecutive seasons, the NBA came down to LeBron James vs. the Golden State Warriors. 

    LeBron James and Stephen Curry are two of the most devastating weapons the league has ever encountered. James is a 6'8", 250-pound point guard. There is no manual for containing for him. Curry has limitless shooting range, dizzying dribble moves and the ability to launch on the move without losing effectiveness (41.5 percent pull-up three-point shooting last season). He can warp defensive coverages like no one else.

    Together, they have taken home six of the last 11 MVP awards. James earned four of them, something only four other players have ever done. Curry took two, but one was the first (and still only) unanimous MVP ever handed out.

    These are two basketball magicians, and hoop heads should never miss their acts. All four of the Pacific Division rivals' encounters are worth watching, but this might be the best as it will be James' first visit to Chase Center.

    If you're feeling greedy and need more than LeBron vs. Curry, you also have Anthony Davis vs. Draymond Green, plus a handful of reunions. The Lakers made D'Angelo Russell the No. 2 pick in 2015. Quinn Cook and JaVale McGee both won rings with Golden State, which is also where DeMarcus Cousins spent last season.

                 

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.