Inside the schedule: Must-watch games in 2019-20

The coming season has storylines aplenty with some key games that every NBA fan will want to see

Sekou Smith

Sekou Smith NBA.com

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Aug 12, 2019 8:52 PM ET

The top two finishers in last season's Kia MVP race will meet again.

It’s only fitting that the wildest and busiest NBA offseason in history will be followed up by a regular season that offers more of the same.

Rookies, rivalries, redemption stories, return games and all the drama that comes along with that litany of storylines are on tap for the 2019-20 season.

And with Monday's release of the full '19-20 season schedule, we can all begin to plot our own course through what promises to be a wildly entertaining -- and unpredictable -- season.

For the first time in years there is no clear-cut, prohibitive favorite to win the Larry O’Brien championship trophy. Some have even proclaimed the “Super Team” era over.

The list of teams who fancy themselves true championship contenders is as long as it’s been in recent seasons, and perhaps ever, which is the real treat for everyone. With that in mind, here are just some of the must-watch dates we have circled on the NBA calendar (and further study will certainly provide more).

(Note: The games are listed in no particular order and each is followed by an explanation as to why it made the list):

 

Opening night fireworks

 
The basketball rivalry in L.A. is about to take flight.

Oct. 22
New Orleans Pelicans vs. Toronto Raptors (8 p.m. ET, TNT)

Los Angeles Lakers vs. LA Clippers (10:30 p.m. ET, TNT)

Why we’re tuning in: How could you do anything else on opening night? We get our first glimpse at No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson and the revamped Pelicans traveling north of the border on ring and banner night for Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and the reigning champion Raptors. Then we get to top it off with the first taste of the battle for L.A. between the Staples Center roomies expected to pace the Western Conference this season. The Clippers are technically the home team, but we’ll see if it feels like a Clippers or Lakers building that night. The best part is we don’t have to wait to see how LeBron James and Anthony Davis match up against Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

 

Kawhi goes north

 
Shaun Powell digs in on Kawhi Leonard's move to the LA Clippers.

Dec. 11
LA Clippers vs. Toronto Raptors (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Why we’re tuning in: What do you get the man who delivered it all in his one season in Toronto in his first trip back with his new crew? Knowing what we do of Raptors fans, it’ll be a raucous standing ovation as they pay their respects to Leonard before trying to take the Clippers apart (as Fred Van Vleet promised when asked what they’d do if Kawhi left in free agency). You don’t wait as long as the Raptors did for that championship parade and let Kawhi’s decision to go home spoil the moment. In the end, everyone got what they wanted out of that short-term fling. This night will provide the closure that will allow Raptors fans to move on.

 

Speaking of return trips ...

 
Charles Barkley thinks the West is wide open.

Nov. 27
Brooklyn Nets vs. Boston Celtics (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Los Angeles Lakers vs. New Orleans Pelicans (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Why we’re tuning in: Nobody does big-stage drama better than Kyrie Irving, whose first trip back to Boston against his old teammates without Kevin Durant in uniform will be a show-and-prove night for all involved. Irving is carrying the Nets on his shoulders until Durant returns. The Celtics' youngsters will be eager to show him that they’re better off with Kemba Walker in his place anyway. The fact that these are division rivals who could be battling for playoff positioning all season won’t even be a factor on this night. This is sure to be a good old fashioned grudge match.

On the same night Irving goes back to boos in Boston, Davis will face something similar in the Big Easy. Pelicans fans didn’t hide their disdain for Davis once they learned of his trade request last season. His departure for the Lakers, even with all the Pelicans got in return, won’t be enough to soften the mood upon his return to the city he called home for the first seven season of his career. The former Lakers shipped out to acquire Davis -- Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart -- will surely get up for this game as well.

Dec. 22
LA Clippers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (7 p.m. ET, NBA TV)

 
Thunder GM Sam Presti opted to put his team in rebuild mode for 2019-20.

Why we’re tuning in: George’s trade request to the Clippers, is still a tough pill for Thunder fans to swallow. It hastened Russell Westbrook’s departure and the franchise reboot that’s to come. But George will be greeted by Chris Paul, taking on one of his former teams as well, and a Thunder group that will use every slight, real and imagined, to fuel their fire this season.

Jan. 9
Houston Rockets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (9:30 p.m. ET, TNT)

 
Kenny Smith chimes in on the summer trade of Russell Westbrook to Houston.

Why we’re tuning in: This one could get emotional, for Westbrook and what will certainly be a sellout, standing-room-only crowd that fills the building for his return to his old stomping grounds. Things didn’t end the way anyone envisioned. Westbrook fancied himself a Thunder lifer and an adopted Oklahoman, only to see it all come apart with Leonard’s summer power play with the Clippers. That tribute video the Thunder cook up for Westbrook’s return should be epic.

Nov. 7
Boston Celtics vs. Charlotte Hornets (8 ET, p.m. TNT)

 
Kemba Walker moved from Charlotte to Boston over the summer.

Why we’re tuning in: Walker was the face of the franchise for years in Charlotte but once again, the free agent frenzy of 2019 showed that indeed nothing lasts forever. He’s sure to receive the hero’s welcome upon returning to the city for the first time in green and white. His replacement, former Celtics point guard Terry Rozier, probably has other plans for how he wants things to go. But it’ll be tough for anyone to spoil the moment for a player who was as beloved as Walker was by fans in the Queen City.

Nov. 15
Utah Jazz vs. Memphis Grizzlies (8 p.m. ET, ESPN)

 
Mike Conley has embraced a fresh start with the Jazz for the 2019-20 season.

Why we’re tuning in: Mike Conley’s tenure in Memphis helped define an era in a basketball-mad region of the country. Folks in the mid-South will be talking about the Grit-and-Grind Grizzlies for years to come and Conley is in line for one of those tear-jerker, team-made tribute videos. But he doesn’t need anyone’s pity, not with the Jazz team he’ll captain this season. They are primed for a breakout year with Conley and Donovan Mitchell leading the way in one of the league’s most complete backcourts. The Grizzlies, meanwhile, hope they have their next Conley-Marc Gasol duo in place with rookie point guard Ja Morant and second-year big man Jaren Jackson Jr.

 

Beasts of the East?

 
Charles Barkley thinks the East is there for the 76ers to take.

Oct. 23
Boston Celtics vs. Philadelphia 76ers (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Why we’re tuning in: The Celtics and Sixers were both at times last year the hot pick to be kings of the East, only to see the Raptors snatch the mantle in the playoffs. Now we get an early look at both teams, with tweaks, of course (Kemba in place of Kyrie in Boston; Al Horford as the grown up in the room in Philadelphia). Maybe both teams are better prepared to wear the crown as presently constituted … because they clearly weren’t ready last season.

 

MVP Night in Houston ... and the Bay

 
The 2018-19 NBA season was all about Giannis Antetokounmpo's rise.

Oct. 24
Milwaukee Bucks vs. Houston Rockets (8 p.m. ET, TNT)
LA Clippers vs. Golden State Warriors (10:30 p.m. ET, TNT)

Why we’re tuning in: The winners of the last five Kia MVP awards will suit up on this night. In Houston, reigning Kia MVP and Bucks dynamo Giannis Antetokounmpo will attempt to crash the debut of the Rockets’ superstar duo of James Harden (2018 MVP) and Westbrook (2017 MVP). Then we top things off with the Clippers visiting the Warriors for the long-awaited opening of the Chase Center in San Francisco. Two-time former Kia MVP winner Stephen Curry (2015 and 2016) will attempt to lead the patched-up former champs back to the top of the standings without fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson. We’ll get a full dose of D’Angelo Russell in his Warriors’ debut, though. And we’ll see if the Clippers, who won two games against the Warriors at Oracle Arena in the 2018 playoffs, can make themselves at home in the new spot.

 

No One Does Christmas Better

 
Will the schedule and luck break right for Houston in 2019-20?

Dec. 25
Boston Celtics vs. Toronto Raptors (Noon ET, ESPN)
Milwaukee Bucks vs. Philadelphia 76ers (2:30 p.m. ET, ABC) 
Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors (5 p.m. ET, ABC)
LA Clippers vs. Los Angeles Lakers (8 p.m. ET, ESPN/ABC)
New Orleans Pelicans vs. Denver Nuggets (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Why we’re tuning in: Five marquee matchups on one day, the biggest and arguably the best single day of showcase games on the schedule, gives us a little bit of everything.

Superstars, All-Stars, future stars and contenders from both sides of the conference divide. The Nuggets promise to be one of the most interesting teams to watch this season as we will all see if their No. 2 finish in the West last season was was a preview of more to come ... or something else. The Warriors and Rockets rarely disappoint. The same can be said for the Clippers and Lakers and the Celtics and Raptors in recent seasons. But the Bucks and Sixers might deliver the most intriguing matchup of the day with Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid both looking to settle any lingering questions about who runs the Eastern Conference.

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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