Sam Smith picks his top 10 games of the 2018-19 season

Bulls open the season on October 18 against the 76ers

The Bulls are back...on national TV.

It's a start.

After not making the cut for the national TNT or ABC broadcasts in last season's personnel transition, the Bulls are part of the opening week TNT package with a Thursday road game to open the doubleheader against the Philadelphia 76ers.

That's the Bulls season opener, Oct. 18, though two days after the official NBA season opener, which is Tuesday with the Eastern favorites Boston and Philadelphia meeting on TNT. Following is the champion Golden State Warriors in their ring ceremony game hosting the resurgent Oklahoma City Thunder with Paul George and minus Carmelo Anthony.

ESPN begins its national broadcast schedule Wednesday Oct. 17 with MVP James Harden and Houston facing Anthony Davis (and Nikola Mirotic) and New Orleans. Then top draft picks DeAndre Ayton and the Suns play European sensation and rookie Luka Doncic and Dallas.

The NBA certainly leads all leagues in opening week matchups, and Friday it will be Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors against favored Boston. Saturday is LeBron James' home debut with the Lakers against the Rockets.

The NBA knows entertainment.

The Bulls' home opener is Saturday Oct. 20 against the Detroit Pistons.

The NBA earlier this week also announced its holiday matchups with the Bulls not scheduled for a Christmas Day game for the second consecutive season. The five games will be highlighted by James and the Lakers playing the Warriors.

The Bulls are scheduled on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Jan. 21, at Cleveland.

So the Bulls, at least, are starting to break back into the national consciousness. And while most summer predictions have the Bulls finishing toward the bottom of the standings, those usually lag behind the reality with the Bulls promising, at the very least, an intriguing season.

Their entire perimeter with Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and newly signed Jabari Parker figure to open the season as starters. None were starters to open last season. So, there's plenty of experiments to begin with this new chemistry set. The hope is the combination is right because we all know the wrong mixture can be combustible. Though there likely will be sparks.

Plus, the Bulls feature potentially one of the top rookies in Wendell Carter Jr. and a quickly developing Lauri Markkanen entering his sophomore year after rookie first team recognition. The leap from 27 wins to the playoffs is a near record high jump. But the Bulls last season with injuries, rehabilitation, minutes restrictions and draft concerns were underachievers, even if they won six more games than the preseason projections. So a substantial jump is conceivable if the pieces begin to form a picture instead of a jumble.

Here's a look at the top 10 Bulls games of the 2018-19 season.

1. March 12. Los Angeles Lakers at Bulls

Give up. LeBron is the story of the NBA. Sure, the Golden State Warriors are the title favorites and maybe the Boston Celtics can pull a surprise. But there's going to be no bigger story this season in the NBA than LeBron in LaLa Land. And if you saw the movie, he may be dancing on closed freeways if he wants to, as well. Not only has LeBron made a commitment to the Lakers for four years, but he's already baited President Donald Trump into more ill-advised Twitter comments and done more for education than most school districts. And the hasn't even met LaVar Ball yet. The Lakers' roster is going to be TV's best reality show with LeBron taking over the ball and thus basically benching Ball. Then there's Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley, JaVale McGee and some pretty good young players, like Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma. Hey, Luol Deng's still there! This team may not be great, but it is going to be special.

2. October 29. Golden State Warriors

It's a rare early season visit for the NBA's fifth dynasty. There was the Celtics, the Lakers, the Bulls, the Spurs and now the Warriors, who could add four or five more titles to their three-time title winners. Their top players all are in their late 20s to 30, basically their primes. Pretty much any other team adds DeMarcus Cousins and they're doomed. But he'll be great with the Warriors because of a strong and accomplished coach and players better and more accomplished than he is. So Cousins can defend and rebound, which he did with the Olympic team in a similar scenario. They should roll through the playoffs. Then he'll become a free agent and ruin the team that gives him four years. Cousins likely won't be ready to play from last season's Achilles injury when the Bulls see the Warriors in October. Though he could be ready when the Bulls are in Oakland Jan. 11 in the second of a five-game Western Conference trip that includes a stop with the Lakers. The Bulls on that trip will be hoping to improve on when they lost to the Warriors by 49 last November in Oakland.

3. October 18. Philadelphia 76ers

It's the season opener, though on the road. They'll show Vegas and that 27-win over/under! Plus, the Bulls are back on TNT national after a season's absence and against one of the expected top three contenders in the Eastern Conference. The 76ers suffered some veteran losses in former Bulls Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova. So they lose some valuable shooting amidst rising expectations for the young team that's expected to break through. The 76ers were considered contenders for LeBron and Paul George and came up empty in free agency except for a salary dump that got them Wilson Chandler. So can Markelle Fultz really play? The 76ers perhaps caught some teams by surprise last season amidst lowered expectations. No more. They carry the banner of the Process, which gets its first serious test this season.

4. December 13. Orlando Magic

This hasn't really been an important game since 1995 when it was Penny and Shaq vs MJ and Rodman. But it's the Bulls first regular season game in Mexico for the NBA's annual Mexico City games. For competition purposes, the Magic is one of the Bulls-like rebuilding teams with a chance to surprise and make the playoffs. It's a good rookie face-off with Mo Bamba and Wendell Carter Jr. in addition to rumors before the draft about which big man the Bulls really preferred. The Magic also selected just ahead of the Bulls in the 2017 draft and picked Jonathan Isaac, who was injured last season and now is healthy. The Bulls were feted for the Lauri Markkanen selection at No. 7, and Isaac is aiming to show the Magic wasn't mistaken. It's a matchup of two of the top young frontcourts in the conference. The Magic also is in the United Center just over a week later on Dec. 21.

5. October 20. Detroit Pistons

It's the home opener and one of the big mysteries will be who is introduced last. Promising Markkanen? Chicago's Jabari Parker? Big contract dunker Zach LaVine? Point man Kris Dunn? We assume Robin Lopez still starts. Which would be the great compromise. And at center, from Disneyworld....The Pistons are a target because they generally are expected to occupy the last seat in the Eastern Conference musical playoff chairs. The Pistons barely missed last season, but with LeBron gone and the Cavs expected to fall out, the Pistons move up. The East sort-of-elite eight looks like: Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto, Indiana, Milwaukee, Washington, Miami, Detroit. The Pistons get a new, good coach in Dwane Casey and Blake Griffin for the season. The East is better than it gets credit for. The Celtics, 76ers and Raptors should be three of the top five or six teams in the NBA. The Heat doesn't seem scary, but they get Dion Waiters back and Hassan Whiteside said he's back on the right side. They have continuity and toughness. They won't be easy to knock out, either. It's probably going to take 44 wins to get in. Do the Bulls have 17 more in them?

6. December 26. Minnesota Timberwolves

It's a late Christmas present since the Bulls are off the big Christmas Day schedule again. It's Jimmy Butler's second return, last season's game arguably the best of the season for the Bulls as LaVine outplayed Butler down the stretch for the Bulls win and the best signs all season of what LaVine could become. But will Jimmy still be there? The former Bull rejected a $100 million extension, hasn't always played nice with youngsters Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns and seemed to indicate he might leave as a free agent after next season. If the Timberwolves get off slowly, would they look to trade Butler to get something rather than possibly losing him for nothing? If the Lakers are the reality show, they could be the soap opera. They've got a lot of talent, and fellow former Bull Derrick Rose returns after being one of their best in the playoffs. They were third in the West before Butler was hurt last season and have the talent to be top four. But do that have the chemistry as Rose returns on another one-year deal with Butler seemingly one foot out the door? The Bulls are in Minneapolis Nov. 24 in one of the most overlooked of weekends with holiday shopping beginning right after Thanksgiving. Jimmy surely will still be with them then. Right?

7. Nov. 1. Houston Rockets

It's the MVP with James Harden, but a team many believe took a bit of a step back losing defenders Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute and adding Carmelo Anthony for the subtraction by addition. More so for the Bulls, it's the first pivotal early season marker with the end of a four-game home stand, but a tough one with the Warriors, Nuggets, Pacers and Rockets. The Bulls have a reasonably tranquil start with only the 76ers among their first five opponents having made the playoffs last season. Then the tough home stand. This Bulls team will want to build momentum early, which won't be easy with none of the perimeter players being starters from a year ago.

8. November 21. Phoenix Suns

It's not going to be a Finals preview, though perhaps a Rookie of the Year preview month. Those awards often are settled early as the Bulls see the consensus No. 1 pick in DeAndre Ayton in the Suns game. That comes after a pair of games earlier in the month with the Mavericks and draft mystery star Luka Doncic, who sat out Summer League after playing in Europe. Ayton and Doncic are regarded as the favorers for Rookie of the Year. Carter likely will come off the bench for the Bulls, but he should play a lot and could have a closing kick in the race, especially if Lopez is traded in his final contract season with the Bulls. Carter's teammate Marvin Bagley is in the United Center Dec. 10.

9. December 7. Boston Celtics

With arguably their two top players in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back this season from injuries, this is supposed to be the Celtics' time. The Bulls are in Boston Nov. 14, but this is the first look at home in probably the toughest back to back of the season. The next night in the United Center it's the Oklahoma City Thunder with Paul George in for the duration, which was a big surprise of the offseason and certainly to Lakers fans, also. Are they the biggest Western Conference threat to the Warriors? No way Chris Paul stays healthy through the playoffs, right? Yes, Russell Westbrook is tough to play with. But they made a nice pickup of Atlanta's Dennis Schroder and defender Anthony Roberson is back from injury. And Nerlens Noel for whatever he adds. It's also a puzzle mix again, but they could pass the Rockets. They'll be difficult the night after the Bulls see the Celtics. Those opponents could be a Finals preview.

10. April 10. Philadelphia 76ers

It's the final regular season game. Will the Bulls need it to make the playoffs? It's conceivable. It's also perhaps a Bulls run to be a spoiler as the Bulls close the season with four of their last six games against Eastern contenders Toronto, Philadelphia and Washington, the latter who could be a surprise with John Wall healthy and adding Dwight Howard. Who says, now he's really serious, really. There are a pair of Knicks games sprinkled in that stretch, but two of the last three are against the 76ers. Philadelphia could have clinched something by then. So maybe the Bulls could win out if the playoffs are at stake. It could be an interesting last few weeks. It should be an interesting season.

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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