Breaking Down the Top 20 Games of the 2019-20 NBA Season
The NBA's schedule release day is less Christmas than Christmas Eve: it's a promise of what's to come, suggested by vague shapes and bright packaging. It will be another few months before fans can actually begin to unwrap the season itself, but for today, let's sit with what could be. We know which teams will play and when. These are the games we can't wait to see, and all the reasons why:
Oct. 22: Lakers at Clippers
Let’s dispense with the formalities. We’ve never seen LeBron James have the chance to work with a big like Anthony Davis in an actual NBA setting, much less another like DeMarcus Cousins. Seeing the first phase of their alignment should be instructive. Teams like the Rockets and Nuggets are already formidable. The Clippers will be a source of endless fascination, what with their two landmark additions and their health to consider. Yet all of this leaves the Lakers as the great variable, overhauled and unfulfilled. We have no way of knowing how these huge talents will fit with the strange roster that surrounds them until we see it in action—and the NBA won’t keep us waiting.
Oct. 23: Wizards at Mavericks
We haven’t seen Kristaps Porzingis play an NBA game in 552 days. Assuming that he’ll be ready to go for the start of the season, his career will continue as a member of a new franchise—thanks to his February trade from the Knicks—with a soft opening against the Wizards. What does an ACL tear do to a unicorn? How will Porzingis and Luka Dončić play off of one another? There’s a lot we have yet to learn about one of the most talented young stars in the league.
Oct. 28: Warriors at Pelicans
This isn’t the first big test for Zion Williamson (that will come against the defending champion Raptors in a marquee game on opening night), but there’s no seminar on professional basketball quite like playing against Draymond Green. The kind of athleticism that charges Williamson’s game is just overwhelming at the collegiate level. It’s impressive even by NBA standards, though it is unquestionably more familiar; players like Green have worked for years against players who are bigger and faster than them, which creates a very different competitive climate. Williamson may be able to beat defenders to a spot or overpower them when he gets there, but in the first weeks of his pro career he’ll see one of the most preemptive bigs in the league—a player who will challenge him in ways that could be entirely new to him. Let the games begin.
Nov. 6: Warriors at Rockets
Styles make fights, but failures make rematches. It would have been entertaining enough to see these two teams go another round given the talent involved, but what really sells the matchup is the way Houston flamed out in their final game of the West semifinals. With no Kevin Durant or DeMarcus Cousins, the Warriors ousted the Rockets on their own home floor—roasting an otherwise competent defense with collective effort. This is Houston’s first real chance at revenge, with new Warrior D’Angelo Russell standing in for the injured Klay Thompson and Russell Westbrook taking over for Chris Paul.
Nov. 18: Trail Blazers at Rockets
The last time Damian Lillard saw Russell Westbrook on an NBA court, it was to wave goodbye. Westbrook is notorious for holding and stoking grudges from years gone by. Lillard, too, has a long memory and a way of carrying every chip on his shoulder. There’s a little something extra to the way these two All-NBA guards approach one another—illustrated clearly by their recent playoff meeting—with the added benefit of knowing that they’ll likely be matched up directly for at least some of any game they share. An NBA game is always more complex than a game of one-on-one, but with Westbrook and Lillard, sometimes the rest falls away.
Nov. 27: Nets vs. Celtics
“We were dysfunctional,” Marcus Smart admitted of Boston’s dynamic last season, making literal what had already been made clear. The reasons why aren’t exclusive to any one person in the organization, but so many of the Celtics’ issues came back to Kyrie Irving. What Irving did and didn’t do, said and didn’t say—these became the defining elements of a team in turmoil. Replacing Irving with Kemba Walker is a franchise’s attempt to turn the page, but there’s no catharsis quite like lining up against the face of the team’s recent troubles.
Dec. 10: Nuggets at 76ers
Positional battles don’t come much meatier than Nikola Jokić and Joel Embiid. Each could fairly claim to be the best center in the NBA, a contest that has deepened with the modern reinvention of the position. It’s not enough to be a post scorer in today’s NBA. You have to be as savvy as Embiid, who has moves for days. You have to be as clever as Jokić, who reads the defense as well as anyone in the league. There’s some overlap in the skills that the two bigs bring to the table, but it’s their contrast in approach that spices up an already interesting premise.
Dec. 11: Clippers at Raptors
Kawhi Leonard is a genuine outlier: a rental superstar turned NBA champion who changed the history of a franchise in a single season. Even considering that he left Toronto at first opportunity, his legacy there isn’t terribly complex. Leonard is (and should be) revered for validating the Raptors on the grandest possible scale. On Dec. 11, he returns to those fans for the first time since the championship parade. It should be a renewed celebration, a possible one-man ring ceremony, and a chance for the Raps to show out against their former teammate.
Dec. 19: Lakers at Bucks
Between interconference scheduling, injuries, and planned rest, we don’t get all that many occasions to see LeBron and Giannis square off. This time around happens to be a great team display: a fascinating Laker offense against one of the most formidable defenses in the league. Milwaukee pulled off a dominant season last year in part by allowing opponents some room at the three-point line so they could better control the area around the basket. How players like James, Davis, and Cousins choose to navigate that give-and-take should make for great television. The regular season at its best is often nothing more than pitting smart, capable players against a puzzle tailored to their strengths. Milwaukee is just that.
Dec. 25: Celtics at Raptors
There are glitzier games on the board for the NBA’s Christmas Day spectacular, but this could quietly be a very important game for the Raptors. Toronto is in a state of flux; Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, and Fred VanVleet will all be free agents at the end of the season, meaning that the Raptors will need to be constantly evaluating what they have and what they could have. If the season doesn’t start well, it could make sense to move players like Gasol or Ibaka before starting a rebuild. If things go brilliantly in the opening months, then perhaps Toronto would entertain a different sort of trade to help their competitive standing. By late December, the Raps should have some idea of what kind of team they have without Kawhi Leonard, and a big showcase game against the Celtics could provide the punctuation.
Jan. 8: Heat at Pacers
The best basketball comes through friction, and both the Pacers and Heat have made friction a way of life. Both were among the better defenses in the league last season, though Indiana will have to rework its systems after turning over so much of its roster. Both dig in to value every possession, which creates meaning deep into the regular season. And crucially: both have the star power necessary to work their way out of the mud, in the speed of Victor Oladipo and the power of Jimmy Butler. It won’t be glamorous, but it should be fun.
Jan. 9: Rockets at Thunder
The reality of the modern NBA is that many superstars are simply waiting for their chance to leave. That was never really the case with Westbrook, who took criticism on his way up, worked as a lightning rod alongside Kevin Durant, and then extended his stay with the Thunder even after Durant left town. A franchise staked its organizational identity to Westbrook’s defiant spirit. It won OKC some games, brought another MVP, and deepened the bond between a member of the community and his adopted home. This is the kind of reunion that matters, and the kind that turns a regular season Thursday into something special. (Bonus points if Chris Paul is still a member of the Thunder by then, with plenty left to prove.)
Jan. 28: Clippers vs. Lakers
It’s tough to beat this pairing in terms of wattage and import. The twin L.A. teams have only so much as danced around the edges of a rivalry, but the current iterations of the Lakers and Clippers could have just the right chemical mix. There’s the fact that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George both effectively spurned the Lakers in their own way; the escalation of Davis and Cousins jumping into the mix at just the right time; the fact that only the Clippers made the playoffs last season; the pressure now on LeBron James to reestablish himself as the game’s best player, with Leonard among those who might come for the crown; and the right sort of personalities (Patrick Beverley, Jared Dudley, Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, Rajon Rondo) to catalyze the matchup.
Feb. 2: Nuggets vs. Trail Blazers
When two quality teams—driven by two of the game’s best players—go seven games in a playoff series, make time for any return engagement. Portland and Denver didn’t always play the cleanest brand of basketball when they went round-for-round back in May, but in every mistake is some bend of the contending learning curve. These are two high-level teams figuring out what it means to contend at the highest levels. At times they brought out the worst in each other, though it’s in that whole, messy affair that we see what challengers like these will someday become.
Feb. 9: Jazz at Rockets
Utah ran headfirst into Houston in two consecutive playoff runs, only to be completely outmatched in both cases. Enough has changed to be curious about a potential rematch. With Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanović around, Donovan Mitchell will no longer be solely responsible for breaking down the defense, making the perfect read, and finishing in traffic. That’s likely enough to give the Jazz some traction in this matchup, even as the addition of Russell Westbrook to the Rockets shifts the ground beneath their feet.
Feb. 20: Nets at 76ers
On the NBA’s first night back after the All-Star break, Brooklyn will have the chance to show out for a national television audience. This is technically a first-round playoff rematch, though it hardly feels like one; the two best Celtics, Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, have since joined the fray on each side. This stretch of the season—from February into April—is arguably the sleepiest portion of the NBA calendar. One game has a tendency to bleed into the next as the best teams bide their time before the playoffs. Yet Brooklyn seems like the sort of club that could be fighting for seeding position the whole way through as they figure out the quirks of a roster built around the absence of Kevin Durant. There’s a lot for Brooklyn to sort through, even at this late a date. What better point of comparison than one of the best teams in the East?
Mar. 5: Clippers at Rockets
If the Clippers are really going to win the West, they’ll first have to deal with its established powers. The Rockets are likely to be the best among them—revamped in their own way after adding another former MVP, but otherwise still the same tough cover and stifling defense they’ve been over the past few years. There’s only so much any team can prove in the regular season, but games like this one can tell us plenty about both teams while setting the stage for the sorts of playoff series that will matter most.
Mar. 26: Hawks at Kings
At its heart, this is a great showcase for two of the league’s best young point guards. You could do worse next season than simply watching De’Aaron Fox and Trae Young at every opportunity. Making time for their bouts against one another, then, is an easy call. You’ll get pace. You’ll get top-notch passing. You’ll find two players learning the game, quarter by quarter, improving before your very eyes. Enjoy the indie appeal of watching these two figure each other out before their careers really take off.
Mar. 31: Pelicans at Hawks
In one corner, a captivating group of young prospects slowly building their way toward Eastern Conference contention. In the other, a playoff team starter kit accelerated by the arrival of Zion Williamson. Some of the individual talents involved should be intriguing enough, but what makes a game like this one are the broader complexions of the two rosters. It’s not just a standout like Young, but the pressure he might get from Lonzo Ball or Jrue Holiday and the ways John Collins might offer him a way out of it. It’s not just Williamson, but the ways he’ll challenge Atlanta’s bigs and the speed and spacing around him that will let the Pelicans fly.
Apr. 7: Bucks at 76ers
The two best teams in the East are skilled and enormous, which gives their games against one another a slightly different texture from your typical NBA fare. Milwaukee wants to shoot threes, but what it really wants to do is have Giannis Antetokounmpo bludgeon the defense for easy scores. As a buttress against that possibility, Philadelphia has added Al Horford—one of the best defensive options for this particularly impossible task. The Sixers will counter with size across the board, starting with Ben Simmons bullying one of Milwaukee’s guards and continuing through Joel Embiid pushing around even a fellow seven-footer like Brook Lopez. This isn’t a battle of dinosaurs. It’s Pacific Rim.