(Photo courtesy of USA Today)
I've always said that August is the hardest month to be an NBA fan. The draft has come and went. The shock of July free agency signings has tapered. Summer League seems like it was forever ago. August is just kind of meh. However, the NBA does give us the one scrap of information the fans have all been pining for this late in the summer....the NBA schedule.
The NBA plays a grand total of 1,230 regular season games from October to April. That's a lot of television to sift through. Thankfully for the third year in a row, I've narrowed it down to the essentials. For the die-hards staying up late to watch west coast games to the casual NBA fan, this is my Top Ten Must-See Games of the 2018-19 NBA Season.
10. Los Angeles Lakers at Portland Trail Blazers, October 19th, 2018 (TNT) - Back in 1996, Shaquille O'Neal (in the prime of his career) left a championship contender down in central Florida to join an unproven Lakers squad made up of young talent and serviceable veterans. There were no guarantees, however, it was almost a given that Shaq was going to win titles as soon as the dust settled and MJ finally left the NBA for good. Four seasons later, armed with the Bulls dynasty's former coach, a future hall of fame shooting guard plus a largely deluded league (trying desperately to stay relevant after a nasty 1999 lockout), Shaq finally won his elusive title, 7 years into his career. The Summer of 2018 saw a similar situation unfold with the greatest player of his era (possibly of all time) deciding to take his talents out west. The Lakers are 2 seasons removed from Kobe's last game but haven't seen the playoffs in 5 full years. Is this roster of young talent (Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart) enough to even make the NBA playoffs? Even after having one of the greatest NBA seasons a player has ever had (at age 33), how much does LeBron have left in the tank? Does he have time for Magic Johnson to build another team for one more run at an NBA championship....in the toughest, most stacked conference in the NBA nonetheless? Time is not on the King's side and he doesn't have 7 years to find out. Regardless, it's sure going to be fun to watch on October 19th when he dons the purple and gold for the first game of what could very well be his final act.
9. Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics, December 25th, 2018 (ABC) - Last season was definitely an interesting one for Philadelphia 76ers fans. Joel Embiid stayed healthy, Ben Simmons won Rookie of the Year, Robert Covington got paid, JJ Reddick made a bunch of threes and their #1 pick mysteriously was on the injured list for most of the season. However, like many young successful teams of the past, the 76ers hit a roadblock with the new look Boston Celtics in the conference semis. The Celtics were able to put away the 76ers fairly easily (5 games) at half strength. This season Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving will return from injury and join a team with a whole lot more experience under their belt. With LeBron out west now, Boston is almost a shoe-in to win the Eastern Conference and besides maybe Toronto, Philly is the only other team built to challenge this squad. Will the injured Zhaire Smith end up playing this season? Will Markelle Fultz turn out to be the third star on this team? Only time will tell. This is a classic Atlantic division rivalry that's sure to stick. These two Eastern Conference titans clash for the 2nd time this season on Christmas Day.
8. Philadelphia 76ers at Utah Jazz, December 27th, 2018 (TNT) - A couple of weeks before Gordon Hayward ditched Utah, signed with Boston and eventually destroyed his leg on national television, the Jazz traded for a 20-year shooting guard out of Louisville on draft night by the name of Donovan Mitchell. There was very little talk regarding this prospect but Mitchell turned out to be the steal of the draft. After starting 71 games Donovan Mitchell ended the season averaging slightly over 20 ppg and also led the Utah Jazz into the playoffs (in a year that was looking like a bleak rebuild). While breaking records held by both Karl Malone and Blake Griffin during the regular season, Mitchell went on to become a Slam Dunk Champion (as a fill-in) along with securing an NBA All-Rookie First Team selection. Mitchell was also the runner-up to Rookie of the Year winner, Ben Simmons. Mitchell felt pretty salty about not winning the ROTY and you can bet he's going to bring it when Philly shows up 2 days after Christmas.
7. Houston Rockets at Los Angeles Lakers, October 20th, 2018 (ESPN) - The Houston Rockets were built to beat the Warriors. In a season that ended with Houston grabbing the best record in the NBA, being up 3-2 on a championship team and James Harden eventually being named the MVP, you'd think these guys would be the favorite to win it all this year right? Wrong. Because of Chris Paul's bi-annual body break down at the worst possible time last year, departing key role players and of course CP3's ridiculous final large contract, Houston is trapped in basketball purgatory. Whiffing on LeBron James and Clint Capela's contract standoff were the final nails in the coffin. With now 3 max deals and Chris Paul's age/injury history I'm not sure there's much left for this group to accomplish. Even with the ghost of Carmelo Anthony signing with this team, will it matter? Also, the West got better in the blink of an eye. LeBron James to Lakers instantly makes them a playoff contender and I wouldn't count LeBron out of any series these days. The Rockets/Lakers game on 10/20 is obviously very early but a good measuring stick to see where these two powerhouses may fall.
6. Oklahoma City Thunder at Houston Rockets, December 25th, 2018 (ABC) – The Christmas Day games are always exciting. Regardless if they're just to show off some flashy young players to the general public or to preview the NBA Finals in June, they're must-see TV. OKC retaining Paul George may have been their greatest accomplishment as a franchise (besides making it to the NBA Finals). I'm not sure there's much more to say here. The Thunder will likely not progress much further than they did last season but they sure do like to make splashy moves....so who knows? The Rockets/Thunder have a budding rivalry and it'll be fun to watch them as the 2nd game on Christmas.
5. Toronto Raptors at San Antonio Spurs, January 3rd, 2019 (TNT) – After a bizarre and nasty divorce with the San Antonio Spurs this past season, Kawhi Leonard was traded in the prime of his career to an Eastern Conference contender who is in the midst of an identity crisis. The Toronto Raptors ended the last season with the #1 record in the Eastern Conference. However, year after year this team was unable to withstand the hurricane that was LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Trading away their franchise player Demar DeRozan for what could be a one-year rental may seem ridiculous now (and possibly more so later) but with a Celtics team that will only better, why not take a shot on a top-5 talent like Leonard? On the other side of this divorce, DeRozan felt disrespected by this move. He lived and breathed Toronto and him getting traded made it look like everything was his fault. It wasn't. LeBron's just a generational talent who has destroyed eastern conference hopes for a decade (Chicago Bulls anyone?). Nevertheless, the Spurs fanbase is going to let their former franchise star hear it when his name is announced on January 3rd and DeMar DeRozan is going to play like a man possessed. It's going to be a bloodbath.
4. Golden State Warriors at Houston Rockets, November 15th, 2018 (TNT) – The what-ifs will ring louder and louder as every season goes by if the Rockets are unable to usurp the Warriors during this golden era of the 3 point shot. Last year's series-changing injury/collapse is something no one could have predicted. The Rockets window is very likely closed while the Golden State Warriors were once again able to pull off another crazy free agency signing this summer with DeMarcus Cousins. Will Boogie play this year? Will he finally see the playoffs? If he does, it's likely curtains for the rest of the league. This season's GSW starting lineup is likely the greatest ever assembled (not named the Dream Team of course). While Cousins will not play in this contest on Nov 15th, it'll be interesting to see how the Rockets respond to their heartbreaking series back in May.
3. Los Angeles Lakers at Boston Celtics, February 7th, 2019 (TNT) – Is the rivalry of all rivalries back? The NBA sure hopes so. LeBron James signing with L.A. instantly made the Lakers relevant again. On the east coast, the Celtics are likely now the top of the food chain. Boston was inches away from overachieving their way to the NBA finals without their two star players. That in itself is impressive. Adding the two stars back into the fold with likely the best coach in the NBA will make them a contender for the foreseeable future. If LeBron can wrangle his squad into a contender, this could be must-see TV for the next half-decade. The Lakers and Celtics are bound by history and history is bound to repeat itself.
2. Los Angeles Lakers at Warriors, December 25th, 2018 (ABC/ESPN) – In what will be one of four meetings this season the Lakers will visit their state rival Golden State Warriors on Christmas Day. While LeBron left the Cavs high and dry, his rivalry with the best team ever continues out west. This has all the potential to be a complete beat down in the Warriors favor. However, the Lakers were able to hang with the Dubs during all four losses last season. They lost the four contests by an average of only 6 points. The young talent in L.A. will likely be elevated with another year of experience and of course adding the greatest player in the league is always a good thing. Will LeBron be able to drag this team to a win in what will likely be the most watched game of the season? We'll see....right after presents are opened. LeBron vs. Durant: Part (Too Many to Count) begins on Christmas.
1. Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics, January 26th, 2019 (ABC) – An NBA Finals preview? Most likely. Actually, yes. This is an NBA Finals preview. There's zero doubt (barring injuries of course). The GSW will bring the greatest team ever assembled to TD Garden on January 26th. That's a Saturday people! Mark it down on the calendar. If there's any team that's truly going to challenge the Warriors this season, it's the Boston Celtics. Jason Tatum is a star in the making. Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving will be back. Al Horford will continue to be the all-star glue guy and Jaylen Brown is no slouch. However, Golden State has a starting lineup of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and now BOOGIE COUSINS. This is the match up of all matchups this season and it could get chippy. Actually, I'm counting on it. This is a rivalry in the making and the #1 Must-See Game of the 2018-19 season.