Two days after dropping the matchups for some of its marquee dates, the NBA released the schedule for the 2018-19 season in its entirety. As part of the league’s continuing effort to reduce the amount of back-to-back games, the upcoming season will feature no instances when one team plays four games in a five-night span, and fewer back-to-backs than ever before. But we really only care about the drama. Here are some of the matchups ahead (minus most of the games revealed on Thursday) that we’re most looking forward to:
The LeBron World Tour
Lakers at Cavaliers, November 21: The most interesting part about this game won’t be the result. Barring an outburst from Minnesota Kevin Love, the Lakers are going to win LeBron James’s first matchup against his former team. But don’t come for the basketball; do it for the pregame (or halftime?) honorary montage and the crowd’s reception to LeBron’s homecoming. I’m going to go ahead and guess there will be more cheers than there were when he made his return following the Decision, but with Cleveland, you never know.
Lakers at Celtics, February 7: The rivalry is back! … Sort of. These teams won’t be facing each other in the NBA Finals just yet, but the atmosphere around this matchup will be electric once again. The story lines are too good to ignore. There’s LeBron against the Celtics, the team he’s faced the most on his way to the Finals. There’s the clash of the young guys: Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Kyle Kuzma facing off against Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. And then there’s Kyrie Irving against LeBron, a reunion that already had plenty of bite before it became part of the sport’s biggest rivalry.
Lakers at Warriors, December 25: This is the only time I will every say this: Thank the basketball gods for divisions. Because the Lakers and Warriors are both situated in the Pacific Division, they are going to play each other four different times in the regular season. In addition to the much-anticipated JaVale McGee revenge game, we’ll get LeBron against the Warriors, the matchup that has defined the league the past four years. Putting LeBron on the other marquee franchise in the state of California adds another great wrinkle to this rivalry.
Lakers at Rockets, December 13: The Lakers’ home opener on October 20 will bring some of LeBron’s closest friends—Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony—to Staples Center (let’s call it the banana split), but LeBron’s visit to H-Town will happen soon after that. Remember, LeBron could have decided to join James Harden and Co. in Houston in free agency (though the mechanics to do so and still receive a max deal would’ve been tricky). Instead, he opted for Los Angeles. But to get anywhere close to dethroning the Warriors, he’ll likely have to go through the Rockets, too. This could be a preview of a second-round playoff series.
The Revenge-Game Circuit
Raptors at Spurs, January 3: Kawhi Leonard said his goodbyes to San Antonio on Thursday in a brief letter—typed in (Lakers?) purple font—but he won’t be gone for long. If Leonard doesn’t push his way out of Toronto before the new year, he will play his first game in San Antonio for the visiting side on January 3. The tribute video industry has run amok in the NBA in recent years, but there will be actual intrigue around whether or not Leonard gets one after nearly tearing down two decades of Gregg Popovich’s hard work. DeMar DeRozan, meanwhile, is assured a montage back in the Scotiabank Arena (and some longing looks from best bud Kyle Lowry), but it won’t come until February 22. Former Raptors head coach Dwane Casey will make his return to Toronto with the Pistons on November 14.
Pelicans at Warriors, January 16: The last time DeMarcus Cousins prepared to face off against a former team, he showed up to the media scrum with “Loyalty” printed on his hat and hoodie, and couldn’t suppress a knowing smile as he tried to downplay the matchup. His first game against the Pelicans after a messy parting of ways over the summer should be just as … interesting. By all accounts, he and Anthony Davis are still on good terms, but that hasn’t stopped Cousins from getting more physical than usual before. The Warriors host the Pelicans on Halloween, but it’s unlikely that Cousins will be back from his ruptured Achilles by then. And if Cousins misses this second meeting in January, he’ll get one last shot against the Pels in New Orleans, home of his beloved ZatarainsTM, on April 9, the second-to-last day of the regular season.
Rockets at Thunder, November 8: There’s not much to avenge here considering Carmelo Anthony got all of the money he was owed and only has his own poor performance to blame for his OKC exit. But there’s an outside chance that Houston is able to revive Melo’s career in the same way it did for Eric Gordon after an injury-marred stint with New Orleans. If so, the contrast between Anthony then and now will never be more stark than when he’s facing off against his former team in what could be an early playoff preview.
Clippers at Mavericks, December 2: DeAndre Jordan’s departure from the Clippers seemed inevitable in the weeks leading up to last season’s trade deadline as the number of daily trade rumors involving the center began to match his prodigious rebounding totals. Even though Jordan often faded into the background of the Lob City era, he was still an integral player on the best team in franchise history. The Clippers are plotting more for the season after this upcoming one, which will take some of the spice out of this first matchup. But DJ faces his former team in Los Angeles 18 days later, and strange things tend to happen when a player familiar with the hallway system of Staples Center comes back to face the Clippers. (Blake Griffin will also get his first shot at the Clippers in L.A. on January 12, almost a year from when the once-Clipper For Life was traded to Detroit.)
Soon-to-be Free Agent Thirst Watch
Raptors at Lakers, November 4: Expect the Los Angeles crowd to be extra extra when Kawhi returns to his hometown. They aren’t settling for another letdown after another Cali native, Paul George, re-signed with the Thunder this summer instead of becoming a Laker as expected. Leonard and LeBron against each other will be some of the best basketball of the season, but keep the TV on after the final buzzer to see how the two possible future teammates interact. (Don’t forget LeBron whispering to Lonzo Ball last season after Cleveland faced the Lakers.) It’s a must-watch for that alone, but also because it’ll represent one of the NBA’s best pastimes, LeBron whupping the Raptors.
Warriors at Knicks, October 26: New York’s hope to land Durant next summer is less of a pipe dream than Washington’s “recruitment” for KD to come home in 2016. Besides New York being a free-agency destination, Durant’s manager and business partner, Rich Kleiman, is very close with the organization, even tweeting in February “Imma run the Knicks one day.” Kleiman isn’t KD’s only connection: GM Scott Perry was part of the SuperSonics front office that drafted him second overall in 2007. So here’s what’s worth watching: Will the Knicks be recruiting Durant, or will Durant be working his magic, too?
Celtics at Knicks, October 20: Linking Kyrie to the Knicks is legitimate, too. New York was reportedly on the list of preferred destinations that he gave the Cavs when asking for a trade. The idea of Irving and Durant wanting to team up is also realistic. The two have a mutual respect for each other’s game; Irving said in June that KD was the best player on the Warriors, and Durant gushed over Irving’s handles a year prior, calling his skills superior to Allen Iverson’s. Boston will face a tough decision next summer when deciding whether or not to go all in for Irving, and that’s if he wants to stay. Maybe after playing a Kristaps Porzingis–less Knicks, it’ll be an easier decision to make.
Mavericks at Hawks, October 24: In 1998, North Carolina teammates Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter were taken with the fourth and fifth overall picks in the NBA draft, by the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors, respectively, and then subsequently traded for each other. However, because they were heading into a lockout year, their fateful first meeting as NBA rivals would be delayed an entire season. We won’t have to wait as long to catch a glimpse of Dallas’s and Atlanta’s future. Luka Doncic, the EuroLeague MVP, versus Trae Young, the most prolific scorer in college basketball. The fight to decide which team was right. A game that wouldn’t have met NBA TV’s Mendoza line of broadcastability last season becomes must-see TV in 2018.
Kings at Suns, December 4: Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III were the top two picks of 2018, and both possess the NBA-ready skill sets to put up numbers immediately. However, Ayton has the clearer launch pad; only a coasting, soon-to-be 36-year-old Tyson Chandler stands in his way. Bagley, conversely, is sharing a bunk bed with about five other young, hungry bigs who more or less replicate his talents. Here’s hoping we get the high-usage heavyweight bout we deserve. I have my doubts, though.
Grizzlies at Suns, November 4: The Suns may have made up their minds about Ayton early, but by the end of the pre-draft process, the divide between him and Jaren Jackson Jr. had narrowed considerably. In some corners of the wonky NBA draft sphere, Jackson was far and away considered the better NBA prospect. Ayton was the classic ideal of a can’t-miss prospect; Jackson was the 3-and-D center sent from the future. It’ll take years to find out whether the Suns should have gone with the road less traveled, but this is where the study of contrasts will begin.
Mavericks at Nuggets, December 18: As of Wednesday, we have our first passive-aggressive social media rookie feud of 2018! Living in the future rules! Nuggets draftee Michael Porter Jr. liked a random Instagram comment that asserted Doncic as “the most overrated person I’ve seen in my life.” Doncic, in kind, liked a tweet in response that noted that a player who didn’t play five college games has no right to be calling anyone overrated. Odds are likely that Doncic will win this first round; the Nuggets have no reason to rush MPJ back on the court after two back surgeries, so the most tension we’ll get from the game will likely be seen on Porter’s face during all of the camera cuts to the sideline.