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20 must-watch NBA regular season games

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The NBA season is a marathon, one that runs from mid-October through mid-April with 1,230 games in between. All that before the drama of the playoffs start.

Throughout that grind, there are highlights. Games that must be watched, ones where you block out the night and head to the local bar, or just get a bag of old-school nacho cheese Doritos and sit on the couch for a good show. Those kick off opening night and run through the entire season.

Here are 20 must-watch games from this NBA season, ones that could give us a real glimpse of what will come in the postseason.

• The Battle for the East starts early on opening night, Oct. 16: Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics: While Toronto will have its say this season (and maybe the Bucks down the line), this renewed rivalry will be the battle for superiority in the East for years to come, and it’s a perfect way to kick off the season. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward are back, taking on Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and company get their rings while Russell Westbrook and Paul George fume, Oct. 16, Oklahoma City Thunder at Golden State Warriors: For the second year in a row the Warriors will hoist a banner up to the rafters in Oracle Arena. Warriors GM Bob Myers said last season was the toughest one for the Warriors because they went from a honeymoon with Durant to a marriage. This season is going to be even harder, and it starts with a tough test.

• The debut of Deandre Ayton and Luka Doncic, Oct. 17: Dallas Mavericks at Phoenix Suns: This game is all about the rookies (sorry Dirk). The No. 1 overall pick was a man-child at Summer League and showed the potential to be a beast when paired with players who know how to get him the rock. His first game is against DeAndre Jordan, as athletic a big man as the league has, providing a great test. Doncic is the most decorated player to enter the NBA out of Europe, he’s going to be good, but just how good is the question. We start to see that on the second night of the season.

LeBron James’ home debut, Oct. 20, Houston Rockets at Los Angeles Lakers: LeBron wears the purple and gold for the first time at Staples Center, and he has to go up against the powerhouse of James Harden, Chris Paul, (and I guess Carmelo Anthony) and the Rockets. Both of these teams will be feeling out new lineups and rotations, but the Lakers’ certainly have more of that to do.

• The Raptors make their case for the East, Oct. 30, Philadelphia 76ers at Toronto Raptors: The NBA schedule makers are leaning heavily on the Boston vs. Philly rivalry and matchup as if that’s the battle for supremacy in the East, but Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors will have something to say about that. Are the Raptors the team best suited to beat the Celtics in the East? They will start to make their case the day before Halloween.

• Just how much better can Mike Budenholzer make Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, Nov. 1, Milwaukee Bucks at Boston Celtics: With Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back and added to a core that made the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics are the team to beat in the East. The Bucks have felt like a sleeping giant for years, can new coach Mike Budenholzer awaken the beast? (Plus, any chance you get to watch the Greek Freak you should take.)

• Kawhi Leonard comes to Los Angeles and the Lakers fans try to recruit him, Nov. 4, Toronto Raptors at Los Angeles Lakers. Sources around the league still see Kawhi Leonard as a rental in Toronto, most expect he will come to Los Angeles next summer as a free agent. Lakers management (which signed veterans to one-year contracts) and Lakers fans are banking on it, expect a recruitment effort from the L.A. faithful.

• Western Conference Finals rematch time, Nov. 15, Golden State Warriors at Houston Rockets: Last season these were the two best teams in the NBA and the Rockets had a real shot to knock off the Warriors before the Chris Paul injury. They could be the two best teams again (with all due respect to Boston). Every meeting between these teams will be must-watch, this is the first one.

• LeBron James returns to Cleveland, Nov. 21, Los Angeles Lakers at Cleveland Cavaliers: While there may be a smattering of boos, expect LeBron to get a warm welcome from the Cavaliers faithful — he brought them a title as promised. Also, expect LeBron to be on the better team but the Cavs to put up a fight.

• A battle of Western powers to watch after opening presents, Christmas Day, Dec. 25, Oklahoma City Thunder at Houston Rockets: We know the Rockets are good. As good as last season? That’s up for debate (they probably are not), but very good. The Thunder with Russell Westbrook, Paul George and a strong defense are one of the teams it feels you can trust to make the playoffs in the West. Can the Rockets’ defense slow Westbrook on Christmas? Does it matter because Houston’s offense is just that good?

• The NBA’s marquee still features LeBron vs. Curry, Christmas Day, Dec. 25, Los Angeles Lakers at Golden State Warriors. The NBA’s marquee Christmas game is traditionally a rematch of the previous Finals, and that’s essentially what this is — LeBron was the Cavaliers, now he is the Lakers. The talent level and fit of the players around him is in question, just like before. But he always gets up for the big tests, and the Warriors are always up for LeBron.

• You should watch more Donovan Mitchell and Utah this season, Christmas Day, Dec. 25, Portland Trail Blazers at Utah Jazz: These are two teams that are fun to watch, play smart basketball, and do not get enough national attention or eyeballs. This is a great way to close out the Christmas slate, and by the way, a fantastic offense vs. defense chess match when the Blazers have the ball.

• Lakers fans tell Paul George what they think of his choice, Jan. 2, 2019, Oklahoma City Thunder at Los Angeles Lakers: A year ago everyone thought Paul George was a rental in OKC and would come to the Lakers next summer. Except, he ended up loving it where he was and this summer signed to stay with the Thunder. Lakers fans will let him know they were not fond of that decision.

• Kawhi Leonard returns to San Antonio, Jan. 3 2019, San Antonio Spurs at Toronto Raptors: Leonard is not going to get a warm reception from the Spurs faithful, and not because he once told me the tacos in San Diego (where he went to college) were better than the ones in San Antonio. He is the first big name to walk away from the Spurs, and he will hear about it. As a side note, the Raptors did not get nearly as much national television exposure as they expected.

Tony Parker returns to San Antonio, Jan. 14, 2019, Charlotte Hornets at San Antonio Spurs: While there are a few things that will look strange this season (LeBron in Laker gear, Dwight Howard with Washington across his chest), nothing will be as odd as Tony Parker in Hornets teal. Parker will be greeted with a hero’s welcome when he returns to Charlotte.

• College football is over and the NBA takes over Saturday nights, Jan. 19, 2019, Los Angeles Lakers at Houston Rockets. When the NBA’s television package was renewed, there was a scramble over the Saturday night games after college football ended (FOX and others wanted in), but ABC’s bid took over that slot. They open with a big draw of LeBron and the Lakers against Harden and the Rockets.

• Martin Luther King Jr. Day highlight game, Jan. 21, 2019, Golden State Warriors at Los Angeles Lakers: By this point the Warriors may well have DeMarcus Cousins back in the rotation, because opponents didn’t have enough to worry about. For years, the Warriors got up to crush the Clippers (in the CP3/Griffin era), with LeBron in town will they bring that focus to the other L.A. team?

Blake Griffin returns to play the Clippers for the first time, Feb. 2, 2019, Detroit Pistons at Los Angeles Clippers: Los Angeles traded away the one top draft pick the franchise has ever nailed at the trade deadline last February, but he never returned in his new Pistons uniform to take on his old team. That happens this February, although the Clippers don’t look anything like the team he led for many years.

• Fun NBA showdown to draw an audience before the Super Bowl kicks off, Feb. 3, 2019, Oklahoma City Thunder at Boston Celtics. The Super Bowl will own this day, but the NBA will try to grab a little of the spotlight with a fun showdown beforehand on ABC with Russell Westbrook and the Thunder attacking the stout defense of the Boston Celtics.

DeMar DeRozan returns to Toronto, Feb. 22, 2019, San Antonio Spurs at Toronto Raptors: Unlike Leonard’s return to San Antonio, DeRozan will get a hero’s welcome from the Toronto faithful. The Spurs won 47 games and should be better with DeRozan playing this season, but the Raptors won 59 last season and may be better as well.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens: ‘We’ve got eight, nine, maybe 10 guys that are starters’

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The Celtics might be too deep.

They won 55 games last season with Gordon Hayward missing nearly the entire season. They reached the conference finals without Kyrie Irving and Hayward in the playoffs.

All five regular-season starters – Irving, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford and Aron Baynes – return. So does playoff starter Terry Rozier. So does Hayward. So does Marcus Smart, whom Boston coach Brad Stevens has called the team’s “sixth starter” for years. So does Marcus Morris, who started in Detroit before joining these stacked Celtics and remains in his prime.

Make no mistake: Teams around the league envy this challenge. But it’s still a challenge.

Stevens on the “Yahoo Sports NBA: Chris Mannix” podcast:

I think all of our guys realize that we have a really good thing going.

Part of being on a team is all being understanding that there’s nothing like experiencing winning together.

For me, it’s more about, we have a unique thing, and I think we all have to recognize that. The starting thing, the finishing and everything else – we’re going to have different lineups  out there, and everybody’s going to get an opportunity and lots of opportunities to make an impact.

We’ll just do it like we’ve always done it. Marcus Smart has come off the bench for two years, and I’ve never considered Marcus Smart to be a non-starter. I just think that you – we’re fortunate enough on our team that we’ve got eight, nine, maybe 10 guys that are starters. So, we’ll figure that out as the time comes.

And I do I think that our guys have a recognition overall about that’s not what it’s about. It’s about trying to be the best that we can be collectively. If we all do what we do to the best of our ability, it will benefit everybody individually.

But you only get so many chances to be part of a special group. And we’re pretty fortunate to be in this position. We need to take advantage of it.

Ten is probably pushing it. But the Celtics might actually have nine starting-caliber – i.e. top-150 – players.

How will that work?

Boston’s team success will help plenty. It’s harder for players to grumble about playing time when the team is winning.

Stevens also does a great job of giving players roles and getting them to buy in. These players fit different positional archetypes, allowing Stevens to give them each turns depending on situation.

And maybe only Rozier and Morris are playing for their next contract. As long as he stays healthy, Irving will likely command a max contract in free agency next summer no matter what. Horford ($30,123,015) and Baynes ($5,453,280) will probably opt in, though there’s a chance they’re playing to prove they deserve new contracts. Hayward, Tatum, Brown and Smart are locked in for multiple years.

Rozier has consistently struck the right tone in balancing his personal ambition with playing his role in Boston. That’s contagious. Stevens is adding to the culture with preemptive positive reinforcement.

The Celtics could get tangled in playing-time disputes, but they’re at least off to the right start for making this work.

Gordon Hayward wants Celtics fans to chant ‘Daddy’s always happy’

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Gordon Hayward hasn’t seen much time on a basketball floor as a member of the Boston Celtics. However, when he does return to the team at the start of the season, he already has one idea for a chant that fans at the TD Garden can cheer for him.

While streaming on his twitch channel this week, Hayward said that he believes fans should break out a chant of “Daddy’s always happy” when he takes the court at home.

This is a reference to the viral video of Hayward reacting to the gender reveal of his latest child.

Via Twitter:

I, for one, think this is a great idea.

Let’s just get real weird with it.

Stat of interest: Half of 2017 NBA All-Stars have since changed teams

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Why does the NBA win the offseason every summer?

Because star players switch teams. A lot.

The combination of shorter contracts (something owners pushed for in recent CBAs to save themselves from themselves because they didn’t want to get locked into six-year deals they regretted) and elite players taking more control of their own destiny has led to a boom of player movement. That’s something fans find more interesting than the games themselves (just check any web site’s traffic numbers, and not just for basketball). In the end, the NBA wins.

How much player movement is there in the NBA: Marc Stein of the New York Times put out this stat in his must-read weekly newsletter, via the brilliant Tom Haberstroh:

In the 18 months since the 2017 All-Star Game in New Orleans, 12 of the 24 players who participated in that game have switched teams.

He’s the full list:

DeMarcus Cousins. He was traded pretty much during that 2017 All-Star game from Sacramento to New Orleans. He signed this summer with Golden State.

LeBron James. He left Cleveland this summer as a free agent to join the Los Angeles Lakers.

Paul George. Traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City, where this summer he re-signed.

Kawhi Leonard. He forced a trade from San Antonio and ended up in Toronto.

DeMar DeRozan. Traded from Toronto to San Antonio as part of the Leonard deal.

• Carmelo Anthony. He was a Knick at the 2017 All-Star Game, was traded to Oklahoma City before last season. This season he was traded to Atlanta, which bought him out, and within hours of this story going up he will sign with the Houston Rockets.

Jimmy Butler. Traded from Chicago to Minnesota (and former coach Tom Thibodeau).

Gordon Hayward. Left Utah as a free agent and signed with Boston (and his college coach Brad Stevens).

Kyrie Irving. Forced a trade out of Cleveland, was sent to the Boston Celtics.

Isaiah Thomas. Traded from Boston to Cleveland in the Irving deal, then traded again at the deadline from Cleveland to the Los Angeles Lakers. This summer he signed with Denver as a free agent.

DeAndre Jordan. Left the Los Angeles Clippers as a free agent, signing with Dallas.

Paul Millsap. Left Atlanta as a free agent, signed with Denver.

If you thought this summer was wild, wait until next summer when two-thirds of the league’s teams will have more than $20 million in cap space and nearly half the players in the league will be free agents.

John Wall believes Wizards have chance in wide-open East

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LeBron James — the man who has led his team to eight straight NBA Finals — has moved from the East to the West and the Los Angeles Lakers. With that has come the perception that the Eastern Conference is more wide open than it has been since LeBron started to dominate it.

Is it? Toronto and Boston were the top two regular season seeds in the East and both should be seriously improved — the Celtics will have a healthy Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward on a team that almost made the Finals without them, and the Raptors just upgraded with a potential MVP in Kawhi Leonard. Plus, the Sixers should get noticeably better with their young roster of Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Markelle Fultz (now with a jumper) all a year older and having worked on their game this summer.

That’s not even getting into the potential of the Milwaukee Bucks with a new coach, and what should be an improved Indiana Pacers team.

John Wall believes it will be more open.

And he believes his Wizards can be part of that mix, just like he thinks they could/should have been the past couple of years. Here is what he said in Las Vegas at the USA Basketball mini-camp, via Bleacher Report.

“I think we have a better team now, and the East is more wide-open now that [LeBron James is] out of the picture,” Wall said…

“I think we could have competed the last two years if we didn’t have to deal with injuries,” Wall said… “Falling to the eight seed (last season), playing Toronto, a heck of a team, I felt like we should have beaten those guys, but they came out the better team at that time,” Wall said…

“I think we have a better team now.”

On paper, the Wizards can be dangerous. Wall at the point, Bradley Beal at the two, and Otto Porter at the three makes up a terrific perimeter starting group. With them are solid role players such as Markieff Morris, Tomas Satoransky, Austin Rivers, Jeff Green, and then they now have Dwight Howard in the paint. (Howard can be a fit with the Wizards, if he plays his role, but that hasn’t always gone smoothly.)

However, I need to see it before I buy in.

I need to see Wall play all-out on both ends and look more like an All-NBA level player (he’s only made that team one time). Beal and Wall both need to stay healthy. Howard needs to set picks, not demand the ball in the post a lot, and be a nightly force on defense, not an occasional one. Most importantly, will their notoriously troubled locker room chemistry improve with the addition of Howard to the mix?

There are a lot more questions than answers for Washington heading into next season. It’s on Wall and company to answer them.