All NBA games are not created equal.
There will be 1,230 NBA games played this season, but only a select few will have the star power, the drama, the intensity, and the jeopardy for teams that draws us in to watch games. What follows is a list of 13 must-watch NBA games this season, ones where your parents should set their DVRs (and you should remember to catch the stream).
Oct. 18: 76ers at Celtics
Opening night is supposed to be about the champions — and the Warriors will get their rings while LeBron James looks on — but the more interesting game is the first game of the NBA season. Philadelphia upgraded this offseason (P.J. Tucker, Danuel House, DeAnthony Melton). Boston upgraded this offseason (Malcolm Brogdon, Danilo Gallinari). An opening night showdown will not tell us which of these contenders is coming out of the East, but it will be entertaining.
Oct. 20: Clippers at Lakers
Finally healthy, the Clippers are legitimate title contenders. Maybe the favorites to come out of the West (or second behind the Warriors). Lakers fans hate that their “little brother” franchise is outspending them, gaining a reputation as a serious franchise around the league, and has been better than them on the court for nine of the last 10 seasons. This game gives us a first look at what a fully healthy Clippers could be. It’s also a chance to see how new Lakers coach Darvin Ham’s focus on defense — and running the offense through Anthony Davis — is going. All the Lakers/Clippers games this season will be spicy.
Nov. 1: Magic at Thunder
It’s No.1 pick Paolo Banchero against No.2 pick Chet Holmgren in their first head-to-head meeting (they did not face off at Summer League). Both players landed in a good spot for them. Banchero will have the ball in his hands, asked to do a lot of shot creation in Orlando. The much more raw Holmgren can be brought along slowly and out of the spotlight in Oklahoma City. Beyond the star rookies, it should be an entertaining matchup of young teams with talent trying to figure things out.
Nov. 8: Election Day
This is a trick question — there are no games this day as the NBA promotes getting out and voting for fans and those involved with teams. It’s mostly a symbolic move, but in a nation where too many states are looking for ways to make voting more difficult, this message of openness and inclusion is important.
Dec. 9: Timberwolves at Jazz
Rudy Gobert returns to Utah as a member of what should be a very good Minnesota team. Gobert was traded (for a head-shaking haul of picks) and never pushed his way out of Salt Lake City, he should be welcomed back with cheers. But things are never quite that smooth with Gobert, it seems.
Dec. 10: Celtics at Warriors
In the first NBA Finals rematch (the other is Jan. 19), an improved Celtics team takes on the seasoned Warriors team that out-thought Boston in the Finals. Outside of just the talent involved, these games are interesting because the teams know each other so well and still remember the scouting reports from last June — we get to see more high-level strategy than a traditional regular season game.
Dec. 25: Bucks at Celtics
This is the best of the Christmas Day games — an intense seven-game series carried over from last year’s playoffs. Boston is better and deeper. Milwaukee is healthy and has Khris Middleton back (*knock on wood*). This could be an Eastern Conference Finals preview (Miami and Philly would like to have a word in that conversation) between two evenly matched teams. This has real potential to be the most entertaining, best-played game on Christmas Day.
Dec. 25: Grizzlies at Warriors
There will be trash talked — no team chirped more last season than the Grizzlies, but they backed it up. However, the Warriors got the last word. We get a Christmas Day rematch of this Western Conference playoff series where the young Grizzlies were taught some lessons. How big a step forward is Memphis ready to take? Because the Warriors are not giving up the crown, if Memphis wants it, they will have to rip it out of their hands.
Dec. 27: Knicks at Mavericks
Jalen Brunson returns to Dallas. How will the fans greet him? Brunson was a Mavericks fan favorite and earned his way to a larger payday, then New York came in over the top with an offer that maybe Mark Cuban and Dallas could have matched, but Brunson was going to choose New York anyway. Luka Doncic is poised for a huge season and the Knicks have no answer for him. This should be a fun showdown.
Jan. 16: Heat at Hawks
Atlanta always (and always should) hosts a game on Martin Luther King Jr. day, and this is a fun playoff rematch from last season between the Heat and Hawks. The Heat feel snubbed by the schedule — only 11 national television games, the only team of the final eight not playing on Christmas — and this is the kind of high-profile game where they can make a statement. Atlanta got better this offseason with the addition of Dejounte Murray, but how much better?
Jan. 28: Nuggets at 76ers
Two-time MVP Nikola Jokic takes on two-time MVP runner-up Joel Embed in a battle of the two best centers in the game today. This is an excellent matchup beyond just the bigs: Nuggets are finally healthy with Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.; the 76ers upgraded this offseason with Tucker, House and Melton (thanks to James Harden taking a pay cut).
Feb. 27: Heat at 76ers
Welcome to the “tampering bowl.” Allegedly. (I mean, it’s not like we know all 30 teams in the NBA tamper, right?) James Harden opted out of his $47 million contract with the 76ers and the team used that money to upgrade their roster with Tucker — poached from the Heat with a three-year, $33 million deal signed suspiciously early in free agency — among other moves. Then Harden signed a two-year deal worth $68.6 million ($33 million this season), including a player option in that second year. Harden took about a $14 million haircut this coming season. The NBA is investigating.
March 7: Grizzlies at Lakers
Yes, it’s a chance to watch Ja Morant and the young Grizzlies vs. the old (but not as old as last year’s Lakers). However, more importantly, this is the night the Lakers retire Pau Gasol’s No. 16. From Kobe Bryant (via Arash Markazi): “The reality is I don’t win those championships without Pau. The city of L.A. doesn’t have those two championships without Pau Gasol. We know that. Everyone knows that.”