Let the countdown begin!
While training camps don’t open until Sept. 28, the NBA released its full schedule for all 30 teams Friday, which means the storylines and subplots now have dates attached. Yes, we’re still two months away from opening night, but plenty of storylines have already emerged.
- Are the Lakers too old?
- Is KD, LeBron or Giannis the NBA’s best player?
- Can the Nets actually stay healthy?
- Should the defending champs get more respect?
- Will the 76ers trade Ben Simmons?
- Does Luka take another leap?
- What does Year 3 look like for Zion?
- Has the clock struck midnight on Dame Time?
MORE: Key dates for the 2021-22 NBA season
To help sort through the soap operas and search for answers in an endless NBA abyss, we went through all 1,230 games on the docket and pulled out the 10 most intriguing games that you won’t want to miss.
Nets at Bucks, Oct. 19
Ring night in the Deer District comes against the team that was one toe away from ending Milwaukee’s season in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. As Kevin Durant watches Giannis Antetokounmpo receive his championship ring and sees the championship banner unveiled from the rafters, he’ll surely relive his supposed Game 7 dagger over the outstretched arms of P.J. Tucker and replay an agonizing mental game of “What if” while thinking back to his size 18 shoe touching the 3-point line. If only he wore the right shoe size.
For Durant, 2022 season offers the chance to significantly enhance his legacy. On the heels of a scintillating postseason solo act alongside hobbled teammates followed by yet another all-time performance in the Olympics en route to a gold medal, Durant can finally look to garner the no-questions-asked respect and admiration he has long craved.
MORE: Is Durant the best player in the NBA?
For Antetokounmpo, 2022 offers the chance to enter truly rarified air. The Schlitz-soaked streets of Milwaukee hadn’t even dried up in the summer sun before hoops fans collectively moved on from the Greek Freak’s corononation to marvel at the Tokyo displays put forth by Durant and Luka Doncic. Already a two-time MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and Finals MVP, the 26-year-old now has the opportunity to carry over one of the most dominant Finals performances into a historic run for the ages.
For both, 2022 offers the chance to snatch the throne as the undisputed NBA king.
Warriors at Lakers, Oct. 19
There’s a decent chance the opening night doubleheader puts forth not one, but two conference finals previews.
For all the jokes about gray hair and AARP memberships, the Lakers still enter the season as favorites to come out of the Western Conference. LeBron James may be entering his 19th season, but there’s little doubt he remains as motivated as ever to prove every skeptic wrong . . . again. He has been hard at work in the lab with Russell Westbrook, and while we likely won’t learn anything of real value about Brodie’s fit until May or June, first looks are always intoxicating.
Meanwhile, the Splash Brothers are back!
While there’s no official word on whether Klay Thompson will be ready by opening night, his long-awaited return after two years of devastating injuries signals the return to championship contention for the Warriors. That’s what happens when the second-greatest shooter of all time returns to a backcourt featuring the greatest shooter off all time, who just so happens to be coming off perhaps the greatest individual season of his career. Even if he’s not out there dropping 60 points on 11 dribbles from the jump, seeing Thompson fly off a Curry downscreen to drain a picture-perfect catch-and-shoot trey off a pass from Draymond Green will necessitate an entire box of Kleenex.
Trail Blazers at 76ers, Nov. 1
Come for the trade buzz, stay for the awkwardness.
Will the Blazers trade Damian Lillard? Will the Sixers trade Ben Simmons? Will Philadelphia fans show up with signs clamoring for Lillard? If they’re traded for each other, how will the Philly faithful react to Simmons returning in a different jersey?
MORE: Breaking down four potential Simmons trades
Trade speculation surrounding the two stars likely won’t dissipate soon. The story of the unhappy superstar is a tale as old as time in today’s landscape and the trade buzz surrounding both could reach a fever pitch by the time these teams meet up if neither are moved.
Lillard is at the peak of his powers and, depending on where he lands, packs enough game to swing the championship fortunes for an entire franchise. Simmons, for all of his shortcomings, is a 6-11 playmaking dynamo by day and the league’s most versatile defender by night, who also happens to be just 25.
Grizzlies at Pelicans, Nov. 13
Will Zion Williamson or Ja Morant make a Doncic-esque third-year leap into superstardom?
The two will forever be connected at the hip even if there’s no natural rivalry as the top two picks in the 2019 draft. Both seem poised to make yet another jump.
Williamson earned the first of what figures to be many All-Star nods last season as he firmly planted his flag in the paint as the league’s most unstoppable force on the block. Seriously, take a look at all this green:
Not only did he average more points in the paint than any player since Shaquille O’Neal, not only did he become the first player in NBA history to score over 27 points per game and shoot 60 percent from the field, he also did it while playing point guard over the second half of the season. He’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen, a heart-pounding mix of Shaq, Charles Barkley and Draymond Green who’s capable of shutting down #NBATwitter quite literally any second he’s on the floor.
Morant spoiled everyone’s dreams of a Curry cinderalla story by taking out the Warriors in the play-in game and then dropped 47 points in just his second official playoff game, part of a jaw-dropping maiden series against the Jazz. In a league dominated by electric playmakers, Morant has the explosive hops, breakneck speed, boundless creativity and competitive fire to rightfully earn a seat at the superstar table.
Mavericks vs Lakers, Dec. 15
Luka Doncic is the best 22-year-old in the history of the sport not named LeBron James. Nearly every head-to-head between them has lived up to the hype, though James holds the upper hand thus far, winning six of their seven meetings. Of course, much of that is due to their respective teammates as James is flanked by Anthony Davis on a ready-made championship contender while the Mavericks are still searching for the right side dishes to supplement their Slovenian filet mignon.
As he enters his fourth season, Doncic is at the same point of his NBA career as James was when he dragged an underwhelming Cavaliers team to the NBA Finals in 2007. Though nobody is expecting a Finals trip, manufacturing those magical runs plays a significant role in crafting the type of legendary career that Doncic seems fully capable of producing.
MORE: Breaking down Luka Doncic’s new contract
Make no mistake: These are the types of matchups that energize James, who, perhaps more than ever, seems motivated to brush back the skeptics ready to crown another king of the hardwood. They’re a generation apart, but the 22-year-old Doncic enters the season as the betting favorite to win MVP while the 36-year-old James can become the oldest MVP in league history. Grab your popcorn.
Nets at Lakers, Dec. 25
That’s how long it has been since we last saw LeBron and KD square off. They haven’t gone head-to-head since Christmas Day 2018. The longtime rivals — who have faced off in the NBA Finals three times — enter the season as prohibitive favorites in their respective conferences.
Giannis is the defending champ, Curry is the League Pass darling and Doncic is the next big thing. But when it comes to the NBA’s superstar constellation, no two stars shine brighter than the do-everything forwards who are on a collision course for a potential fourth meeting on the game’s biggest stage.
Hawks at Knicks, Dec. 25
It took Trae Young all of one postseason appearance to solidify his place in the game as the next great Madison Square Garden villain. There are bigger stars and better players but Young riled up Knicks fans in ways we haven’t seen since the days of Reggie Miller. If the Knicks truly are back as a relevant Eastern Conference contender — they’ve made it out of the first round once in two decades — then what better way to welcome them back than with a new archenemy?
Heat at Raptors, Feb. 3
When Kyle Lowry signed with the Heat, he officially closed the book on the greatest individual chapter in Raptors history. The heart and soul of Canada’s lone team for nearly a decade and the general for the franchise’s watershed title team in 2019, Lowry transformed the entire sport for an entire country.
After Lowry made his decision, the Raptors immediately announced that they would retire Lowry’s No. 7 jersey, making him the first player in franchise history to receive the honor. Regardless of whether the ceremony happens on Feb. 3, expect the mother of all tribute videos for Canada’s favorite adopted son.
Bucks at Suns, Feb. 10
NBA Finals rematches always pack extra punch, especially following a riveting six-game series between franchises that will not take a Finals appearance for granted.
MORE: Giannis delivers Magical performance in Finals clincher
Fair or not, the Suns still face lingering doubts from naysayers who claim their trip to the Finals had more to do with an unprecedented string of injuries to other contenders than it did with their own inspiring play. That’s simply the reality of traversing a path through the Lakers without Anthony Davis, the Nuggets without Jamal Murray and the Clippers without Kawhi Leonard. But the Suns don’t owe anyone an apology. As the saying goes, availability is the best ability and staying healthy while carefully tip-toeing through a COVID-ravaged, booby-trapped season unlike any other takes championship resolve and immense physical and mental toughness.
Make no mistake: This isn’t just another game for the Suns. The bitter taste of defeat no doubt lingers for Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, who came within two wins of basketball immortality. Paul re-signed, Booker became an Olympic champion and Ayton looks ready to ascend into the elite tier of NBA centers.
Jamal Murray’s return, TBD
Do not ignore Denver.
There was a stretch last spring when the Nuggets looked downright scary, like “they might win the whole thing” scary. After they traded for Aaron Gordon, the pieces fell into place and they suddenly looked unstoppable. Between the two-man game of Nikola Jokic and Murray, the emergence of Michael Porter Jr. as an offensive force and Gordon’s dynamic versatility, Denver had more options than almost anyone.
And then Murray tore his ACL.
Dreams of Denver’s first championship disappeared the moment he went down at Golden State on April 12.
The inclusion of Murray’s return here is a show of respect for how monumental a factor his return could be when looking at the big picture. It’s not unreasonable to expect a fully healthy Nuggets team emerging as the biggest threat to the Lakers in a Western Conference oddly devoid of an obvious second favorite.