What are the most important games on ithe NBA regular season schedule?
While you wouldn't be hard-pressed to come up with a reason to watch any of the 1,230 games on the schedule, some carry a little more weight than others.
Some are obvious: Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook, Paull George, Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, and Jimmy Butler are among the stars who switched teams that at some point will return to their old stomping grounds. You can find all of those right here.
Some are more hidden: inter-city matchups involving teams at a crossroads and benchmark games for lottery-bound teams looking to make leap.
Although every game counts the same in the standings, some extend beyond the game itself to offer up commentary about where we are and/or where we're going.
With that in mind, here are nine key games to keep an eye on this season.
Zion's debut - October 23
After a show-stopping one-year stint at Duke, the top overall pick in the draft enters the NBA with as much hype as anyone since a certain now four-time NBA MVP.
October 29, 2003. LeBron James signaled his arrival with 25 points and nine dimes in his NBA debut against the Sacramento Kings. On Day 1 of his career, James wasted no time in sending a message and ushering in a new era. It's one of those games that everybody remembers and stands the test of time.
Williamson enters the league with more buzz and loftier expectations than any player since James and it's only fitting that he embarks on his journey with an opportunity to overshadow the defending champions on ring night. This is one of those games you can see coming from a mile away as one that could be a legitimate watershed, torch-passing moment for the NBA.
Battle for Los Angeles - October 23
"𝘿𝙏𝙇𝘼 𝘿𝙪𝙚𝙡 "- LA Clippers (@LAClippers) August 12, 2019
by Karmou Ruusamaa pic.twitter.com/zG7WFPVVyA
LeBron James and Anthony Davis against Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
There's really not much else that needs to be said as those are the two marquee duos in a league that's suddenly turned into a live-action rendering of NBA Jam with superstar tandems from sea to shining sea. The best part? We get this matchup four times this season.
The temptation is to lean into the narrative that this is the first time the Lakers and Clippers have truly been on equal footing when it comes to matching superstar talent with championship expectations. And while that may be true - apologies to Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and the rest of Lob City - this matchup is about far more than simply LA bragging rights. It's as much a commentary on where the league is trending as much as it is one game on the schedule.
New York State of Mind - October 26
Everyone thought the Knicks were signing two stars. With room for two max slots and a bevy of big names on the market, this was going to be the summer that New York proved to be the mecca of basketball.
Ultimately, the stars did align in New York albeit five miles away from Madison Square Garden and across the East River in Brooklyn. Although Kevin Durant's absence means the Nets won't be at full strength for this tilt, it still serves as a microcosm for the larger balance of power that's happened in New York. That the first encounter is in Brooklyn and not Manhattan similarly sums up who owns bragging rights as New York's top team in 2019-20.
Kawhi's return - December 12
The scene in Scotiabank Arena on this night will be unlike one we've ever seen.
When Kawhi Leonard left the Toronto Raptors after leading them to an NBA title, he became the first player in NBA history to leave for a different team immediately after serving as the best player on a championship team. That unprecedented decision means he'll be in unchartered territory when he returns to Toronto to face his former team and receive his championship ring. It's an opportunity to celebrate and tie a bow on the most iconic season in Toronto Raptors history.
Since they play in November, this won't be the first time that Leonard faces off against his former team so any initial awkwardness on the floor itself should be comfortably in the rear-view mirror before they hook up in Toronto.
This team's 15th game - December 15
That's how many games the Phoenix Suns have won in each of the last four seasons. Over that stretch, not only do their 87 wins rank dead last in the NBA, they are the only team with fewer than 100.
Unlike some others towards the bottom of that list, the Suns haven't even had that sustained stretch of promise to begin the season before fading late. The latest into a season they've been at or above .500 is 14 games.
In a loaded Western Conference, it's unreasonable to expect the Suns to rise from the depths of the cellar to the fringes of playoff contention. But it's not unreasonable to expect to see some more fight and friskiness which makes this year's 15th game - December 14 against the San Antonio Spurs - one to watch.
While it's a team game and the onus never falls on the shoulders of one player, the microscope is certainly zoomed in on Devin Booker. The 22-year-old sharpshooter has gotten better every season and last year finished alongside LeBron James and James Harden as the only players to average at least 26 points and six assists per game. He's proven his lot as a high volume offensive player, but can he be a winning player? Entering Year 5, the pressure is starting to build for Booker who has yet to sniff the postseason.
Eastern Conference Heavyweights - December 26
The Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers enter this season as heavy co-favourites in the Eastern Conference. It's fitting that the first of their four meetings takes place on Christmas when the regular season spotlight shines its absolute brightest.
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Talk to 20 different experts and you might find a 10-10 split on who will be the best team in the East. That's how close these teams on the eve of the 2019-20 regular season. It also means that home court could potentially rule the day in a Game 7 in an Eastern Conference Finals showdown. Not only is this Christmas matchup the first measuring stick game for these two titans, it's one that could have an enduring impact on the Eastern Conference landscape.
Westbrook's OKC Return - January 10
The bet here is there won't be any cupcakes in attendance at Chesapeake Energy Arena when Russell Westbrook makes his return to the place he called home for the first 11 years of his NBA career. Kevin Durant's return to Oklahoma City served as a lasting pillar of the 2016-17 NBA season. While this one promises to have a much different feel, Westbrook's return and reception will likely serve as one of the lasting memories of the 2019-20 season.
"I have a great deal of respect for Russell and there is no way to adequately describe our appreciation for what he has meant to Oklahomans. His legacy here is immense, and he will be honored by the team for all he has done. "- OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) July 17, 2019
-Thunder Chairman Clay Bennett pic.twitter.com/3p0Y9HPrLi
Basketball in Oklahoma City won't be the same without Westbrook who undeniably stood as the franchise bannerman Durant's departure to Golden State in the summer of 2016.
It's also deep enough into the season that we'll have a pretty good idea on just how the reunion of Westbrook and James Harden is taking shape with the trade deadline looming around the corner.
Klay's return - TBD
The eventual return of Klay Thompson makes the Golden State Warriors the ultimate wild card. No matter what happens over the course of the first several months of the season - barring additional injuries - it's impossible to have a conversation about the pecking order in the Western Conference without addressing the elephant in the room that is the status of the five-time defending conference champs.
Will Stephen Curry revert to MVP form without Thompson and Kevin Durant shouldering sizeable loads? Will Draymond Green bring the same production during the regular season that he did during last year's postseason? Will D'Angelo Russell fit in with his new team and show that last year's All-Star nod was no fluke? Will Kevon Looney and Willie Cauley-Stein stand as a formidable tag team down low?
If the answer to all of those questions is yes, then Thompson's return - whenever it is - could mean that the road through the West still goes through Golden State.
Trading Places? - April 8
The Kings haven't made the playoffs since 2005-06.
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The Spurs haven't missed the playoffs in De'Aaron Fox's lifetime.
Something's gotta give eventually… right?
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While these teams play four times, the most important could be their last game on April 7.
Sacramento faces a brutal finishing stretch in April. After playing both Los Angeles teams at home followed by a game against the Cavaliers, the Kings head to San Antonio for the first of a four-game road trip that also includes games against the Wolves, Nuggets and Lakers before finishing the season at home against the Warriors on the second night of a back-to-back. If they're going to end their drought, they'll certainly have to earn in.
As for the Spurs, they're on the verge of making history as their 22 consecutive playoff appearances is now tied for the longest streak in NBA history.
Will we remember this season as the one that San Antonio finally fell flat? Or could it be the one that Sacramento finally snapped its sad streak? Two season-long storylines converge in the final week of the season.
The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the NBA or its clubs.