For anyone who marks time by the NBA calendar, this time of year is a little like opening the Christmas stocking, only filled with the complete NBA schedule, before tearing into the big-ticket gifts under the tree come late October. Here's a look at some highlights of the just-released 2009-2010 schedule:
Oct. 27: Boston at Cleveland -- Will ShaquilleO'Neal's latest superstar partnership prove as fruitful as his first two? Cleveland -- and the rest of the NBA -- will start to get some answers on Opening Night against a Celtics team that will have a big hand in determining whether the Shaq gamble pays off. Considering neither of these teams has won on the other's floor in their last 16 meetings, we imagine LeBron James and Co. will be happy for at least one night.
Oct. 28: L.A. Clippers at L.A. Lakers -- Welcome to the NBA, Blake Griffin! The No. 1 pick in the draft begins his professional career in front of a Lakers crowd sure to be in a frenzy over the championship ring ceremony and Ron Artest's debut.
Oct. 30: Boston at Chicago -- Underpinning last spring's playoff classic was a point guard duel that may shape the NBA for years to come. A summer spent in part with the U.S. national team is likely to accelerate DerrickRose's ascent to superstardom, while an offseason spent filled with trade rumors and criticism by Celtics GM Danny Ainge may well push Rajon Rondo to prove he is worth the max contract he desires. Neither will find a better measuring stick in the East than each other.
Nov. 6: Cleveland at New York -- The last time LeBron visited Madison Square Garden, he dropped 52 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds on the Knicks. Assuming he hasn't signed an extension with the Cavs at this point, and the fact that national TV cameras will be on hand to catch Knicks fans all but offering the deeds to their homes to James, LeBron could be up for a show, a real show.
Nov. 8: Golden State at Sacramento -- With a few games under their belts, fellow top-10 picks Stephen Curry and Tyreke Evans get to showcase their developing NBA skills while facing each other.
Nov. 11: Cleveland at Orlando -- The conference finals rematch is all the more intriguing now with Shaq battling Dwight Howard inside.
Nov. 15: Houston at L.A. Lakers -- With no Yao Ming and no Tracy McGrady, you can mark this down as a Lakers W now. But for Trevor Ariza, it's a chance to show the Lakers what they missed when they earmarked their free-agent dollars for Ron Artest instead of a guy who helped them win the title.
Nov. 20: Orlando at Boston -- Did the undermanned Celtics simply run out of gas or did the Magic finally come into their own in reversing a 3-2 series deficit in the second round of the playoffs? We'll find out a bit more this season when a beefed-up Celtics front line meets a beefed-up Magic front line for the first of four dates.
Dec. 5: Denver at San Antonio -- There are about six or seven teams with legitimate title hopes. The Nuggets and Spurs are two of those teams. And while the Nuggets' many offensive options often make them a joy to watch, San Antonio's changes promise to make the button-down Spurs a bit more unpredictable, too. That could make for an entertaining matchup.
Dec. 23: Utah at Miami -- Mr. Boozer? This way, sir. No. You need to use the visitors' locker room at the arena. You won't be dressing with Mr. Wade until next year. Yes, I know you have a house here in the area, and that you fully expect to finish the season elsewhere, but until any transaction is final, you'll have to remain with your Jazz teammates.
Dec. 25: The NBA offers a feast of five nationally televised games on Christmas -- Heat-Knicks, Celtics-Magic, Cavs-Lakers, Clippers-Suns and Nuggets-Trail Blazers.
Dec. 27: Dallas at Denver -- The bad blood between Mavs owner Mark Cuban and Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin has reportedly been smoothed over. But based on the tenor of the teams' heated first-round series, we can imagine the détente not lasting too long.
Jan. 12: L.A. Lakers at San Antonio -- The Spurs didn't jump head-first into the luxury-tax pool with new additions Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess just to claim bragging rights in Texas. If both teams are healthy, this will be the first shot fired in a battle that may not end until the conference finals.
Jan. 31: L.A. Lakers at Boston -- If a matchup between the last two NBA champs, and the league's most storied franchises, isn't enough for you, how about the potential fireworks with Rasheed Wallace and Ron Artest on the same floor with a meaningful game at stake?
Feb. 5: Denver at L.A. Lakers -- On the surface, this is a nice rematch between last season's Western Conference finalists. In the locker room, it is shaping up as Carmelo Anthony's stage to respond to the very real possibility he will be snubbed for the All-Star Game for the second straight year. With names such as Nowitzki, Duncan, Stoudemire and Gasol likely ahead of him, and the groundswell of support for the Thunder likely to push Kevin Durant into the game, Anthony could well have some time off come mid-February. But he won't head off to that getaway quietly.
Feb. 18: Boston at L.A. Lakers -- Will either team make a midseason deal to improve its title chances? The rivals' second and final regular-season matchup comes hours after the 2010 trading deadline passes.
March 1: Atlanta at Chicago -- Assuming the East's first three playoff spots are already reserved for Boston, Cleveland and Orlando (in some order), that leaves one home-court position open. This game might go a long way toward determining who gets that advantage.
March 7: L.A. Lakers at Orlando -- Time was not too long ago that Vince Carter was rumored to be heading to join Kobe in L.A. Now he gets to try to help the Magic figure out a way around a guy who torched them for 32.4 points a game in the Finals. Good luck with that.
March 12: Washington at Detroit -- Has any coach gotten less respect for winning 59.7 percent of his games than Flip Saunders? As good-natured a guy as Saunders appears to be, we can't imagine he won't take some glee in trying to subtly remind Joe Dumars and the Pistons about the mistake they made in jettisoning him a year ago for the short-lived Michael Curry experiment. And if he doesn't, you know Gilbert Arenas will.
March 14: Toronto at Portland -- The folks in Portland are generally a friendly sort. But they may save a few catcalls for Hedo Turkoglu's first visit since he spurned the city for the more "cosmopolitan" environment of Toronto.
April 7: Charlotte at New Orleans -- By the time this game tips off, Chris Paul will have all the evidence he needs to judge whether it was wise for the Hornets to ship Tyson Chandler to Charlotte for Emeka Okafor.
April 12: Oklahoma City at Portland -- This is intriguing on a number of levels: this year's upstart darlings vs. last year's, the No. 2 pick of the '07 draft (Durant) vs. the No. 1 pick (Greg Oden), a team that abandoned the great Northwest vs. the only team left there, a hot-property GM (Sam Presti) with a healthy appreciation for statistical analysis vs. another hot-property GM (Kevin Pritchard) with an even healthier appreciation for statheads. Oh, and probably a pretty good game, too.