SI.com's Ben Golliver picks his top 50 games to watch during the 2015–16 NBA season. (Spoiler alert: It's a lot of LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Anthony Davis.)
Start making plans. The NBA officially unveiled its 2015–16 schedule on Wednesday.
Here's a full rundown of 50 games to circle on your calendar between opening night (Tuesday, Oct. 27) and the final day of the regular season (Wednesday, April 13) with a focus on rivalries, returns, marquee matchups, holiday games and more. All 30 teams are included. Spoiler alert: LeBron James’s Cavaliers and Stephen Curry’s Warriors are featured prominently.
1. Oct. 27: Cavaliers at Bulls on opening night
The 2015–16 season tips off with one of the league’s best rivalries: Cleveland vs. Chicago. After an entertaining second-round playoff series that saw Derrick Rose and LeBron James swap game-winners, these Central Division powers will waste no time reopening the blood feud. Is there really a better “Welcome to the NBA” moment for Chicago’s first-time head coach Fred Hoiberg than trying to stop James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving on opening night?
2. Oct. 27: Pelicans at Warriors on opening night
Golden State will tip off its title defense with a rematch of its entertaining, but ultimately one-sided, first-round playoff series with New Orleans. Stephen Curry and Anthony Davis will take center stage, but don’t overlook new Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry, who will square off against his former boss with the Suns, Steve Kerr.
The Tuesday night undercard game features Atlanta, which broke out of decades of mediocrity to claim the East’s top seed last year, and Detroit, who is looking to shake off six straight years of sub-mediocrity. While this isn’t necessarily the sexiest matchup, Stan Van Gundy’s renovated roster, led by Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson, will get a high-profile opportunity to announce its playoff intentions.
Thunder fans have been waiting since just after the All-Star break to see Kevin Durant, who underwent three foot surgeries last season and had to watch the playoffs from his couch. That patience will be rewarded with an excellent home opener against the Spurs, who eliminated them in the 2014 Western Conference finals, ending Durant’s MVP season. At USA Basketball this week, Durant looked and sounded refreshed at USA Basketball camp this week, and he is in for a nice reception from the Chesapeake Energy Arena crowd during this one.
The Lakers are stuck in a frustrating déjà vu: Kobe Bryant has suffered three straight season-ending injuries and the front office has largely struck out in free agency for two straight summers. In all likelihood, the volume losing will continue in 2015-16, as Bryant’s remade supporting cast is low on star power and high on inexperience. Still, L.A.’s season opener will be appointment viewing. Bryant, who hasn’t taken the court since late January, may be entering his final season and this game also features a showdown between the top two picks in the NBA draft, Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns and L.A.’s D'Angelo Russell.
The tank worked! Sort of. An abysmal Knicks season that featured numerous trades and a mid-season shutdown of Carmelo Anthony landed Kristaps Porzingis, the No. 4 pick in the draft. While that’s not an immediate franchise-changing addition, it does represent a step in the right direction. Anthony, who hasn’t played since he jogged up and down in the All-Star Game, will usher the latest era of Knicks basketball into Madison Square Garden against Atlanta, as he looks to put his most recent knee surgery behind him.
If you blinked, you might have missed Paul George’s end-of-season return for the Pacers. The two-time All-Star played just 91 minutes in six games as Indiana’s playoff push fell just short. With another six months to build his strength and confidence after a devastating leg injury suffered at USA Basketball camp last summer, George should be much closer to 100% when Indiana opens its home schedule against Memphis. Of course, George and Pacers fans will need some time to adjust to the departures of Roy Hibbert and David West and the arrival of Monta Ellis.
Go ahead and start stretching your Twitter fingers and loading up your emoji weapons. The first matchup between DeAndre Jordan’s two free agency suitors—the Clippers and Mavericks—will take place in L.A. on TNT. Tougher days are on the horizon for Jordan, who will surely enjoy the benefit of a friendly and forgiving home crowd.
9.Oct. 30: Cavaliers’ LeBron James plays host to former team
A busy opening week for the Cavaliers continues in a nationally-televised game against the Heat, LeBron James’s former South Beach brethren. Miami’s step back into the lottery last season might remove a little bit of luster from this early-season game, but a win might help give life to the franchise’s goal of returning to the tier of East contenders.
10. Nov. 3: Rookie point guards share court when Lakers host Nuggets
No. 2 pick D'Angelo Russell and No. 7 pick Emmanuel Mudiay headline this contest between two of the West’s weaker teams. Will this wind up being a study in contrasts? Mudiay was given the car keys by Nuggets management, who traded away Ty Lawson this summer. Russell, meanwhile, must fend off Jordan Clarkson for minutes while spreading the ball around a number of shoot-first veterans like Kobe Bryant, Nick Young and Lou Williams.
11. Nov. 6: Pistons’ Marcus Morris heads back to the desert
All NBA break-ups aren’t created equal: it obviously hurts more when stars leave. These days, though, most big names are savvy enough to handle themselves with the utmost dignity on the way out the door. That’s not exactly what’s happened in the case of Phoenix and Marcus Morris, who was understandably upset about being traded away from his twin brother, Markieff. Rather than toeing the line publicly, Marcus Morris has aired out his grievances repeatedly, including calling out Suns fans, while Markieff demanded a trade on Wednesday. We’ll see how they respond in early November.
12. Nov. 7: Clippers host Rockets in playoff rematch
Go ahead and call this Hell Week for the Clippers, which must exorcise the demons of their postseason choke job against James Harden’s Rockets before moving on to Jordan’s Texas soap opera four days later.
13. Nov. 11: Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan makes first trip to Dallas
After a regrettable off-season U-turn that saw him commit to the Mavericks and then de-commit days later, DeAndre Jordan knows he will have to grin and bear some abuse during the Clippers’ first trip to Dallas. The boos will rain down in the American Airlines Center with a frog-strangler’s force, and Mavericks fans should embrace the moment by breaking out the flip flops, waffle iron posters and John Kerry Fatheads.
14. Nov. 11: Spurs’ LaMarcus Aldridge returns to Portland
During a summer in which most of the biggest stars re-signed with their incumbent teams, LaMarcus Aldridge was the highest-profile player to change zip codes, going from Portland to San Antonio. During his nine years with the Blazers, Aldridge established himself as a dependable lead scoring option and a workhorse who assumed greater responsibilities when the likes of Brandon Roy and Greg Oden were lost to injury.
Despite the predictable acrimony that surrounded his departure, Aldridge deserves to be welcomed back to the Moda Center with a standing ovation. He ranks No. 2 in points and No. 1 in rebounds in team history and helped restore credibility and stability to a franchise that was wavering. This is San Antonio’s only visit to Portland during the 2015–16 season, so hopefully Gregg Popovich doesn’t rest Aldridge for strategic purposes.
The 2014–15 season saw two off-the-radar big men break out big time: Jazz center Rudy Gobert and Heat center Hassan Whiteside. While Gobert emerged down the stretch as a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Whiteside’s path wound up being a little rockier, as he mixed some prodigious rebounding efforts with immature behavior. The two players have yet to face off in the NBA, which will hopefully change come mid-November.
16. Nov. 18: Thunder host Pelicans in first of three meetings
The race between Oklahoma City and New Orleans for the West’s No. 8 seed was a sight to behold last season, and the Pelicans didn’t claim their postseason berth until the last night of the season. If not for an Anthony Davis buzzer beater against Oklahoma City earlier in the season, the Thunder would have squeaked into playoffs. The stakes don’t get much higher than that and, really, any game with Davis, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook is must-see TV at this point. Circle every Thunder/Pelicans game in bright red marker just to be safe.
17. Nov. 21: Cavaliers host Hawks in East finals rematch
The first of three matchups between the 2015 Eastern Conference finalists, the Cavaliers and Hawks will meet just before Thanksgiving. Atlanta capped a bitter sweep complaining about Matthew Dellavedova’s tactics. Don’t think for a moment that Delly has forgotten about their accusations.
18. Nov. 23: Timberwolves, Sixers show off top draft picks
Although the Timberwolves will face the Lakers in an opening week game that pits the top two picks against each other, this one might be more meaningful and intriguing. For months, Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor were viewed as the top two prospects in this year’s draft, before Okafor slipped to No. 3 on draft night. Minnesota will play host to the first professional showdown between the Kentucky and Duke products.
19. Dec. 4: Knicks host Nets in first game of Subway Series
So far, the Nets’ move to Brooklyn has been a bust when it comes to generating lasting animosity with the Knicks. Both teams have been dull or bad, or both, and that is unlikely to change this season. However, if you’re a fan of twins, or specifically of 7-foot tall Disney-obsessed twins, then you’re in luck, as Robin (New York) and Brook (Brooklyn) Lopez will go head-to-head at Madison Square Garden in early December.
No need to stop the presses. This isn’t exactly DeAndre Jordan goes to Dallas or LaMarcus Aldridge returns to Portland, but this game will mark Greg Monroe’s first visit back to Auburn Hills after signing with Milwaukee as a free agent this summer. The man they call Moose spent five years with the Pistons and has zero playoff appearances, one cloudy contract situation and one DUI arrest/awkward urination situation to show for it. At least Milwaukee appears to be a greener pasture.
21. Dec. 4: LeBron James, Anthony Davis share the court
Let’s be honest: you’re not going to be watching Knicks/Nets or Pistons/Bucks when Anthony Davis’s Pelicans are hosting LeBron James’s Cavaliers. Will coach Alvin Gentry’s new high-octane offense be enough to keep pace with a Cleveland attack that should be even more refined and potent than last year?
22. Dec. 13: Raptors, Sixers square off in Drake Bowl
In search of new and creative ways to intentionally put a losing product on the court, Sixers GM Sam Hinkie must sign rapper Meek Mill for Philadelphia’s first trip to Toronto, where Raptors global ambassador Drake will surely welcome him with open arms and harsh bars.
23. Dec. 16: Restored Thunder welcome rebuilding Blazers
Portland snatched the Northwest Division title from Oklahoma City last season, thanks in large part to Kevin Durant’s ongoing foot problems. The tables appear to have turned back to normal this season, with Durant healthy and LaMarcus Aldridge now in San Antonio. In the chaos of last season, Russell Westbrook enjoyed a number of memorable performances against the Blazers, including two 40-point games and a triple double. This year, it will be Damian Lillard’s turn to attempt a one-man army approach.
24. Dec. 17: LeBron James and Kevin Durant go head-to-head
The Cavaliers will play host to the Thunder in mid-December, setting up a nice head-to-head match-up between two title contenders and (arguably) the top two players in the game—LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Although Durant did play in both of Oklahoma City’s games against Cleveland last season, neither performance was a signature effort. This would be a statement road win for the Thunder in a game that will be carried on TNT.
Next page: Games 25–50
25. Dec. 21: Suns, Jazz open four-game season series
Utah and Phoenix missed out on the playoffs after making things somewhat interesting last season, and the teams have pursued very different roster-building strategies in hopes of getting over the hump. The Jazz have looked to build from within by letting youngsters Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert develop, while the Suns have executed a cycle of trades and signings that have landed Eric Bledsoe, Tyson Chandler and Brandon Knight. Which method will prove more effective in 2015-16?
26. Dec. 23: Mavericks’ Deron Williams makes Brooklyn return
Deron Williams’s three-plus years with the Nets will go down as a colossal disappointment considering the expectations that accompanied his arrival, max contract signing and the borderline crazy financial investments made by owner Mikhail Prokhorov. Now, as Brooklyn officially enters the teardown, Williams will return to the Barclays Center on a slapped-together Mavericks team that looks like it is headed nowhere fast, in very Nets-like fashion. Will anyone bother to show up and boo him?
27. Dec. 25: Pelicans at Heat on Christmas Day
The NBA’s master plan to cram Anthony Davis down your throat continues in a Christmas Day opener against Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. The real intrigue here might come from how Hassan Whiteside, the Heat’s mercurial center, holds up against Davis on such a large stage.
28. Dec. 25: Bulls at Thunder
Two would-be title contenders. Two first-time NBA coaches called up from the college ranks (Fred Hoiberg and Billy Donovan). A long list of All-Star talent including Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Pau Gasol and Jimmy Butler. A hyped-up crowd. This isn’t a traditional rivalry, but it’s plenty enticing.
29. Dec. 25: Cavaliers at Warriors
Golden State and Cleveland played an entertaining Finals, even though Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving weren’t in the mix when the series was decided. Given that the Warriors and Cavaliers managed to retain their key pieces this summer (pending a resolution to the Tristan Thompson saga), it wouldn’t be shocking if these teams squared off in a Finals rematch come June. Before that can happen, they will take the Oracle Arnea court as the centerpiece of the NBA’s Christmas Day slate.
Dec. 25: Spurs at Rockets
Gregg Popovich probably let out a groan and immediately cracked open a wine bottle when he realized the Spurs were scheduled for a road game on Christmas against the Rockets, which are shaping up to be one of the West’s best teams after a conference finals trip last season. Texas’s top two squads will battle for bragging rights as newcomers LaMarcus Aldridge and Ty Lawson look to leave their marks on the intrastate rivalry.
31. Dec. 25: Clippers at Lakers
Last year, the Clippers swept the Lakers 4–0 and won by an average of 16.3 points. Expect another turkey roasting to cap off the Christmas Day quintuple-header. At least Kobe Bryant and company will be able to spend the morning at home with their families.
32. Dec. 30: Clippers’ Lance Stephenson returns to Charlotte
There’s a decent chance that everyone will have agreed by late-December that the Lance Stephenson Era in Charlotte never actually took place. Either way, the Clippers’ latest acquisition will make his only return to North Carolina after an extraordinarily disappointing and inefficient season. A 75-year-old Michael Jordan could post a higher PER and three-point percentage than Stephenson did in 2014–15. Hopefully this year will be a little better.
33. Jan. 2: Timberwolves, Bucks rumble in matchup of top sophomores
Unfortunately, 2014 No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins (Minnesota) and No. 2 pick Jabari Parker (Milwaukee) only shared the court once last season, before Parker went down with a season-ending knee injury. It’s not yet clear when exactly Parker will return to the court, but the Timberwolves and Bucks won’t square off until early-January, which should give him enough time to get healthy for this highly-anticipated sophomore showdown.
The American Airlines Center crowd didn’t quite get its money’s worth with Rajon Rondo, as the enigmatic point guard was sent packing from a first-round playoff series against the Rockets before he got the chance to take the home court. Upset over God knows what, Rondo raced out of the locker room and never looked back. Rather than chasing down his point guard, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle responded by happily moving Raymond Felton into a larger role, which really says it all. After signing a one-year deal with the bottom-feeding Kings, Rondo could be headed for a lion’s den when he makes his Dallas return.
35. Jan. 14: Magic “host” Raptors in London
The NBA’s Global Games series hits London’s O2 Arena for this mid-January classic between the Raptors and the Magic. Or something. Londoners are forgiven if they are feeling a little short-changed on the star power. The good news is that Kyle “Hashtag NBA Ballot” Lowry should be gunning on all cylinders during the middle of another All-Star push.
36. Jan. 18: MLK Day slate opens with Pelicans at Grizzlies
The NBA has clearly made Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a priority this year, a quadruple-header on the holiday. The Pelicans and Grizzlies open the slate in Memphis, home of the National Civil Rights Museum. Yet another big stage for Anthony Davis.
37. Jan. 18: Hawks host Magic on MLK Day
It’s reasonable to believe that this could be the year that Orlando turns the corner in its long-term rebuilding effort, and a nationally-televised holiday matchup against Atlanta should make for a good measuring stick. New coach Scott Skiles will hope that a young, talented core consisting of Tobias Harris, Victor Oladipo, Nikola Vucevic, Elfrid Payton, Aaron Gordon and rookie Mario Hezonja can jell into a competitive outfit.
38. Jan. 18: Warriors visit Cavaliers on MLK Day
The NBA clearly sought to get maximum mileage out of its 2015 Finals matchup by slating both 2015–16 games between the Cavaliers and Warriors on holidays. Round 1 is set for Oakland on Christmas Day. Round 2 will take place on MLK Day, as Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and friends will travel to Cleveland, where they closed out LeBron James and the Cavaliers in Game 6 last June.
39. Jan. 18: Clippers host Rockets rematch on MLK Day
The MLK Day quadruple-header closes with another playoff rematch. Just don’t remind the Clippers, which gagged away a 3–1 series lead over the Rockets to miss out on a trip to the Western Conference finals. As if the collective presence of Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, James Harden and Dwight Howard wasn’t enough to get the juices flowing, Josh Smith added another layer to this matchup by leaving Houston to sign with L.A. this summer.
40. Jan 23: Cavaliers host Bulls to start ABC’s Saturday night slate
In a new twist this season, ABC is splitting its coverage between Saturdays and Sundays, with eight games on each weekend day spread out over the last few months of the regular season. The new Saturday slate opens with a guaranteed ratings darling, as the Cavaliers play host to the Bulls at 8:30 p.m. ET. Friendly note for Cavaliers coach David Blatt: the schedule change will not impact how many timeouts each team gets during the course of a game.
41. Jan. 25: Warriors host Spurs for first of four games
On paper, the Warriors and Spurs look like the West’s top two teams. On the court, they won’t get the chance to one-up each other until late-January. The other three contests between the teams are set for the final month of the season.
42. Jan. 30: Spurs visit Cavaliers on Saturday night
The second edition of ABC’s Saturday night programming features LeBron James and the Spurs, his old foes. This matchup isn’t only about reliving James’s three Finals appearances against San Antonio, as Kyrie Irving proved last March, when he scorched the nets for 57 points in a dramatic overtime win.
43. Feb. 6: Pelicans host Cavaliers
LeBron James. Anthony Davis. Round Two. Smoothie King Center.
44. Feb. 19: Kings’ DeMarcus Cousins faces old coach
Kings coach George Karl can breathe a sigh of relief: he won’t need to see his franchise center, DeMarcus Cousins, hugging Nuggets coach Michael Malone until after the All-Star break. Sacramento will host Denver in what will be Malone’s first game against his former club. Absence should make the heart grow fonder for Cousins, who made no secret of his affection for his former coach Malone during Las Vegas Summer League.
45. Feb. 21: Thunder host Cavaliers on Sunday
Round 2 between LeBron James and Kevin Durant will take place during ABC’s prominent Sunday afternoon time slot shortly after the week-long All-Star break.
46. Feb. 22: Hawks and Warriors as reigning No. 1 seeds clash
Atlanta and Golden State played some incredibly futuristic basketball in a memorable showdown last February, with the Hawks claiming a nice home win in a high-scoring affair. This off-season saw the Hawks lose DeMarre Carroll and the Warriors drop David Lee, but both teams enter the season with high hopes. Let the scoring begin.
47. Mar. 4: Wizards complete season series with Cavaliers in Cleveland
It’s easy to forget just how close the Wizards were to upsetting the Hawks and advancing to the Eastern Conference finals against the Cavaliers. Yes, Paul Pierce is gone, but John Wall and Bradley Beal still form one of the league’s best young backcourts. Washington and Cleveland will square off four times in the regular season, and this Friday night ESPN game should make for a good playoff warmup.
48. Mar. 25: Spurs host Grizzlies in Southwest showdown
The Spurs and Grizzlies have played more than their fair share of important games over the last few years, including a triple-overtime classic last December. The Southwest Division rivals square off twice in four days in late March, and that pair of head-to-head games could easily have major playoff implications.
49. April 1: Celtics visit Warriors on April Fool’s Day
Despite making the playoffs last season, Boston doesn’t get a ton of national television love this season. Their final ESPN appearance, an April 1 game against the defending champion Warriors, might be the juiciest, even if it comes in the middle of a rough late-season, five-game road trip against Western Conference teams. Not only does this game promise a matchup of two well-regarded young coaches in Steve Kerr and Brad Stevens, it represents Boston trade acquisition David Lee’s only trip back to Oracle Arena in 2015–16.
50. April 13: Jazz at Lakers in season finale
If Kobe Bryant can hold up for the duration of the season, something he wasn’t able to do in 2013–14 and 2014–15, this season-ender against the Jazz could mark the final game of his 20-year Lakers career. To be clear, Bryant hasn’t definitively said he plans to retire after the season, although he is in the final year of his contract and will turn 37 later this month.