The NBA has unveiled its opening week, Christmas and MLK Day schedules for the 2018-19 season. Our panel of experts breaks down the key matchups and storylines surrounding some of the biggest dates on the league’s calendar.
1. What’s the biggest question that will get answered during the NBA’s opening week?
Kevin Pelton, ESPN Insider: Whether Kawhi Leonard plays basketball, something we haven’t seen since January. Nobody outside the medical staffs of the San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors and Leonard’s own team of doctors seems to know what to expect from him. If Leonard plays and looks like the player who finished in the top three of MVP voting in both 2015-16 and 2016-17, the Raptors become favorites in the East, as our projections based on ESPN’s real plus-minus suggest.
Jorge Sedano, ESPN: How ready are the rookies and sophomores? What kind of growth did they make in the offseason? Those are the questions I want to see answered. Guys are always adding to their games and like to showcase it early. What kind of adjustments will Deandre Ayton and Luka Doncic make from summer league or EuroBasket? How much better are Jayson Tatum, Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell? We’ll see very quickly what they added this offseason to make themselves and their teams better.
Royce Young, ESPN.com: Will Leonard actually play competitive basketball this season for the Raptors? And how healthy is he? Seems that we’ll have pretty good answers for those questions in the opening week, especially with a matchup against the Boston Celtics in front of him for the first test.
Chris Herring, FiveThirtyEight: I don’t think the first week will answer anything meaningful, honestly. But I will be looking forward to seeing Kawhi in uniform — especially when the Raptors play the Celtics for the first time. The likelihood of one of those two teams winning the East is pretty good (the Sixers will obviously have something to say about that), and Leonard’s ability to regain the form he showed in 2015-16 and 2016-17 will be an enormous factor in whether the Raptors get it done.
LeBron James, this time in purple and gold, meets up again with the defending champion Warriors to highlight a stacked holiday slate.
2. What game from the entire slate (opening week, Christmas, MLK) are you most looking forward to?
Herring: The Lakers and Warriors on Christmas. I don’t have any expectation that the Lakers will win, necessarily, but seeing LeBron take on this loaded Golden State team for the first time with a different club will be highly entertaining. And for what it’s worth, the Lakers have generally played Golden State well the past few years, even with their youngsters. Let’s see how they fare with LeBron in tow.
Spears: Anytime LeBron plays the Warriors it is must-see television. But the most compelling game is Philadelphia versus Boston on opening night. The old East rivalry is renewed and we get a better idea of who could represent the conference in the Finals.
Pelton: Lakers at Blazers on Oct. 18. I’m excited to be in the building for LeBron’s first game with the Lakers, which will be played in an arena where he has had little success recently. LeBron’s teams have lost the last five games he has played in Portland, and until he had 35 points and a ferocious dunk on Jusuf Nurkic last March, James hadn’t scored more than 20 points in any of them. The last time LeBron took a new team to face the Blazers in Portland, the Cleveland Cavaliers lost 101-82 and he vowed afterward to take on more of a playmaking role.
Sedano: Lakers at Warriors on Christmas: This is an easy one. The dynamic of LeBron versus the Warriors is enticing enough, but adding the element of him trying to resurrect the crown jewel of the NBA is intriguing. Not to mention, what is that team going to look like after two months of playing with LeBron? What’s the Lakers rotation like? Is DeMarcus Cousins playing for Golden State?
Young: It’s hard not to be wildly intrigued by LeBron’s Lakers against the Warriors on Christmas — seriously, those ratings will set a record — but the Warriors getting their rings (again) on opening night in front of Russell Westbrook seems like a prime setup for some furious drama and tension.
3. What’s the one change you’d make to the entire slate of games announced?
Herring: The Knicks stick out like a sore thumb here, particularly if Kristaps Porzingis isn’t back from his ACL injury. I’m sure fans would prefer Toronto or New Orleans get a shot here instead. That said, it is fun to see superstars play at Madison Square Garden on Christmas, so I won’t complain too much about seeing Giannis Antetokounmpo on that stage.
Pelton: I’d have Houston as Golden State’s opponent on opening night rather than Oklahoma City. While Houston may not be quite as competitive after the departures of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, we’re still barely two months removed from a thrilling seven-game series between the Rockets and Warriors. There’s also the additional intrigue of seeing how Carmelo Anthony fits in with Houston.
Sedano: I would have liked to have seen the Warriors open against the Lakers instead of the Thunder. I listed all the reasons above, although we’d get the added element of the unknown. I don’t know if anyone knows what this Lakers team/rotation will look like for Game 1. I think that element would have piqued the curiosity more. Plus, you still could have had them match up on Christmas in Los Angeles.
Spears: I would have had Leonard with his new Raptors squad return to San Antonio on Christmas. Spurs fans have never seen a situation like the one that Kawhi presented. Are they mad? Are they on his side? The reaction to Kawhi’s return will be interesting.
Young: It feels like it’s a missed opportunity to not feature Leonard’s return to San Antonio more prominently, and Lakers-Celtics with the new LeBron vs. Kyrie Irving twist on opening week would be quite tasty. But really, the matchups are fun and the storylines plentiful. Plus, everyone eventually is going to play everyone anyway.
4. LeBron James’ first game in a Lakers uniform will be _______.
Pelton: Hostile. Granted, pretty much everyone in the Western Conference considers the Lakers rivals; you’re going to build up plenty of enemies when you’re as consistently successful as the Lakers have been over the past six decades. Nonetheless, few cities relish hating the Lakers more than Portland, so while there will surely be plenty of Lakers fans in the building, LeBron can’t expect a friendly reception in his debut.
Sedano: Showtime! Mural defacing aside, Lakers fans have been clamoring for a return to glory. LeBron’s arrival brings hope for the idea that playoff basketball will return to Staples Center in April and beyond.
Spears: Memorable, no matter the performance or outcome. This will be one of the most recalled debuts in Lakers history. I believe the NBA made a mistake by having his first Lakers game on the road and not on opening night; a strange decision.
Young: Surreal. It’s not surprising that LeBron changed teams. It’s not even that surprising that he picked the Lakers. But seeing him in the iconic Laker colors, with a “James 23” Laker jerseys scattered throughout the Moda Center will be an odd experience. Opening night with LeBron will feel like Laker Exceptionalism fully realized, and the kind of megawatt pairing between star and franchise that really was always meant to be.
Herring: In Portland. This one had me a tad confused. His first game won’t be against a particularly noteworthy opponent (the Warriors or the Celtics). It won’t be played on his new home court. It won’t be played against a player he has had fierce battles with in the past (he had a pretty decent history of playing season openers against Carmelo). It’s simply against Portland. I’ll watch, just like everyone else, but this one didn’t really stand out to me.
5. Which player is your pick to drop 40-plus points on Christmas?
Herring: LeBron. Depending on how the Lakers are playing heading into that Christmas game, it wouldn’t shock me if LeBron poured in 40 against Golden State for the holiday. We all remember that he finished with 51 during Game 1 of the Finals (and we haven’t forgotten about JR Smith‘s brain freeze), and James has shown he’ll do his best to put his team on his back if he feels he’s not getting enough scoring support from teammates.
Pelton: Damian Lillard. As incredible as the Jazz’s defense is, Utah has often had few answers for Lillard’s deep 3s. He scored a career-high 59 points against the Jazz in April 2017 and averaged 33 in four matchups last season. Playing near where he starred in college at Weber State and on Christmas Day for the first time in his career, Lillard will surely look to make Dec. 25 Lillard Time.
Sedano: Westbrook. The Rockets lost some of their best defenders this offseason and even though it’ll be Christmas, Russ will probably still be seething over a first-round exit (at the hands of the Jazz) in the playoffs. It was either going to be Russ or James Harden for me on this question, but I’ll go with Russ, because I think OKC will be out to send a message this regular season.
Spears: Harden. The Beard will be one of the NBA’s leading scorers again with or without Anthony joining the roster. The Thunder-Rockets game will be a fast-paced, high-scoring affair, which certainly suits Harden’s game. Adding to the scoring motivation for the reigning MVP will be a worldwide audience on Christmas.
Young: Kevin Durant. If we’re going with percentage chances, it’s probably wise to go with the world’s best scorer. With LeBron in a Lakers uniform on the other side — and with all eyes on this game — these are the kind of matchups Durant relishes. He scores 25 just by rolling out of bed, but with the opportunity for a little statement available, 40 or more is well within sight for KD.