The new NBA schedule starts sooner, features more rest opportunities, and includes new measures to ensure that superstar players are available during showcase games.
After teasing its opening week and Christmas Day slates on Friday, the league officially released its full 2017-18 schedule on Monday. Thanks in part to moving opening night up one week, the league has eliminated all 4-games-in-5-nights for the first time this season. Back-to-backs are also down to an average of 14.4 per team, a sharp reduction from a 19.3 average in 2014-15 and a 16.3 average in 2015-16.
But the most intriguing new schedule development concerns the league’s treatment of its showcase games. Remember back in March when the Cavaliers’ decision to rest LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love during an ABC Saturday game sparked significant controversy and led Clippers coach Doc Rivers to argue that such games should never be part of a back-to-back for either team? The league has responded by “protecting” all five Christmas Day games, eight ABC Saturday games, five ABC Sunday games, and three Martin Luther King Jr. Day games. What does “protected” mean? Both teams in those games will have traveled fewer than 3,500 miles in the week leading up to that game and they will not be on a back-to-back or part of a 4-games-in-5-nights part or 5-games-in-7-nights. In other words, coaches will have a much harder time making the case for strategically resting their superstars in these highly-anticipated showcases.
Enough about the mechanics. Let’s dive into the storylines and narratives to watch as Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and the Warriors look to defend their 2017 title, the Cavaliers aim to win the East for the fourth straight time, and reworked contenders like the Spurs, Celtics, Rockets and Thunder hope to crash the Finals.
Here’s a full rundown of 50 games to circle on your calendar between opening night (Tuesday, Oct. 17) and the final day of the regular season (Wednesday, April 11). All 30 teams are included.
1. Oct. 17: Celtics at Cavaliers on opening night
The East’s defining question in 2018 is the same as it has been every year since 2010: Will anyone be able to keep James out of the Finals? Boston, last year’s No. 1 seed, looks like it will be Cleveland’s top challenger again following a strong summer that included the addition of All-Star forward Gordon Hayward in free agency and No. 3 pick Jayson Tatum. The NBA didn’t waste any time by staging the first 2017 East Finals rematch on the first night of the new campaign.
2. Oct. 17: Rockets at Warriors on opening night
The competition in the West will similarly be centered around the seeming invincibility of the conference’s favorite. As in, does anyone have a prayer at keeping up with the Warriors? Not only is Golden State coming off three straight Finals trips, but it also enjoyed a rock solid offseason that saw Durant take a discount, Curry lock in for five years, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston return, and helpful bench pieces like Nick Young and Omri Casspi arrive on the cheap.
The Rockets have arguably emerged as the Warriors’ stiffest test thanks to a blockbuster trade for Chris Paul, which gives coach Mike D’Antoni a second elite playmaker to pair with MVP runner-up James Harden. After laying an egg against the Spurs on opening night last year, look for the Warriors to come out guns blazing in what should be an entertaining and star-studded shootout this time around.
3. Oct. 18: Sixers at Wizards
The tank is no more. Philadelphia has a strong case as 2017-18’s most intriguing team, what with franchise center (when healthy) Joel Embiid, redshirt Rookie of the Year candidate Ben Simmons and uber-talented 2017 No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz combining to form a potent young core. That trio will make its nationally-televised against John Wall and the Wizards, who fell just one win short of the franchise’s first conference finals trip since 1979.
4. Oct. 18: Timberwolves at Spurs
ESPN’s RPM model has fallen in love with the Timberwolves, projecting a 50-win season thanks to a busy summer that saw All-Star forward Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson arrive to inject some experience to a young core built around No. 1 picks Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Is Minnesota, which disappointed by winning just 31 games last season, poised to make the playoffs for the first time since 2004? Can they really compete for home-court advantage? They will embark on that path in earnest with a visit to the perennially contending Spurs, whose 2017 season sputtered out in the West finals due to an untimely Kawhi Leonard ankle injury.
5. Oct. 19: Knicks at Thunder
Reigning MVP Russell Westbrook and his new Thunder sidekick, All-Star forward Paul George, might both get triple-doubles in their nationally-televised season-opening tune-up against the hapless Knicks. With any luck, New York will have finally traded Carmelo Anthony by this point, officially setting the stage for the Kristaps Porzingis Era.
6. Oct. 19: Clippers at Lakers
While this crosstown matchup has been a Christmas Day staple in recent years, Paul’s departure to the Rockets has helped knock the Clippers out of the holiday showcase slate entirely. That’s fine, because Clippers/Lakers works better as an early-season hype magnet: Southern California native Lonzo Ball will make his much-anticipated debut in front of the home crowd, and Blake Griffin, assuming he’s healthy, will get his first shot at being The Man during the post-Paul era.
7. Oct. 20: Cavaliers at Bucks
Who will be the East’s best all-around player if James bolts for the Lakers or Spurs as a free agent next summer? The leading candidate is almost certainly Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning Most Improved Player who somehow managed to lead the Bucks in all five major statistical categories at age 22 last season. This should be a fascinating early-season “present-versus-future” showdown that, with any luck, could turn out to be a 2018 postseason preview.
8. Oct. 20: Celtics at Sixers
Boston’s Danny Ainge stuck his neck out when he decided not to select Fultz, the consensus No. 1 overall pick in June’s draft, and instead trade down to take Tatum at No. 3. The move made sense from a roster fit and timeline perspective, but it necessarily binds the two players together in “What if” scenarios for the rest of their careers. The Fultz/Tatum comparisons, which raged during Summer League play, will recommence during the first week of the regular season.
9. Oct. 22: Timberwolves at Thunder
Prepared to double-take once or twice during this opening week matchup between offseason winners. Butler in Minnesota? George in Oklahoma City? Teague in Minnesota? Patrick Patterson in Oklahoma City? All those players relocated to the West from the East? Both of these teams have big postseason goals. This first of four showdowns should reveal which team has gelled more quickly.
10. Oct. 26: Pelicans at Kings
So many stars changed teams this summer that it’s easy to forget that DeMarcus Cousins still hasn’t made his return to Sacramento following his poorly-executed trade to New Orleans during All-Star Weekend. Will Cousins, who led terrible Sacramento teams for six-plus seasons before being paired with Anthony Davis, be cheered or booed at the Golden 1 Center? And how badly will he pummel the Kings’ young frontline?
11. Oct. 30: Nuggets at Knicks
One of the best side-by-side case studies to track involves two top European big men, Nikola Jokic and Porzingis. In Denver, Jokic has quietly evolved into a one-man offense and the Nuggets did well this summer to find a star player, Paul Millsap, who perfectly complements his skills and covers for his deficiencies. In New York, Porzingis has earned plenty of global attention but he clashed with a since-deposed front office that made little progress in reshaping the roster around him. Will Jokic assert himself as the more complete player in this early-season matchup or will Porzingis find a way to claim victory in spite of his adverse circumstances?
12. Nov. 1: Rockets at Knicks
Circle this one just in case Carmelo Anthony (finally) gets traded to Houston. If this long-discussed deal does go down, this contest would represent his only return to Madison Square Garden after six-plus seasons with the Knicks. It’s pretty easy to envision Paul and Harden force-feeding Anthony against his former team, isn’t it?
13. Nov. 2: Warriors at Spurs
Leonard will take his first crack at the Warriors since Zaza Pachulia stepped under him and injured his ankle during Game 1 of the 2017 West finals. Without their MVP candidate and despite Gregg Popovich’s angriest motivational efforts, the Spurs succumbed to a one-sided sweep. It’s difficult to believe they’ll go down as easily this time around.
14. Nov. 3: Nets at Lakers
The Lakers executed a swift, and somewhat harsh, transition of power this summer by trading away point guard D’Angelo Russell to clear the decks for Ball. In the aftermath of the trade, Magic Johnson jabbed at Russell’s leadership, suggesting that perhaps people didn’t enjoy playing with the 2015 No. 2 pick. In Brooklyn, Russell found a pick-deficient rebuilding franchise that’s been spinning its wheels, but he also stepped into a major opportunity. The Nets need everything he has to offer, and they’d surely love for Russell to stick it to his successor in his first return to Staples Center.
15. Nov. 15: Sixers at Lakers
The top of the 2017 NBA Draft – with Boston trading No. 1 to Philadelphia and LA lucking into Ball – is bound to be replayed for years and years. Will Fultz prove to be the right choice at the top spot? Will Ball, who earned MVP honors at Las Vegas Summer League, wind up making both Boston and Philadelphia look bad? The first chapter of the never-ending debate will be nationally-televised on ESPN in mid-November. What’s more, this will also mark the first professional match-up between 2016’s top two selections, Philadelphia’s Simmons and LA’s Brandon Ingram.
16. Nov. 20: Pacers at Magic
Let’s be honest: The ever-rebuilding Magic don’t really belong on this list at all. Picking their most interesting game isn’t an easy task, and the NBA opted to exclude Orlando entirely from its ABC, ESPN and TNT lineups. This mid-November game against Indiana is one of just four Orlando games set to air on NBA TV, and it pits Pacers guard Victor Oladipo, the centerpiece of the George trade, against his former team. As an added bonus, Myles Turner and Aaron Gordon, two promising young bigs, will get a chance to show off their varying skillsets.
17. Nov. 22: Warriors at Thunder
This Western Conference rivalry has produced classic games and epic taunts in recent years, but it proved awfully one-sided last season following Durant’s defection. George’s arrival opens up some ultra-versatile, defensive-minded lineups for Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan and it gives the Thunder the closest they’re going to find to a Durant-stopper.
18. Nov. 22: Lakers at Kings
Ball’s decision to sit out a Summer League showdown with fellow rookie point guard De’Aaron Fox due to a minor injury drew plenty of eye rolling in Las Vegas. Their first regular-season showdown between these top five picks will come on ESPN the day before Thanksgiving.
19. Nov. 28: Heat at Cavaliers
Dion Waiters delivered one of the most underrated headlines of the summer when, in response to Kyrie Irving trade rumors, he declared that Miami already has an “alpha male.” If Irving remains in Cleveland, this sets up as an entertaining showdown between Waiters and Irving, two former teammates with a history of locker room issues. But let’s say Irving does get traded to the Heat. All of a sudden, this turns into the game of the year by virtue of being Irving’s first game against James. The best part of this hypothetical? Waiters will surely try to find a way to steal the show.
20. Dec. 2: Suns at Celtics
Who could forget Phoenix’s eye-popping, but utterly shameless, move to push rising star Devin Booker to score 70 points in a meaningless March loss? Not the Celtics, who departed that game with raw feelings and trash talk given the Suns’ timeout taking and subsequent post-game celebrations. Look for an overflowing cup of bad blood in this one.
21. Dec. 13: Thunder at Pacers
George made four All-Star Game appearances and two conference finals trips during his seven-year tenure in Indiana, but his moodiness cast a shadow over the Pacers’ 2016-17 season and his desire to move on forced Kevin Pritchard’s hand this summer. That complicated relationship between star, organization and fan base sets up a fascinating mid-December return. One major subplot: Will the Thunder be playing well enough to look like a long-term home for George’s services or will LA-centric rumors be swirling again?
22. Dec. 15: Spurs at Rockets
What the heck happened to Harden during that Game 6 meltdown against San Antonio? The world may never know, but the Rockets get their first shot at redemption against their intra-state rival in mid-December. Paul’s influence is worth watching in this one, too, as he should enjoy a major positional advantage in a rivalry between two teams that could easily wind up with the West’s No. 2 and No. 3 seeds.
23. Dec. 22: Clippers at Rockets
Conventional wisdom dictates that the Paul trade vaulted Houston up the West’s hierarchy and knocked LA out of the contender conversation. Will that prove true on both counts? By the time Paul faces his former team for the first time in mid-December, both squads should have the wrinkles ironed out. Will Harden and Paul mesh more seamlessly than Paul and Griffin? Will the Clippers’ newfound depth be enough to keep up with the Rockets’ elite attack? Will any animosity arise after Paul’s abrupt departure following a series of deflating postseason performances?
24. Dec. 25: Sixers at Knicks on Christmas Day
Sitting through the Knicks on Christmas is always an annoying “We know the NBA does this because of market size but this is still so annoying and unfair to better teams” ritual. On the bright side, “The Process versus The Zinger” has the potential to be an appetizing opener as long as injuries don’t spoil the party.
25. Dec. 25: Cavaliers at Warriors on Christmas Day
James. Durant. Curry. Irving (maybe). Green. Thompson. Love. Iguodala. Another June classic feels like a long way off, so instead start the countdown to a star-studded Christmas showcase for the league’s reigning finalists.
26. Dec. 25: Wizards at Celtics on Christmas Day
Do Christmas sweaters come in Funeral black?
27. Dec. 25: Rockets at Thunder on Christmas Day
The NBA managed to save the first match-up between Westbrook and Harden, the 2017 MVP and MVP runner-up, until Christmas. Awesome. Even more awesome? Oklahoma City’s George and Houston’s Paul both pose major new defensive challenges for their opposite numbers in a rivalry that might be renewed in the 2018 playoffs.
28. Dec. 25: Timberwolves at Lakers on Christmas Day
With any luck, Ball’s brilliant passing and Ingram’s development will help LA avoid another Christmas stinker. Even if the youthful Lakers still look a little too green, though, the Timberwolves’ combination of high-upside prospects (Towns and Wiggins) and tested vets (Butler and Teague) should keep this interesting. Keep an eye on Towns, in particular, as the third-year big should be in the midst of a push for his first career All-Star Game selection.
29. Jan. 3: Thunder at Lakers
GM Sam Presti bet big this summer, hoping that the Thunder could enjoy enough success to convince George to stay in small-market Oklahoma City rather than return home to the bright lights of LA. That bet will face serious scrutiny in early January, when Westbrook and George face the young Lakers at Staples Center on ESPN. George will surely be inundated with desperate recruiting from the Lakers faithful and a possible Southern California Superteam might already be taking shape at this point in the season.
30. Jan. 7: Knicks at Mavericks
With all due respect to Dirk Nowitzki’s never-ending greatness, the best story Dallas has going is rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr. The North Carolina State product drew rave reviews at Las Vegas Summer League, even earning comparisons to Damian Lillard and a young Derrick Rose thanks to his power and athleticism. Smith, who slipped to Dallas at No. 9 in June’s draft, will get his first shot at New York, who under Phil Jackson’s direction selected international point guard Frank Ntilikina one spot earlier. Start bracing for another round of Zenmaster-related angst from the Big Apple now.
31. Jan. 11: Cavaliers at Raptors
Toronto fans have every reason to feel overlooked by the television schedule-makers, as the Raptors won’t play on ABC at all and they won’t feature on ESPN or TNT until this mid-January tilt with the Cavaliers. On the bright side, Toronto will host the 2017 second-round rematch on a TNT Thursday, giving Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and company a shot at some high-profile revenge.
32. Jan. 15: Hornets at Pistons on MLK Jr. Day
The Pistons were one of the NBA’s most frustrating and least watchable teams last year, but the league’s schedule-makers nevertheless rewarded them with a nationally-televised holiday game against the Hornets. This one has some sleeper potential, as both Detroit and Charlotte should be in the 2018 playoff mix thanks to the thinning of the surrounding bubble herd. While big-bodied centers Andre Drummond and Dwight Howard are both trying to adapt to the downsizing NBA, they make for a natural individual match-up that should be heavy on dunks and blocks.
33. Jan. 15: Warriors at Cavaliers on MLK Jr. Day
Golden State blew out Cleveland on MLK Jr. Day last season in a fitting preview of their commanding Finals showing. Will history repeat itself?
34. Jan. 15: Rockets at Clippers on MLK Jr. Day
For years, Clippers fans have been viewed as less supportive and venomous than many of their counterparts. Will that turn Paul’s LA homecoming into a polite and welcoming affair?
35. Jan. 19: Kings at Grizzlies
Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and company should remain competitive in the West, but the Grizzlies will be missing some heart and pizzazz this season following the free-agency departures of Zach Randolph and Vince Carter to the Kings. Although there will be higher-profile returns this season, it’s hard to imagine a more heartfelt homecoming than Randolph’s in Memphis, where the power forward was a beloved grit-and-grinder for eight seasons. And while Carter’s three-year Grizzlies tenure was just one of many stops during a long and decorated career, their joint visit is bound to ratchet up the emotions.
36 .Jan. 20: Warriors at Rockets
Skeptical that the reloaded Rockets can mount a real challenge to the Warriors? The NBA doesn’t seem to be. After launching the regular season with Houston and Golden State on opening night, the league doubled back to kick off its eight-game slate of ABC Saturday games with the same two teams. Can’t blame them.
37. Jan. 22: Blazers at Nuggets
One of the NBA’s better, less-heralded rivalries can be found in the Northwest Division thanks to Jusuf Nurkic, who exploded onto the scene after a midseason trade from Denver to Portland last season. When the Blazers took a major step to secure their postseason spot and eliminate the Nuggets in April, Nurkic, who underperformed and disappointed throughout his Denver tenure, went out of his way to wish his former team a “happy summer.” While the Blazers won’t make their first trip to the Mile High City until January, Nuggets fans will surely be waiting and playoff positioning could very well be on the line again.
38. Jan. 23: Cavaliers at Spurs
The worst byproduct of the Warriors’ rise has been the fact that James and Leonard have only faced off twice in each of the last three seasons. As far as cat-and-mouse games between elite performers go, this is about as good as it gets. This year’s rendition gets an extra booster because San Antonio figures to be among the leading contenders for James’s services should he choose to leave Cleveland as a free agency next summer.
39. Jan. 31: Hornets at Hawks
How many return games can one man play? Howard’s plunge from MVP candidate to journeyman took another step this offseason when Atlanta’s new front-office regime dumped the center to Charlotte in a June trade just one year into his three-year contract. The good news for Howard: His Hornets should be on track for the playoffs at this point, while the Hawks might very well be playing for ping pong balls.
40. Feb. 9: Timberwolves at Bulls
Butler will make his one and only return visit to the United Center just before the All-Star break. With any luck, the talent-deficient Bulls won’t yet be mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.
41. Feb. 10: Spurs at Warriors
The 2017 West finalists will face off four times on national television, including this ABC Saturday contest shortly before the All-Star break that marks Leonard’s first trip back to Oracle Arena following his much-discussed injury.
42. Feb. 11: Cavaliers at Celtics
The third and final meeting between Cleveland and Boston will be on ABC Sunday leading up to the All-Star break. By this point, the Celtics should have had plenty of time to integrate Hayward into their system and strike the right offensive balance with their other stars, Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford. As far as regular-season litmus tests go, this one ranks up near the top.
43. Feb. 14: Warriors at Blazers
Portland and Golden State have a long-standing history of combining for some serious offensive fireworks. This ESPN contest is worth keeping an eye on because it’s the Blazers’ final game before the All-Star break. If Damian Lillard finds himself snubbed for a third straight year, he could easily choose this game to try to send a message.
44. Feb. 25: Spurs at Cavaliers
James vs. Leonard II gets the ABC Sunday treatment shortly after the All-Star break. This will mark Cleveland’s third and final ABC appearance of the season.
45. March 2: Raptors at Wizards
Somehow, the last of four matchups between these presumed East powers is the only one currently slated for national television. Lowry and Wall both pulled down big new contracts this summer, and both will be asked to carry rosters with some obvious holes into the East’s playoff picture. Will either second-tier challenger have managed to separate itself by this point in the season? Will either have been exposed?
46. March 10: Spurs at Thunder
Naturally, all four games between San Antonio and Oklahoma City will be nationally-televised this season given the playoff stakes and superstars involved. This contest, the third of four meetings between the Southwest Division rivals, gets the ABC Saturday treatment. Big picture: Will the Westbrook/George be enough to overwhelm Leonard, who seems stuck without a true co-star?
47. March 28: Celtics at Jazz
Hayward’s sloppy departure from Utah led Jazz center Rudy Gobert mocking his former teammate’s loyalty and left many fans frustrated with his stop-and-start announcement. Will cooler heads have enough time to prevail by the time this late-season return rolls around? And will Hayward’s Celtics have validated his decision to leave an up-and-coming Jazz team by sitting at or near the top of the East’s standings?
48. March 29: Bucks at Warriors
Late-March can often be a wasteland in the NBA, but the schedule-makers tucked in the second matchup between Milwaukee and Golden State on a TNT Thursday. Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and the rest of the long-armed Bucks have mounted some memorable challenges to the Warriors in recent years, and the Greek forward has gotten so good so quickly that his showdowns with his elite counterparts should be treated as much-watch material.
49. April 10: Celtics at Wizards
In a best-case scenario, the last of four match-ups between Boston and Washington, set to air on TNT on the penultimate night of the season, will have playoff seeding implications. In a worst-case scenario, Thomas, Wall and the other relevant stars are resting up.
50. ??? vs. Cavaliers
It’s quite possible that the single most intriguing game of the entire season remains a mystery. All it takes for this list to be turned on its head is for Cleveland to break up its Big 3 with an Irving trade. Who gets him? Miami? Phoenix? Denver? New York? Minnesota? Who knows. But his first visit back to Quicken Loans Arena might be electric enough to match Durant’s cupcake-laced trip back to Oklahoma City last season.