The Nuggets and Lakers will face off in a rematch of the Western Conference Finals on Oct. 24.
It was the goal of the NBA to produce an early-season start that rivals a late-season finish and in that sense, the 2023-24 schedule will provide every chance for this to happen.
One reason: This is the debut of the In-Season Tournament, and so there are meaningful games from Opening Night through mid-December.
But also, the debut of rookie Victor Wembanyama, a tremendous Opening Week of matches and the usual slate of fine Christmas Day games will demand your attention.
Here are the 10 must-watch games of the early season and why they’ll generate plenty of ratings and chatter:
1. Lakers at Nuggets
• Oct. 24 | 7:30 ET, TNT
The ever-popular Inside the NBA crew gets a tasty doubleheader to start the season, including the replay of the 2023 Western Conference Finals, which really wasn’t contested last spring. The Nuggets whisked the Lakers into the offseason and during the process of that sweep, coach Michael Malone constantly harped on the public’s fascination with the Lakers and perceived disrespect of Denver.
That theme followed all the way through the Nuggets’ championship victory celebration and drew the amusement/annoyance of LeBron James. Now, L.A. gets an early chance to poke the championship bear (to paraphrase Dillon Brooks) and earn a bit of satisfaction.
2. Suns at Warriors
• Oct. 24 | 10 ET, TNT
The schedule makers either have a sense of humor or a devilish side, or maybe both. Why else would they waste no time in putting Chris Paul and the Suns on the floor together — this time, on separate benches? Paul was unceremoniously dumped for Bradley Beal over the summer and this presents a sneak preview of what’s in store for both players.
Can Beal burn some decent minutes at the point? How will Paul carve out meaningful minutes in a backcourt with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson? Paul is still pursuing the elusive championship; making an early statement against a strong contender like Phoenix will be a good measuring tool.
Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving will look to spoil Victor Wembanyama’s NBA debut on Oct. 25.
3. Mavericks at Spurs
• Oct. 25 | 9:30 ET, ESPN
It’s not often when a team that won just 22 games a year ago finds itself among the featured games of the new season. But — Victor Wembanyama! The debut of The Next Big Thing will happen on this date, and the anticipation will be heavy from here to Paris.
Just as a reference point: LeBron James scored 25 points in his debut, setting a single-game scoring record for a player who went from preps to pros. Does anyone know the debut scoring record for a French player-to-pros? We’re looking it up now …
4. Suns at Lakers
• Oct. 26 | 10 ET, TNT
Trivia question: When was the last time LeBron James and Kevin Durant squared off? How about Christmas Day … back in 2018? Yes, it has been much too long. These all-time greats managed to miss each other mainly because of injuries, and mainly injuries suffered by Durant.
Finally, the time will arrive (fingers crossed) right before Halloween when hopefully, the basketball world will get a treat instead of being tricked yet again. Last season, after being traded to Phoenix, Durant was supposed to face LeBron on March 22. But that reunion was canceled by an ankle injury suffered during pregame warmups, of all things, a few weeks earlier.
5. Heat at Celtics
• Oct. 27 | 7:30 ET, ESPN
There are still folks in Boston who can’t believe the Celtics lost a Game 7 at home — and a chance to advance to the NBA Finals — to Miami last spring. The Celtics were a heavy favorite then, but Jimmy Butler had other ideas.
It was arguably the biggest non-Finals win in Heat history and a crushing loss for Boston. Overall, Jayson Tatum — and especially Jaylen Brown — had no answers in that game and, really, that series. This game could carry even heavier meaning if the Heat, between now and then, manage to pull off a major trade and get a certain player from the Western Conference.
Miami pulled off a historic first-round upset in the playoffs against Milwaukee last season.
6. Heat at Bucks
• Oct. 30 | 8 ET, NBA League Pass
If Milwaukee could have a do-over, it would beg the basketball gods to keep Giannis Antetokounmpo healthy for the Bucks’ first-round series with Miami last spring. Antetokounmpo missed just over two games of the series and Butler became king of Milwaukee — he went to school at Marquette — as Miami came away with the 4-1 series win.
This matchup is three games into Milwaukee’s season, and while Antetokounmpo will miss FIBA competition due to surgery on his left knee earlier this summer, he’s expected to be ready for training camp. Should there be any surprises, both teams play again on Nov. 28 in Miami.
7. Wizards at Warriors
• Dec. 22 | 10 ET, ESPN
There will be heavy suspense and a hushed crowd at Chase Center when the teams walk onto the court for the pre-game handshake. How will the interaction go between Draymond Green and Jordan Poole? A tight embrace? A go-through-the-motions high five? Or does Poole ignore him completely? Inquiring minds want to know.
This game, the first between Poole and his former ‘mates, will be the most scrutinized player-to-player acknowledgment in recent NBA history. Because, well, you know. What is assured is Poole will get a warm embrace from the fans, if only for his performance two years ago while helping the Warriors win a championship.
8. Grizzlies at Pelicans
• Dec. 19 | 7:30 ET, TNT
This is Game No. 26 on the Grizzlies schedule, which means it’s the first that Ja Morant will be eligible to play after a 25-game suspension. There will be plenty to learn on this night: Where are the Grizzlies in the standings? How much did trading for Marcus Smart cushion the loss of the team’s franchise player?
And most important, will Morant be rusty or ready to go? Curiously and understandably, the Grizzlies didn’t use Morant’s image to promote the team’s In-Season Tournament schedule mainly because, well, Morant won’t play any of them. Gut feeling: He’ll be splashed everywhere in advance of this game.
The star-studded Suns have more than 30 nationally-televised games this season.
9. Mavericks at Suns
• Dec. 25 | 10:30 ET, ESPN
Luka Doncic takes great pleasure in torturing the Suns and Devin Booker in particular — the two have a history, as they say. This is a massive regular-season stage to give to Doncic and offer him the chance to rile up his old friends. Doncic vs. Booker is only the undercard. The main event is Kyrie Irving being on the same floor as Durant, only in different uniforms.
The ex-teammates faced off back in March for the first time since their Brooklyn breakup, and it delivered by all accounts. So Mavs-Suns makes for good watching long after the presents are unwrapped and the spiced eggnog starts to kick in.
The last two Kia MVP winners, Joel Embiid (left) and Nikola Jokic, will square off on Jan. 27, 2024.
10. Sixers at Nuggets
• Jan. 27 | 5:30 ET, ABC
Nikola Jokic vs. Joel Embiid. Nothing more needs to be said. The first meeting between the league’s premier big men and Kia MVP winners must wait until the season prepares to push into February. Doesn’t matter — these two are almost guaranteed to put on an intriguing show no matter when and where they play.
Will the MVP award once again be at stake, at least in the minds of the splintered basketball world? Never too early to take a side.
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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail himhere, findhis archive hereand follow him onTwitter.
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