Here are five games — actually, four and a season series — to bookmark on your DVR:
Detroit Pistons at Toronto Raptors, Nov. 14.
Last season, Toronto led the Eastern Conference with 59 regular-season victories, and Dwane Casey was voted the NBA’s Coach of the Year. The Raptors rewarded Casey by firing him four days later. In Casey’s seven seasons with Toronto, the Raptors went 320-238 and improved from a patsy to one of the powers in the East. Over that duration, though, the Raptors never made it to the NBA Finals and were swept by Cleveland in the conference semifinals last spring. Toronto president Masai Ujiri felt his team needed a new voice and a new approach to try to get over the hump in the playoffs. Casey was swiftly hired by the Pistons, who have made the playoffs once in the last 10 years — in 2015-16, when they were swept by the Cavaliers in the first round. Casey will be asked to build the Pistons from the ground up as he did with the Raptors. He’ll be plenty motivated to beat his old team at Air Canada Centre.
Los Angeles Lakers at Cleveland Cavaliers, Nov. 21.
It will be barely a month into the season when LeBron James makes his highly anticipated return to Quicken Loans Arena with his new team, the Lakers, with whom he signed a four-year, $153.3 million free agent contract in July. By that time, we’ll know more about the Lakers, who haven’t made the playoffs since 2012-13 and were 35-47 a year ago. Things have changed, of course, with the addition of James, who reached the NBA Finals eight straight seasons with Miami and Cleveland, claiming three championships. The Lakers are still young, featuring the likes of Lonzo Ball (20), Brandon Ingram (20), Kyle Kuzma (23) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (25). Can James, abetted by veteran acquisitions such as Rajon Rondo and JaVale McGee, lead the Lakers to the promised land in the deep Western Conference? With James gone, Kevin Love is the straw that stirs the drink for the Cavaliers, having signed his own four-year, $120-milion extension less than a month ago. Without James, Cleveland’s roster will strike fear in the heart of no opponent during the upcoming season. Love, JR Smith, Kyle Korver, Tristan Thompson, George Hill and Rodney Hood will be fighting just to make the postseason in the East.
Toronto Raptors at San Antonio Spurs, Jan. 3.
The biggest trade of the summer came on July 18, when San Antonio sent Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to Toronto in exchange for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first-round draft pick. It put an end to one of the strangest sagas of the 2017-18 season with Leonard. The small forward played only nine games for the Spurs as he dealt with a mysterious quad injury, distancing himself from a franchise with which he had been named NBA Finals MVP and was twice honored as the league’s Defensive Player of the Year. Now Leonard and fellow All-Star DeRozan have swapped uniforms, and they’ll go up against each other for the first time in early January in a game everyone will be watching.
Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics, Jan. 26.
This is the matchup oddsmakers are predicting to foreshadow the 2019 NBA Finals. Bovada has Golden State as a 1/2 pick to win it all. Boston is next in line at 11/2.
The defending champion Warriors have added DeMarcus Cousins to their almost embarrassing roster of riches that includes Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. The Celtics are expecting Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving to be healthy and ready to join a nucleus featuring the likes of Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier. Brown already has guaranteed an Eastern Conference title. “Oh we’re getting to the Finals,” he said on CJ McCollum’s “Pull Up” podcast this week. “No question about it.”
Golden State Warriors vs. Houston Rockets (four times: Nov. 15, Jan. 3, Feb. 23 and March 13)
The NBA’s two best teams last season — sorry, Cleveland — were the Warriors and Rockets. They squared off in 10 games, each team winning five times. Golden State prevailed in seven games in a sensational Western Conference finals matchup. The rivals are loaded for bear again this year, with the Rockets buoyed by the expected addition of Carmelo Anthony to the cast led by James Harden and Chris Paul. Whenever the Warriors and Rockets tip it off next season, it will be worth the watch.
–Kerry Eggers, Field Level Media