The NBA released its schedule on Friday, and there will be a return to an 82-game season, beginning in late October and ending in mid-April.
What will be intriguing about the coming season is there will be no clear favorite. The Bucks are the defending champions, but the Lakers and Nets are considered more complete teams. The Knicks are no longer laughingstocks. The Hornets are legitimate. The Suns are out to prove last season was not a fluke.
The schedule is filled with fascinating matchups, and here are 10 to watch:
Nets at Bucks, Oct. 19 — The champs face the team that should have beaten them in the Eastern Conference semifinals had Kevin Durant taken a half-step back and attempted a 3-pointer, instead of the 2-pointer that sent Game 7 to overtime. The Bucks went on to beat the Hawks and Suns to win their first title in 50 years. Milwaukee will bring back most of the core of that team in search of a repeat. The Nets, meanwhile, will be healthy, with Kyrie Irving and James Harden joining Durant in search of a title. It will be the battle of the two best teams in the Eastern Conference.
Heat at Raptors Feb. 3 — Kyle Lowry’s return game to Toronto, and it should be an emotional night, with the Raptors back in Toronto after a season in Tampa because of COVID-19. Lowry embodied Toronto’s toughness and helped to bring the city its first basketball championship. But he was a free agent and the Raptors wanted to move forward, executing a sign-and-trade with the Heat. Toronto isn’t exactly starting over, but parting was best for both sides.
Warriors at Suns, Nov. 30 — The Warriors have been waiting to get back to full health and a loaded roster to make a run in the Western Conference. Klay Thompson may not be back from his two-year absence, but this could be an opportunity for the Warriors to show they’re contenders again. Golden State enters the season with Stephen Curry coming off a brilliant year, along with Draymond Green, James Wiseman, and lottery picks Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody. The Warriors have high hopes, while the Suns want to prove they were not one-season wonders.
Lakers at Bucks, Nov. 17 — The Lakers take on the defending champions with a roster that is, well, experienced. The average age of the Lakers is 32, a veteran group that includes LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, Trevor Ariza, Wayne Ellington, Marc Gasol, Kent Bazemore, and Dwight Howard, in addition to 28-year-old star Anthony Davis. Can the Lakers hold up all season? How will they compare with the league’s elite teams? We will find out when they take on the Bucks.
Knicks at Celtics, Dec. 18 — It will be a return game for Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier, but more importantly it will be a chance for teams with sights on winning the Atlantic Division to face off for the second time. The Knicks added not only Walker and Fournier to last season’s playoff squad, but they re-signed Derrick Rose, Nerlens Noel, and Alec Burks to go along with All-NBA forward Julius Randle. Boston is also a different team with Dennis Schroder, Josh Richardson, Al Horford, and Enes Kanter joining a club that failed to meet expectations last season. The Knicks won’t sneak up on anyone and the Celtics will look to atone for a disappointing season.
Mavericks at Pacers, Dec. 10 — Pacers coach Rick Carlisle returns to Dallas after 13 seasons and an NBA title as coach. The reason Carlisle left for Indiana is he felt his message was growing stale with superstar Luka Doncic. The Pacers hired Carlisle because they want to be a factor in the Eastern Conference right now. The Pacers are hoping that good health and a full season of Caris LeVert will help them take the next step. The Mavericks are now led by Jason Kidd, who gets his third chance at a head coaching position. Doncic enters this season as a legitimate MVP candidate, but the Mavericks struggled to get major free agent help for the Slovenian guard, adding Reggie Bullock as their major move.
Hawks at Knicks, Dec. 25. — You have to be an old schooler if you remember the last time the Hawks played on Christmas Day. An Eastern Conference also ran the past few years, Atlanta finally put it together and reached the conference finals behind Trae Young. Young is back with a $207 million contract extension along with a healthy young core. John Collins also was re-signed and the club added Delon Wright and drafted Duke’s Jalen Johnson. The Hawks’ youth movement has finally paid off and Young is the centerpiece, and he gets to return to Madison Square Garden, where he was jeered by Knicks fans during the playoffs.
Clippers at Hornets, Jan. 30 — Will Kawhi Leonard be back by this game? The Clippers are going to have to learn to play without him, and they fared well during the playoff series with the Jazz. The Hornets are retooled and ready for a playoff run. Not only does LaMelo Ball come back for his sophomore season, but the club signed Kelly Oubre and Ish Smith along with what they hope to be a healthy Gordon Hayward, and a re-signed Terry Rozier. The Hornets are no longer a potential sleeping giant. They are a factor in the Eastern Conference. The Clippers brought back nearly everyone from last season’s team sans Patrick Beverley. The pressure will be on Paul George to lead with Leonard out after knee surgery.
Trail Blazers at 76ers, Nov. 1 — Will Ben Simmons still be a 76er when this game tips off? There aren’t many trade partners remaining for the All-Star guard, and Philadelphia has been shopping him after his struggles in the conference semifinal loss to the Hawks. A potential trade partner could be the Trail Blazers, who could offer C.J. McCollum and another player. Simmons is still in Philadelphia, and the Blazers haven’t made the splash acquisitions that would appease a disgruntled Damian Lillard.
Celtics at Lakers, Dec. 7 — It will be Schroder’s return game to LA. The former Laker turned down a four-year, $84 million extension, believing he could earn more in the free agent market. But the market went dry and he accepted a one-year, $5.9 million deal from the Celtics with the hopes of jumping back into the market next summer. It will be the first Lakers-Celtics game in two years with a full arena of fans, and it will be an opportunity for Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to compete with James, Davis and Co. on a nationally televised showcase, just like old times between the rival franchises.
Durant clearly best at Olympics
One thing we learned during the Tokyo Olympics is that Draymond Green and Kevin Durant have resolved the issues that prompted Durant to leave the Warriors and sign with the Nets.
Durant and Green talked this past week on Green’s podcast about the blowup that marred Durant’s final season with Golden State.
Durant tore his Achilles’ during the NBA Finals and the Warriors lost to the Raptors. Durant then signed with Brooklyn, and a blowup with Green during a loss to the Clippers was considered the primary reason Durant departed. Durant acknowledged that it played a part, but the two reconciled long ago, and they were close teammates during Team USA’s march to the gold medal.
When Durant was being interviewed after the win over France in the gold medal game, Green walked by, tapped Durant on the backside, and said, “Way to go, Slim!”
Green hasn’t softened late in his career, but he’s open about his appreciation for Durant.
“Kevin Durant is exactly who we thought he was,” Green said. “One of the greatest players to ever play this game. One of the most special guys you’ve ever seen lace their shoes up and take a basketball court — at 7 feet, doing what he’s doing. I mean, he’s 2 inches shorter than Rudy Gobert, doing what he’s doing. That’s a special, special man. He carried his team like we needed him to, like he’s supposed to. Coming back for his third Olympics — all-time USA scorer. There has been a lot of great players to don this jersey. He’s No. 1. That’s a special thing.”
Durant, despite coming off a long season in which he led the Nets almost singlehandedly to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the eventual champion Bucks, asked to play for Team USA and was the unquestioned best player in the Olympics. He added to his legend with a handful of brilliant performances, and as he nears 33 years old, he cherishes the experience.
“It’s the camaraderie,” he said. “I watch a lot of basketball, and I respect a lot of these players in the league. And we usually get the best players on this team, and so to build a camaraderie with the most talented guys in the world, to fight for your country, to represent my little section of the United States, my family, and everybody else doing the same. You know, it’s special that we can come together for a common cause, because we battle against each other all year.
“We fight so hard to get this gold ball in the NBA, but for us to rise above that and become teammates and brothers for life against the rest of the world is just a huge, huge deal. And I’m always grateful for this opportunity. It’s always amazing to get with USA Basketball. It’s been my family since I got into the league. So, it’s just that brotherhood that we created that I enjoy being a part of, and the journey of just working every day with these guys. It brings me a lot of joy. I really, really enjoy it.”
Team USA lost its opening game to France and then ran off five consecutive wins, including the rematch with France in the gold medal game. Durant and Green were walking together to a news conference when Durant ripped critics who said the US was no longer the best team in the world. He was proven right.
“We had a lot of first-time guys who were new to the experience,” Durant said. “We lost some games. Never lost with Team USA before, so taking a loss was tough. I remember we had a team meeting after the first game against France. Pop [coach Gregg Popovich] wasn’t there, but we had a team meeting on our own. You know when you have a team meeting, you are kind of at the bottom. So, we just worked our way up from there. Everybody just committed to doing what’s best for the group, no matter what.
“And it was just amazing to see that clock run to zero and us celebrating like that and then celebrate in the locker room. I mean, it was incredible. I’m just happy to be here. I’m happy to be a part of this group for life and this gold back home. A lot of people back home doubted us. A lot of people said it was going to be tough for us to win. And to be honest, they really don’t matter, but you hear the noise so much. And we came together and finished it off, which is the perfect ending for us.”
Popovich did not make the 1972 team as a player, and longed to win the gold medal after years of waiting to be the head coach. Coaches do not receive medals, so Popovich watched the ceremony from the stands. Once coaches were allowed on the floor to celebrate, two players placed their gold medals on Popovich.
“I was totally frozen. I didn’t do anything. I just sat there scared to death,” Popovich said of the gold medal game. “I watched these guys play. I talked to the other coaches. It’s sort of an out-of-body experience when you’re in one of these kind of games. You compete, you know, once the ball goes up, you don’t think about too much. You’re just competing.
“It’s before that’s horrible, when you’re thinking about you know, did you skip any steps, and what else can the other team do to you, and what do we have to do. Those are the tough moments. But while the game is going on, you don’t really think that. And [Team USA director] Jerry [Colangelo], this is his last stop with this particular part of his life. Although, you know, the legacy will always be there for him, and he’ll always be there ready for counsel … Besides our families, ourselves, our country, you know, you do it for a lot of reasons. But once the game is on, you don’t think too much about that. It’s before and after where it hits you.”
Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens said that former second-round picks Yam Madar and Juhann Begarin will play overseas this season, though both showed enough potential to perhaps join the roster next year. Begarin is just 19 but played with maturity in the Las Vegas Summer League and is likely a cinch to join the French national team as it attempts to take that next step and win the gold medal at the Paris Olympics in 2024. Madar signed a three-year deal to remain in Israel, but that contract likely as an NBA out for when the Celtics want to bring him to the states. The Celtics were willing to offer Madar a two-way contract, meaning he would have spent a majority of his time with G-League Maine, but the money and opportunity were better overseas … It’s going to be a Celtics-centric 2021 Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame ceremony on Sept. 11, with Paul Pierce being presented for induction by 2020 inductee Kevin Garnett. Inductee Chris Bosh will be presented by former Celtics guard Ray Allen and Heat president Pat Riley. Bill Russell, who will be inducted as a coach, will be presented by Spencer Haywood, Charles Barkley, Julius Erving, Alonzo Mourning, Bill Walton, and longtime NBA executive Rick Welts. Chris Webber will be presented by Isiah Thomas, Ben Wallace will be presented by Larry Brown, and Toni Kukoc will be presented by Michael Jordan and Jerry Reinsdorf … The Pistons may have a problem on their hands in their backcourt after drafting Cade Cunningham No. 1 overall. Cunningham has been projected as a point guard, but Detroit drafted Frenchman Killian Hayes as its point guard of the future in 2020. The question is whether they can play in the backcourt together, and the Pistons should know that soon as Cunningham is likely to start there initially alongside Hayes. Hayes experienced a bumpy rookie season that was marred by injuries. Cunningham enjoyed a smooth and productive Las Vegas Summer League. The person with the primary responsibility of tutoring that backcourt is former Celtics assistant coach Jerome Allen, who joined the Pistons’ staff in June … Former Celtics assistant Jamie Young has been hired by Doc Rivers in Philadelphia and was on the team’s summer league staff. Young spent nearly 20 years with the Celtics but was not retained when Ime Udoka took over as coach.