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Some people out there will try to tell you the NBA regular season doesn’t matter. Do not listen to these people.
The regular season is a time for storylines to grow and flourish, for player and team narratives to be put to the test. It’s where fans of every team can have hope.
It’s also where fans (and of course, the teams themselves) can get crucial data on how their biggest rivals are likely to stack up in the playoffs.
Not every basketball enthusiast is a superfan who tunes into league pass to watch a mid-November game between say, Phoenix and Dallas. (Only the truly lost among us would do that.)
With that in mind, here are the five most compelling regular season match-ups to keep an eye on.
Bucks @ Sixers, Christmas Day
Look, the Eastern Conference is, shall we say, uh, not very good this year.
The two exceptions are the Milwaukee Bucks and the Philadelphia 76ers, who both felt the wrath of Kawhi Leonard in the playoffs last season.
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Both teams are the clear standouts in a weakened Eastern Conference (at least until Kevin Durant makes his debut for the Brooklyn Nets), and have developed a pretty interesting rivalry over the past few years.
Reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo memorably called Ben Simmons a ‘f***ing baby’ at one point last season
On the other hand, the 76ers seem to have spent their off-season building their team specifically to counter the Greek Freak.
Despite Giannis’ opinion of Simmons, between him, Embiid, Al Horford, who they lured away from Boston, and Tobias Harris, the Sixers have plenty of big, quick, and athletic players to counter Antetokounmpo’s relentless attacks on the rim.
This game is absolutely a curtain raiser for the Eastern Conference Finals, and is a certified Must Watch.
Lakers @ Pelicans, November 27
I know what you’re thinking - the Lakers and Clippers is obviously a bigger rivalry. And it is! But anyone could tell you that. This matchup could have some real juice to it though, if only for the storylines linking these two teams.
Zion Williamson is the hottest prospect drafted since LeBron James was labelled the Chosen One in 2003. The Pelicans won the right to draft him first overall after a tumultuous season in which the other number one pick they had, Anthony Davis, packed up and demanded a trade to the Lakers.
For the Lakers, it’s all about Davis,. LeBron James has already made comments about ceding the the Lakers’ prized recruit as he begins the transition into the twilight of his own immense career. But behind the big two, the Lakers’ roster is still a bit shaky. Role players like Danny Green, Avery Bradley and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will need to reliably produce with the starting line-up or off the bench. The Lakers’ depth probably isn’t quite what it could be, making their margin for error very tight.
These two teams, and especially Davis and Williamson, will always be somewhat linked to one another as a result of the way this trade and draft panned out. Can the Pelicans, with Williamson and new general manager David Griffin, become the threat Davis’ New Orleans’ teams never could? Will the Lakers live up to their lofty expectations? Only time will tell.
Clippers v Rockets, December 19
On face value, there is more immediate appeal in the Clippers/Lakers and Rockets/OKC Thunder rivalries. But these two teams can reasonably be expected to set the pace in a Western Conference.
How can you not like the idea of James Harden and Russell Westbrook taking on Kawhi Leonard and Paul George? This match-up pits the four superstars against each other in a way few others do. There is every chance Leonard and George will be tasked with guarding Harden and Westbrook (though admittedly Patrick Beverly will likely get the nod on Westbrook, but that’s still a pretty good show given their, ahem, history).
The Clippers are one of the presumptive favourites for the 2019/20 championship after an off-season of upheaval radically changed the NBA landscape. Heaps of teams are looking very different to what they did last season, and the Clippers and Rockets arguably led the charge.
Doc Rivers said Paul George will go through non contact drills through all of training camp. Not clear when he’ll start doing full contact work. He’s doing some spot shooting drills right now
— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) October 8, 2019
By December, the rust will have been well and truly shaken off, and in all likelihood, who holds tiebreakers among the Western Conference’s top teams will be crucial by the time the playoffs roll around. This one matters.
Celtics v Nets, November 27
There’s a lot of good games happening on the 27th (see above), but Kyrie Irving’s return to the Garden will be a must-watch after his acrimonious separation from the Celtics.
Brooklyn were one of the off-season’s big winners when they signed Irving and the injured Kevin Durant, but there will be an asterisk on them until Durant comes back from his torn achilles tendon. Regardless, Irving is still a huge boost to a Nets team that turned heads last year, making the playoffs for the first time in several years.
It remains to be seen how the Nets will come together, but the same can be said of the Celtics. Losing Al Horford was a massive blow, particularly after it emerged he only left because he didn’t think the team would achieve anything further with Irving on the team.
Kemba Walker is a suitable replacement for Irving, but the same cannot be said of Horford’s replacement, Enes Kanter, The Turkish big man is a certified bucket on offence, but can be a turnstile on defence. Boston’s other options in the frontcourt, role-player Daniel Theis and the largely unproven Robert Williams, are unlikely to offer much respite.
A Boston side with Walker and talented wings Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown is still no walkover, making this a crucial test for the new-era Brooklyn Nets.
“I see a different way - a different assertiveness - in the right things,” Brad Stevens says of Jayson Tatum.
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) October 8, 2019
Nuggets @ Trail Blazers, December 12
Denver and Portland went the distance in the Western Conference semi-finals last season, and are once again firming to be major contenders this season as well.
Both teams have benefited from the West opening up thanks to the end of the Golden State era, but still have plenty to prove nonetheless.
The Blazers finally broke through to the conference finals after several disappointing exits in years prior, toppling a Denver outfit that can reasonably hold championships expectations.
What makes this match-up fun is that they are two largely equally-matched teams who approach the game in radically different ways.
The Blazers are powered by guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, one of, if not the most electrifying backcourt tandems in the NBA. Additions made on the margins (adding Kent Bazemore, Anthony Tolliver and Hassan Whiteside, losing Evan Turner, Mo Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu) were made not only to ease their salary cap pressure, but add some scoring punch outside of their big two.
For Denver, everything starts and ends with Nikola Jokic. The Serbian giant boasts the passing touch of the most elite guards, but in a truly enormous frame that’s just as comfortable shooting from distance as it is on the low block.
Are the Denver Nuggets title contenders? @GregAnthony50 and Brian Shaw discuss if this young Nuggets core can make a run at a championship on the 2019-20 Denver Nuggets Team Preview on NBA TV. pic.twitter.com/T3OLGw85JZ
— NBA TV (@NBATV) October 7, 2019
Throw in a circus of cuts and off-ball activity from the likes of Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Gary Harris and Torrey Craig, and the Nuggets have a great blend of individual scoring ability and team basketball.
Both teams made big steps last season, so it’ll be interesting to see how that translates this season. Other teams might steal more headlines, but Denver and Portland are going to be extremely fun to watch this season.