76ers NBA schedule: Five must-see games for 2019-20 season, including Jimmy Butler's return, Kawhi Leonard rematch

The Philadelphia 76ers were a couple of unfriendly bounces away from a likely Eastern Conference finals appearance last season. Instead of standing pat with the roster that they had, the Sixers shook things up in a major way over the offseason by adding former nemesis Al Horford, along with Josh Richardson to the starting lineup to replace Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick, who both signed elsewhere in free agency.

Young All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are both expected to improve, as is swingman Tobias Harris, who signed a big-money deal over the summer to remain in Philadelphia, and should benefit from an increased familiarity with the Sixers system, and a more pronounced role. 

On paper, the Sixers now have one of the most -- if not the most -- formidable starting lineups in the entire NBA heading into the 2019-20 season, and though there are some legitimate questions about their depth, the Sixers project to have a better bench than they did last season, especially if either Zhaire Smith or Matisse Thybulle -- or both -- can prove to be a reliable rotation piece.

With the roster that they have in place, the Sixers are widely expected to contend for their first NBA Finals appearance since 2001, especially in what appears to be a watered-down Eastern Conference.

Needless to say, there is a lot of excitement surrounding Philadelphia, both locally and on a national level. With that said, here's a look at five must-see 76ers games for the 2019-20 NBA season. 

1. Season opener vs. Celtics (Oct. 23)

Opening night offers one of the most exciting -- and anticipated -- games every single season as it provides fans with the opportunity to see their team's restructured roster following offseason adjustments in a game that matters for the first time.

That will certainly be the case for the Sixers this season as their opening-night matchup will be the first time we see Al Horford and Josh Richardson in a Sixers uniform (preseason excluded), and to get an idea of how those major additions may mesh with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Tobias Harris. 

This opener will also be extra special for the Sixers, who take on a long-time rival in the Boston Celtics, and it will be a chance for each side to get an idea of how they stack up against each other in the East after busy offseasons for both teams. Plus, Horford, who played with the Celtics for three seasons before signing with the Sixers this summer, will likely be looking to make a statement against his former franchise. 

2. Christmas Day vs. Giannis-led Bucks (Dec. 25)

Having a Christmas Day game is big-time in the NBA, and this is the third straight season that the 76ers have one. This time, though, they will be facing off against a Milwaukee Bucks team that is fresh off an Eastern Conference finals appearance, and the game will be in Philadelphia.

The game represents a battle between the projected top two teams in the Eastern Conference, and is thus a potential '20 ECF preview. It will also be a showcase showdown between potential MVP candidates in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid. 

3. Rematch vs. Kawhi Leonard (Feb. 11)

Technically, it was the Toronto Raptors that knocked the 76ers out of the playoffs last year, but it was All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard who dominated the Sixers on a game-by-game basis, and ultimately hit the dagger that sent the Sixers home. Philadelphia's first game against Kawhi's Clippers will provide the 76ers with an opportunity to get a modicum of revenge against the guy that ended their season last spring. 

Also, the game against the new-look Clippers could be a potential NBA Finals preview, as both the Sixers and Clippers are expected to make major noise in the postseason following the moves they made over the summer. 

4. Jimmy Butler's return to Philadelphia (Nov. 23)

The Sixers' first home game against the Miami Heat will be one to watch. The game should be a good one on the floor, as it will [likely] be a battle between two teams fighting for playoff positioning in an open Eastern Conference. But, the real entertainment in this one will come from the crowd's reaction to Jimmy Butler, who will be returning to Philadelphia for the first time since spurning the Sixers in favor of the Miami Heat in free agency over the offseason. 

Butler had an opportunity to become a hero in Philadelphia by re-signing with the Sixers and helping Embiid and Simmons lead the Sixers to their first NBA title since 1983. But, by signing with the Heat, Butler instead insured that he will be a villain in Philly for the foreseeable future. Butler should brace for some boos on this night. 

5. First game vs. LeBron's new-look Lakers (Jan. 25)

The last time that the 76ers were in the 2001 NBA Finals, they faced off against the Los Angeles Lakers, and it's possible that the two teams are headed for a rematch 19 years later. After adding Anthony Davis and bolstering the rest of the roster around LeBron James, many expect to see the Lakers come out of the West when all is said and done, and the Sixers face similar expectations in the East following the moves that they made over the offseason. Thus, the star-studded matchup between the Sixers and Lakers could be a potential Finals preview, and will be must-watch basketball. 

Michael Kaskey-Blomain covers the NBA for CBS Sports. He has covered the league in some capacity since 2009 for a variety of outlets including Philly.com, ESPN 97.3, and 247 Sports. Michael hails from... Full Bio

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