What should NBA's schedule look like for marquee nights in 2017-18 season?
Make it Celtics vs. Cavs and Rockets at Oracle to face the Warriors on banner night to start season
The NBA schedule will be out in the next few weeks, and with movement by stars and a thrilling rookie class, fans will be salivating over games for three months -- until the season begins.
Who should get the prime-time spots? There are a handful of dates that define the NBA calendar. Landing a game on one or more is a measure of importance. Here's a look at how the biggest nights of the season should be scheduled, taking into account ratings, fan interest and creating the most compelling matchups. So this is not a prediction, more like a wish list.
Opening night: Tuesday, Oct. 17
There are two big objectives: Crown and showcase the champions, and give some time to the opposing conference's power. A rematch of the Finals is rare. The last time it happened was 2011, when the Mavs raised the banner -- following a lockout -- and the Heat summarily pounded Dallas into the dirt.
There is always a temptation to lead with revenge matchups. But there's no need to risk an ugly incident on opening night. It should be about basketball. That's why OKC-Golden State, a Kyrie Irving return to Cleveland (if he's traded) or the like doesn't make sense. Those games belong on random nights to attract attention. So here's the opening night pair:
CELTICS AT CAVALIERS: This one's pretty simple. You need LeBron James, no matter where Irving is playing. You could send a team West (Oklahoma City is a tempting option), but this is a rematch of the Eastern Conference finals, with a healthy Isaiah Thomas and the addition of Gordon Hayward. The NBA saved games between these two for later in the schedule last season, and got several games where the teams weren't at full strength. This sets the tone for the East, pitting a loaded and legendary franchise vs. the three-time defending conference champs. If the Celtics -- after adding Hayward and No. 3 overall pick Jayson Tatum -- open with another loss to the Cavs, it would be disappointing.
ROCKETS AT WARRIORS: The league wants a compelling matchup for the champs. The Warriors are primed to roll this season, so you want as much hype as possible. They could put the Spurs in this spot. After all, San Antonio split with the Warriors last season, drubbed them on opening night, and led by 25 in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals before Kawhi Leonard's injury. But the Rockets are something new, with Chris Paul (and potentially Carmelo Anthony) on board. They also took a game from the Warriors last season. Houston provides the star power.
Opening Wednesday, Oct. 18
The keys are showcasing young talent and a marquee matchup.
LAKERS AT 76ERS: Two of the top young teams in the league. No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz vs. No. 2 Lonzo Ball. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons debuting against the league's most popular franchise. This makes a world of sense, and serves as a primer for the Rookie of the Year race.
Opening TNT Thursday, Oct. 19
This may seem like a letdown, but remember, Thursday is the league's marquee night.
CELTICS AT WIZARDS: Bad blood. The Celtics come in off one day's rest. And while the Raptors can lay claim to the third, and arguably second-best spot in the East, they don't draw like the Wizards. Boston gets back-to-back tough ones to start, but that happens to contenders.
Opening Friday, Oct. 20
A sneaky-important night, and typically features two higher-profile teams (Bulls-Celtics and Clippers-Blazers last season).
BUCKS AT CAVALIERS: An unorthodox choice, but it puts James in prime time vs. the Next Big Thing in Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks gave the Cavaliers fits last season, and could be a real challenge to Cleveland.
WARRIORS AT SPURS: If Golden State and the Spurs are going to meet four times (they presumably will) one should be early in the season. Putting this first one in the first week, at San Antonio, gives the Spurs a chance at revenge for the WCF loss. Full-strength Warriors vs. full-strength Spurs (well, excluding injured Tony Parker).
In many ways, the most important slate of the season. It's the league's biggest ratings day, though the NFL also will play two games (Steelers-Texans at 4:30 p.m. ET, and Raiders-Eagles at 8:30 p.m. ET). In the past, some games have been dictated by market size. The Knicks and Bulls are constants for the accompanying Chicago and New York ratings. But, please, NBA -- no more. Good teams need to play on Christmas, and the odds are very low that either team will be any good.
It might be better to actually avoid the Finals rematch on Christmas. It makes sense to spread the two out, and give another high-profile game a shot on the big day, making Cavs-Warriors available to boost another night. But the league figures to go for the home run and we'll see Cavs-Warriors again. In that case, here's the slate:
WIZARDS AT RAPTORS: Multiple All-Stars, two of the four best teams in the East, and most importantly, an early start time in the East. This is a no-brainer.
CAVALIERS AT WARRIORS: The rematch. The best player of this generation, vs. the best team of this generation. The game is due to be at Golden State. The Cavaliers beat Golden State last Christmas, but the odds of that happening again seem slim. You know what you're getting.
CELTICS AT THUNDER: It's a great matchup. Westbrook went ballistic vs. the Celtics last season, and with Hayward and George now in the mix, it's a great afternoon matinee after the main event.
ROCKETS AT SPURS: This one has been on Christmas before, which lends to the appeal. It's two franchises with strong histories, MVP candidates, and a divisional rivalry. Plus, it's a great contrast -- Houston's up-and-down approach vs. the grind of San Antonio.
NUGGETS AT LAKERS: You can substitute Portland for Denver if you'd like, but the objective is to get Ball and the Lakers, a big ratings draw, on the biggest day vs. a good, young team. You need a Pacific time zone game, and with Paul gone from the Clippers, the Lakers are the most obvious choice for a late-night game. While the league should keep the bad teams off Christmas, Ball and the Lakers are just too big a draw.
MLK Day, Jan. 15, 2018
The league often features matinees in a quadruple-header (two on NBA TV and a TNT double-dip) on national TV. There are always events in Memphis set up by the league around it, but Memphis didn't play on MLK Day last season. Like the Cowboys and Lions on Thanksgiving, the Grizzlies should always play on MLK Day; the city is so closely tied to the day's history.
HEAT AT SIXERS: Miami's upstart team has been sorely absent big nights, so they get an afternoon showcase vs. the upstart Sixers. The league also should have a similar matchup (say Charlotte vs. Orlando) between a likely East playoff team and a young squad available to flex in this spot.
MAVERICKS AT PELICANS: In the event that Dallas is good, this gets them a midseason showcase vs. a division rival with playoff aspirations.
WOLVES AT GRIZZLIES: Not only does Memphis get the MLK game back, but a marquee game in Memphis. It should be a big deal with maybe an hour of pregame with interviews with players and historians, possibly a musical act.
SPURS AT WARRIORS: If you're going to potentially sacrifice a team at Golden State, use the Spurs. They will respect the day's importance and likely hang with -- or maybe even win -- at Golden State.
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