While the NBA regular season is still roughly 2 ½ months away from tipping off, it’s never too early to take a look at some of the marquee games that could end up shaping the Los Angeles Lakers' inaugural campaign with coach Byron Scott at the helm.
The league released the entire 2014-15 season schedule Wednesday. Seeing the challenges that lay ahead for the Lakers on a night-to-night basis is a stark reminder of why ESPN.com’s panel of NBA analysts picked L.A. to finish 12th in the Western Conference with a 30-52 record.
The outcomes of the games can only be predicted at this point, but the 82 contests the Lakers will play from late October through mid April? They’re ripe for dissecting.
For instance, the Lakers’ normal marathon-like “Grammy” road trip has been nearly cut in half, from seven games in 12 days last season to four games (New York, Milwaukee, Orlando and Cleveland) in nine days this year.
The All-Star break? It’s been extended from a long weekend to a full week-long rest, as the Lakers play Feb. 11 in Portland and then don’t play again until Feb. 20th.
Back-to-backs? L.A. only has 16 of them (tied for the league minimum) after 19 last season.
Familiar faces? They’ll take a trip down memory lane when they play at Atlanta for the first time Nov. 18 (Kent Bazemore), at Detroit on Dec. 2 (Jodie Meeks), at Portland on Jan. 5 (Chris Kaman) and at Milwaukee on Feb. 4 (Kendall Marshall).
With those highlights out of the way, here are 10 more games to watch for the Lakers in ’14-15:
1. Home vs. Houston Rockets – Oct. 28: As the Lakers turn the page with the season opener, they’ll be forced to revisit a forgettable chapter from their past with Dwight Howard coming to town. While the novelty of Howard coming back to play at Staples Center has worn off since he did it last year already, the game will have a little extra gravitas assuming Kobe Bryant is on the court. Bryant missed all four of the Lakers’ games against the Rockets last season because of injury. The game also marks a chance for Jeremy Lin to get some revenge against his former team after Howard and James Harden made comments that slighted him. Not to mention, it will be rookie Julius Randle's NBA debut.
2. Home vs. L.A. Clippers – Oct. 31: The Lakers should get a sense for just how scary their season could end up turning out on Halloween, facing the Clippers for the first of four matchups on the year. After beating the Clippers in the season opener by 13 points to start off 2013-14, the Clippers went on to demolish their Staples Center cohabitants by an average of 35.7 points in their next three meetings. An added wrinkle will be Jordan Farmar wearing red, white and blue instead of purple and gold.
3. Home vs. San Antonio Spurs – Nov. 14: L.A. will welcome in the defending champs relatively early on in the season. Having an aging Tim Duncan come to L.A. on his discounted contract while still playing for a contender will inevitably re-spark the conversation revolving around Bryant’s $48.5 million extension. And he’ll be especially vulnerable to criticism if he, personally, or the Lakers, as a team, stumble out of the gate.
4. Home vs. Minnesota Timberwolves – Nov. 28: Not only does this game promise two of the more electric rookies in next year’s class in Andrew Wiggins (if the much talked about trade goes through) and Zach LaVine, but it could also end being a preview of one of the teams that L.A. will be angling against for lottery positioning late in the season if things don’t go the Lakers’ way.
5. Away vs. Boston Celtics – Dec. 5: No matter what the expectations are for either team, it’s always a big game when the Lakers play in the TD Garden. This will be L.A. native Nick Young's first game against the Celtics since joining the Lakers – he missed both games last season, one because of an injury and one because of a suspension stemming from his fracas in Phoenix. Plus, Lakers fans will get a look at Marcus Smart, the combo guard that Boston took one spot ahead of L.A.’s No. 7 position in June’s draft, allowing Randle to fall into the Lakers’ lap.
6. Home vs. Oklahoma City Thunder – Dec. 19: Not only are Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook always an entertaining pair to see doing their thing, but they could end up being the Lakers’ top free agency targets in 2016 (Durant) and 2017 (Westbrook). It will be interesting to see if the normally cool L.A. fan base starts the recruiting efforts early.
7. Away vs. Chicago Bulls – Dec. 25: For the 16th straight season, the Lakers will be playing on Christmas Day. This holiday will be a twist in a couple of ways for L.A., however. The Lakers will be playing on the road for the first time since 2006 (when they went to Miami to play Shaquille O’Neal and the Heat) and they’ll be going up against Pau Gasol for the first time since he left to join the Bulls.
8. Home vs. Cleveland Cavaliers – Jan. 15: The league’s newest super team will come to town with LeBron James, Kevin Love (presumably) and Kyrie Irving already having had about 40 games under their belt to mesh their games with one another. Will the Cavs be clicking on all cylinders by that point or still be under the microscope as a work in progress?
9. Home vs. Brooklyn Nets – Feb. 20: Not that the Nets should be all that compelling next season with some of the offseason moves they’ve made to change their team, but this one is significant because it’s L.A.’s first game on the calendar following the trade deadline. If the Lakers are movers and shakers at the deadline, this could be the debut of a dramatically different roster.
10. Home vs. Sacramento Kings – April 15: The Lakers finish out the regular season with a pair of games against the Kings, first on the road on April 13 and then two days later wrap things up at home against DeMarcus Cousins & Co. Optimistic Lakers fans will tell you these games will matter because of playoff positioning. Pessimistic ones will assume that this will be a tank-a-thon with two teams already eliminated by postseason contention by that point.