Now comes the hard part. Each team will play 66 games between Dec. 25 and April 26. But before we get back to actual game-play, our team plays a game of 5-on-5 to figure out the most intriguing, most onerous and most unwatchable on the '11-12 docket.
1. What's the best game on the 2011-12 schedule?
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: The best game of the season is the one for which you have the best seat. But assuming you're in front of your 52-inch LCD and the Western Conference is still up for grabs, I like that Thunder-Lakers game on the last Sunday of the regular season. We have a good idea who will be in uniform for OKC, but who might be wearing Sunday whites for the Lakers?
Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: Miami at Chicago on April 12 and Chicago at Miami on April 19. I'm going to cheat a little and choose two games here. These matchups could very well decide the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and yet are just a week apart in the final month of the 66-game campaign. Get ready for the most venomous week in DDL history.
Devin Kharpertian, Nets Are Scorching: It'll be hard to top Christmas Day's Heat-Mavericks matchup. Before the fatigue of multiple back-to-backs sets in, Dec. 25 is when players will be at their freshest ... and who better to watch fresh than the final two teams in the 2011 playoffs?
Rob Mahoney, The Two Man Game: Bulls at Thunder, April 1. The up-and-coming juggernauts of both conferences play each other only once this season, a fact that qualifies as a minor tragedy. Our nation weeps. All signs point to both the Bulls and the Thunder building on their already phenomenal successes of last season, and we'll be treated to a nationally televised collision course almost an entire season in the making. Get hyped.
Jeremy Schmidt, Bucksketball: The usual standbys -- the Celtics, Lakers and Mavericks -- didn't get any younger during the lockout. And as of now, none has added Chris Paul or Dwight Howard. So you'll find me planted in front of a television for Miami's trip to Oklahoma City on March 25. This should be the season these two sapling teams turn into full-grown oaks.
2. Which Christmas Day matchup do you find most compelling?
The current lineup: C's-Knicks, Heat-Mavs, Bulls-Lakers, Magic-Thunder, Clippers-Warriors.
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: In a multiple-choice test, always go with your first instinct -- and that's the rematch between Miami and Dallas. The Heat will have to endure the mortification of watching the Mavericks and their fans commemorate their Finals victory over the Heat, which means plenty of cutaway shots to LeBron James appearing as disinterested as possible.
Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: It has to be Heat-Mavs. I love the fact that the Heat have to open up the season watching the Mavs raise their championship banner. This should be the tradition for EVERY season. Let's see what kind of fire this lights on opening night.
Devin Kharpertian, Nets Are Scorching: Obviously Heat-Mavericks -- I think it's the best matchup of the season, after all. But don't count out Bulls-Lakers. The reigning coach of the year and the reigning MVP going up against a new coach and one of the best shooting guards ever? Putting aside my interest in the Lakers' new look with Mike Brown, it'll just be fun to watch.
Rob Mahoney, The Two Man Game: There's no need to overthink this -- the Heat and Mavericks proved to be incredible foils in last season's Finals, and I can't wait to see both teams back in action. The raising of the banner will naturally invoke some powerful emotions for all involved, but it's what goes on beyond the ceremony that's most intriguing. Strip down the title-defending subplot, and these are two excellent teams that have a knack for playing some incredible games against one another. Christmas gifts for die-hard hoops fans don't come much better than that.
Jeremy Schmidt, Bucksketball: After playing one of the best regular-season games of the 2010-11 season in Madison Square Garden, the Celtics swept the Knicks right out of the playoffs with little resistance. Given their long offseason to stew and their opportunity for another crack at the bullies in Boston with Carmelo Anthony, I'm looking forward to the Knicks' next shot at the Celtics like 5-year-olds look forward to Santa.
3. Which team appears to have the toughest schedule overall?
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: Incomparable NBA schedule-maker Matt Winick didn't do the reigning champions any favors. The Mavericks will play the Heat, Celtics and Knicks twice. Dallas also has one five-in-six stretch, and will miss potentially easy road dates against the Bobcats, Pacers, Bucks, Nets, Raptors and Wizards.
Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: I'll go with the Spurs simply because they have their dreaded rodeo trip, which will consist of nine straight road games in 17 days, and they have two sets of back-to-back-to-backs. This team's stars aren't getting any younger, and keeping Tim Duncan fresh during this time is going to be difficult.
Devin Kharpertian, Nets Are Scorching: Tom Haberstroh's methods say Minnesota, and it's hard to argue. The Timberwolves kick off with six straight games against playoff teams, play Chicago at the end of their back-to-back-to-back, have just two homestands longer than two games and play a grueling seven-game road trip in March. Every team has it rough, but Minnesota has it the worst.
Rob Mahoney, The Two Man Game: Phoenix. Not only do the Suns have one of the toughest schedules in terms of their opponents' 2010-11 win percentage, but they have a brutal road stretch at the tail end of the season. The Suns are going to be clawing for a playoff spot as it is, and playing 12 of 15 games away from the U.S. Airways Center with a postseason berth likely hanging in the balance should prove to be an incredible challenge.
Jeremy Schmidt, Bucksketball: They do have a nine-game homestand, but the Denver Nuggets are out on the road early and have two stretches of three straight games. One of their two back-to-back-to-backs will have players' lungs begging for mercy: at the Clippers, at home to play the Lakers and on the road again at the Trail Blazers.
4. Which game seems like the most unwatchable?
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: What's the over-under on April 15 for a Sunday tilt between the Bobcats and an aging Celtics squad on the third night of a back-to-back-to-back? Charlotte will have been in Miami on Friday, while Boston will have played at Toronto on Friday and at New Jersey on Saturday, then flies in for a 6 p.m. local start at TWCA on Sunday.
Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: Raptors-Bobcats, March 17. This game is going to really test just how much you love basketball. It's not just that they're probably going to be really bad teams; it's that they play really horrific basketball in the process. At least with an offensively challenged team such as Milwaukee, you get to see some stellar defense. This is just bad all around.
Devin Kharpertian, Nets Are Scorching: Raptors-Bobcats, March 17. The Bobcats are coming home after a four-game road trip against Oklahoma City, New Orleans, Houston and Dallas, and the Raptors are playing their fifth game in seven nights and their fourth of a five-game road trip. Look away, friends. Just look away.
Rob Mahoney, The Two Man Game: Heat at Wizards, April 26. On the last day of the regular season, the Heat will fly up to D.C. to play basketball against a surefire lottery club. Considering that neither team will have much to play for at that point, this game should be an absolute delight. We'll try to move on as quickly as we can and usher in the postseason, but one can't easily forget the night Joel Anthony repeatedly hoisted up turnaround jumpers at the shot-clock buzzer while LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh rested up for the playoffs.
Jeremy Schmidt, Bucksketball: A reasonable theory suggests teams are going to take a few weeks to get into the flow of things again, especially teams that have gotten some overhaul. I present to you the Corey Maggette-led Charlotte Bobcats traveling to take on the Kyrie Irving-led Cleveland Cavaliers on Jan. 3. Fans with young children might want to reconsider.
5. What's the most interesting game we won't see in 2011-12?
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: New York doesn't play in Denver, which means Carmelo Anthony still won't have played a road game in Denver as a member of the Knicks when the 2012-13 season opens next fall.
Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: It's sort of weird that we won't see Kevin Durant play at Madison Square Garden this season. I know KD has been a star for a couple of years now, but after his barn-burning tour of every rec league, pickup game and game of H-O-R-S-E around the country during the lockout, it seems only natural he'd reintroduce himself on the alleged biggest stage in the NBA.
Devin Kharpertian, Nets Are Scorching: A two-way tie between Carmelo Anthony avoiding Denver in the "We're Better Off Without You" game and Dwight Howard avoiding Los Angeles in the "Please, Please, Please Come Play For Us" game (for either Los Angeles team). Force my hand, and the Howard game gets a slight edge, if only because the Denver game can still happen next season.
Rob Mahoney, The Two Man Game: Call me crazy, but I'd love to see two teams play their entire season series back-to-back-to-back. Take two competitive squads on the verge of developing a real narrative (Dallas and OKC? New York and Boston?), and let them wear each other down over three days while the sparks fly. That kind of hyper-concentrated repeat matchup would act as a catalyst for the formation of a real rivalry and potentially serve as an amazing precursor to a serendipitous playoff series. It's not exactly one interesting game that we'll miss, but the potential for a unique (and admittedly insane) scheduling concept has been squandered nonetheless.
Jeremy Schmidt, Bucksketball: We're robbed of a home-and-home between the Bulls and Thunder. Sure, we'll get to see Derrick Rose and company combat the noise in Loud City, but only one matchup of Kevin Durant's offensive repertoire against Tom Thibodeau's defensive-stops machine and Russell Westbrook taking on what might be his only athletic match in Rose is not enough.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Kevin Arnovitz covers the NBA for ESPN.com. Zach Harper hosts the Daily Dime Live chat on ESPN.com. Devin Kharpertian, Rob Mahoney and Jeremy Schmidt contribute to the TrueHoop Network.