Schedule highlights: Season opens with champs versus King James

The NBA's 2008-09 schedule is out ... and you know what that means.

An equally anticipated document has to go with it: ESPN.com's first rundown of must-see games for the coming season to immediately input into your electronic calendar of choice.

Oct. 28: Opening Night
An earlier-than-usual launch to the season starts with a tasty TNT doubleheader, leading off with the new champs from Boston hosting LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers on ring night and capped by Greg Oden's long-awaited NBA debut in Blazers at Lakers.

Oct. 29: Opening Night (continued)
Elton Brand makes his 76ers debut in the same game that Jermaine O'Neal makes his official Raptors debut: Toronto at Philadelphia.

Furthermore: Michael Beasley makes his pro debut at Madison Square Garden (along with Dwyane Wade's official return from injury) in Heat at Knicks, Ron Artest makes his Rockets debut in Memphis at Houston, and Oklahoma City makes its debut as a full-time NBA city with a visit from the Milwaukee Bucks.

And ...

ESPN dishes its own doubleheader doozy: Phoenix at San Antonio to renew year after year of recent playoff pleasantries, followed by Lakers at Clippers in a fitting bow for the Clips' new Angeleno point guard Baron Davis.

Oct. 30: Houston at Dallas (TNT)
The Mavericks are one of two teams (along with Charlotte) that must wait until Thursday for their opening game, giving Mavs fans more time to stoke their fears that the Rockets' acquisition of Ron Artest reduces Dallas to the third-best team in Texas.

Oct. 31: San Antonio at Portland (ESPN)
The best of the Halloween fare, at least in NBA terms, is unquestionably Oden matching up with Tim Duncan.

Nov. 1: Washington at Detroit (NBA TV)
The league is still sorting out its full 96-game NBA TV schedule, but Wizards-Pistons has been confirmed as the opener of NBA TV's maiden doubleheader, followed by a Portland-at-Phoenix nightcap.

Nov. 4: Boston at Houston
You don't have to wait long for a look at the NBA's reigning threesome of doom (Garnett, Pierce and Allen) throwing down against the new trio on the block (McGrady, Yao and Artest).

P.S. How much playing time will the twins get in Phoenix at New Jersey ... also known as Robin Lopez at Brook Lopez?

Nov. 5: Charlotte at New York
Larry Brown returns to Madison Square Garden with his (latest) new team. We'll spare you the dates on Larry's returns to Denver, New Jersey, San Antonio, Los Angeles, Indiana, Philly and Detroit.

Nov. 6: Houston at Portland (TNT)
Yao Ming and Oden go toe-to-toe for the first time. Health permitting, of course.

Nov. 9: Houston at L.A. Lakers
The denizens of Lakerland who so badly wanted to see Artest in purple and gold will get their first dose of torture early. In L.A.'s first Sunday home game of the season, actually.

Nov. 10: Portland at Orlando
Oden will have lined up against Shaquille O'Neal (Nov. 1), Yao and Dwight Howard in a span of 10 days by the time he gets through this one. Health permitting, of course.

Nov. 12: Atlanta at Boston
Are the Hawks and Celtics rivals now because of what happened in the first round of the playoffs?

Better question: Shouldn't Olympiacos be required to swing through Atlanta as part of the usual October spree of exhibition games against top European clubs?

Nov. 13: Dallas at Chicago (TNT)
Mavs owner Mark Cuban could know by this point whether he has won the race to buy the Cubs, which would make this somewhat of a home game for him and certainly spice up his relationship with Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, since Reinsdorf owns the White Sox.

Nov. 14: Detroit at L.A. Lakers (ESPN)
What sort of reception awaits Kwame Brown at Staples Center? Just a hunch: If history is any guide, Kwame needn't expect (or want) any mention of a cake.

On the undercard: Kareem Rush's Philadelphia 76ers visit brother Brandon Rush's Indiana Pacers.

Nov. 18: Cleveland at New Jersey
LeBron and Jay-Z! In the same building! Exactly one week before LeBron goes to MSG to hang with Spike Lee and the Knicks!

Cavs fans will want to avoid online consumption of the New York tabloids for a good few days before Thanksgiving.

Nov. 20: L.A. Lakers at Phoenix (TNT)
Kobe, tell me how many times in conjunction with this game you and Shaq will be asked about his recent rapping exploits?

And over in Oklahoma City, New Orleans is in town to play the OKC TBAs for the first time, which makes you wonder: Who gets the louder cheers? Chris Paul or Kevin Durant?

Detroit at Boston, incidentally, isn't exactly a bland appetizer for TNT.

Nov. 21: Boston at Minnesota
A hamstring strain prevented KG from playing in his first visit to 'Sota as an ex-Wolf last February. Hard to see him missing two in row, though.

In Philadelphia, meanwhile, Baron and Elton will be in the same building for the first time since they did not end up on the same team as so many of us expected.

And over in Oklahoma City, New Orleans is in town to play the OKC TBAs for the first time, which makes you wonder: Who gets the louder cheers -- Chris Paul or Kevin Durant?

Nov. 25: Golden State at Washington
This will be Gilbert Arenas' first encounter with the Warriors since becoming a $111 Million Man.

Nov. 27: Happy Thanksgiving
After two years off, the NBA has elected to restore its traditional Thanksgiving program with a double serving.

It's D-Howard and Arenas headlining Orlando at Washington, followed by Team USA teammates CP3 and Carmelo Anthony as the principal draws for New Orleans at Denver.

Nov. 28: Miami at Phoenix (ESPN)
Shawn Marion spent eight and a half seasons as a Sun, playing alongside Jason Kidd, then Stephon Marbury, then Steve Nash. Which makes this one of the season's standout reunion games.

Earlier in the evening, Philadelphia at Boston is a marquee matchup again for the first time in, uh, forever.

Dec. 12: New Orleans at Boston (ESPN)
Call it James Posey Ring Collection Night.

Dec. 15: New York at Phoenix
If the Knicks are a running team by this point -- and if the Suns are still running by this point -- we should be treated to a fun track meet in Mike D'Antoni's honor.

Dec. 17: San Antonio at New Orleans (ESPN)
Spurs at Hornets for the first time since that memorable Game 7.

Dec. 19: Dallas at New Jersey
Jason Kidd is back in Jersey as a visiting player for the first time since, well, making Jersey matter to the NBA.

Dec. 22: L.A. Lakers at Memphis
The Lakers were out of trips to Memphis by the time they stole, er, acquired Pau Gasol from the Grizz in that infamous, er, famous trade. As if that isn't enough of a story line for you, don't forget that Pau and his brother Marc Gasol will be dueling, too.

Not to be overlooked: Houston at New Jersey will only be the most watched game of the regular season ... once you factor in the Chinese TV audience tuning in for Yao Ming vs. Yi Jianlian.

Dec. 25: Merry, Merry, Merry, Merry, Merry Christmas!

This has to be some sort of record: Christmas Day delivers five NBA games on national TV.


New Orleans at Orlando gets us started at noon on ESPN.

ABC follows with a pretty handy doubleheader: Spurs at Suns, then your inevitable Celtics-at-Lakers Finals rematch.

TNT takes us home with Washington at Cleveland -- LeBron and DeShawn Stevenson together on a holiday? -- followed by Dallas at Portland.

You can't ask Santa for more.

Dec. 26: Chicago at Miami (ESPN)
What can you possibly give the people after a five-game Christmas?

The first installment of Derrick Rose versus Michael Beasley, naturally.

Dec. 29: Memphis at Minnesota
Who got the best of the O.J. Mayo-for-Kevin Love deal? We'll start to find out here, when the respective prides of USC and UCLA hook up for their first pro showdown.

Dec. 31: Philadelphia at L.A. Clippers
The very last NBA game of the 2008 calendar year happens to be Elton's first game at Staples since leaving the Clips for the 76ers in free agency.

Jan. 2: Miami at Orlando
There are no New Year's Day games in the NBA this season. So this is the first game of 2009: Stan Van Gundy coaching against coaching rookie Erik Spoelstra, his longtime Heat colleague.

Jan. 7: New Orleans at Utah
Our first chance to ask: Is the Chris Paul-Deron Williams rivalry even better now after they've played together for Team USA?

Jan. 14: L.A. Lakers at San Antonio (ESPN)
We repeat: Manu Ginobili's ankle injury had to be worse than anyone imagined for the Lakers to win the West finals in five.

Jan 16: Toronto at Indiana
All the attention will be trained on Jermaine and what sort of crowd reaction he generates in his return to Indy ... but isn't the Jose Calderon-T.J. Ford matchup even more compelling?

Jan. 19: Cleveland at L.A. Lakers (TNT)
Can't do one of these schedule columns without the obligatory LeBron-versus-Kobe reference.

It's part of a Martin Luther King Day tripleheader which also features Detroit at Memphis and Phoenix at Boston.

Jan. 25: L.A. Clippers at Golden State
We believe Baron Davis will get a warm reception from Warriors fans who will never forget how much he did to help Golden State halt a 12-season playoff drought.

We also believe that you'll enjoy the first ABC Sunday doubleheader of the season: Dallas at Boston, then Spurs at Lakers.

Jan. 28: Golden State at Dallas (ESPN)
It sure would inflate the tension nicely -- assuming that's even possible with these two -- if Warriors coach Don Nelson hasn't yet collected his $6.3 million in deferred compensation from his old boss Cuban by the time this game rolls around.

Feb. 2: L.A. Lakers at New York
It's not just Mike D'Antoni versus Phil Jackson any more. It's D'Antoni versus Jackson with D'Antoni coaching the Zen Master's beloved Knicks.

Feb. 3: Milwaukee at New Jersey
After nearly seven seasons on the end of Jason Kidd's passes, Richard Jefferson will be in visitors' colors for the first time at the Izod Center.

Feb. 5: L.A. Lakers at Boston (TNT)
The season's second NBA Finals rematch, which comes with the added bonus of knowing that Paul Pierce's recent comments about being the best player in the game will be brought up incessantly whenever he and Kobe are in the same zip code.

Feb. 6: Portland at Oklahoma City
Kevin Durant versus Greg Oden for the first time as pros. We hope.

Feb. 11: Oklahoma City at Portland
Durant versus Oden is still a rivalry even if the geography has changed drastically. Right?

You have to believe some Sonics fans will make the drive from Seattle to chime in on this one.

Feb. 14: Valentine's Day
What's the over-under on how many times TNT shows the Charles Barkley-Dick Bavetta kiss on this particular All-Star Saturday Night?

Feb. 15: All-Star Game
In gorgeous-in-February Phoenix, no less.

Feb. 17: New Jersey at Houston
Yi vs. Yao, Round 2.

Feb. 18: Denver at Philadelphia (ESPN)
The first game out of the All-Star break will be an interesting one for Allen Iverson whether or not he's an All-Star, since he'll be going back for his first glimpse of what the Elton Brand era looks like in Philly.

March 3: Memphis at L.A. Lakers
The Gasol angle(s) fade to the background when the Grizz are the road team, because that means Mayo is back in town. It's such a big deal, apparently, that Staples Center has booked Mayo for two straight nights, with Baron's Clippers awaiting on March 4 after this encounter with Kobe's Lakers.

March 4: Phoenix at Miami
Some 13 months after he was dealt to the desert in a deal that's still a little hard to believe, Shaq is finally back.

March 14: L.A. Clippers at Denver
The Nuggets play at the Clip Joint twice in the first month of the season, but Marcus Camby has to wait more than 60 games before going back to Denver for the first time since the salary-dumping trade that made him a Clipper ... and which made Camby furious.

March 17: Boston at Chicago
After all those years of trade speculation, Bulls fans undoubtedly still dream of having KG on an everyday basis. Just seeing him on St. Patrick's Day doesn't cut it.

April 1: Houston at Phoenix (ESPN)
No joke: Yao and Shaq are hooking up on April Fools' Day.

April 9: Houston at Sacramento
If the reality of the Artest trade hasn't sunk in yet for the Kings' loyal subjects, it certainly will by the time Artest finally makes it back to Arco Arena, which won't happen until the 78th game on Sacramento's schedule.

April 15: Regular season ends
Twenty-eight teams will be in action on the final night of the schedule -- all but the Jazz and Lakers -- but I suppose the fact that taxes are due might be more important to some people.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.