Narrowing down 1,230 regular-season games to 15 that we’ll categorize as “The Most Intriguing of the 2013-14 Season” was a rather arduous assignment. Especially considering that, like many seasons, so many special “firsts” are occurring; Derrick Rose’s first game back, Doc Rivers’ first game coaching the Clippers, Paul Pierce’s and Kevin Garnett’s first game with the Brooklyn Nets, Andrew Bynum’s first game with his third team since he last played and, of course, Dwight Howard’s first game with the Houston Rockets. That means more games than usual are going to be highly anticipated in the opening week of the season and highlighted here.
And if you don’t think determining the top 15 most intriguing will leave you reaching for a couple aspirin, grab yourself a schedule during these dog days and have at it. Here’s mine:
Bulls at Heat, Oct. 29, American Airlines Arena, Miami, (8 p.m. ET, TNT)
No more questions about Rose’s return. The sensational point guard will, barring any further setbacks, take the floor in a real game for the first time since April 29, 2012 when he tore the ACL in his left knee in Game 1 against Philadelphia. Rose missed the entire 2012-13 season, including the brilliant game in which his teammates snapped the Heat’s win streak at 27 games, the second-longest streak in NBA history. Meanwhile, LeBron James and the Heat went on to win back-to-back titles and will raise their championship banner before taking on the Bulls … considered to be, with Rose, one of Miami’s prime contenders for Eastern Conference supremacy.
Clippers at Lakers, Oct. 29, Staples Center, Los Angeles (10:30 p.m. ET, TNT)
The battle for L.A. gets an early start. The rising Clippers, with Chris Paul signed for five years and Rivers in charge — yes, it all still is a bit surreal — seemingly are built to again dominate their glitzy co-tenant after sweeping all four meetings last season. It’s no longer about regular-season wins for the Clips, who posted a franchise-best 56 last season, but rather postseason success. Kobe Bryant hopes to be back from an Achilles injury, but there’s no guarantee he’ll join Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, plus a handful of new teammates, in the season-opener as the Lakers move on from the nightmarish Dwight Howard era — if one season can constitute an era.
Nets at Cavaliers, Oct. 30, Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland (7 p.m. ET, NBA TV)
Welcome to the bench Jason Kidd. The rookie coach takes the helm of one of the most veteran rosters in the NBA, and nothing short of challenging the Miami Heat for the East crown will be deemed a success as the Nets begin Year 2 in Brooklyn. (Note: Kidd could be suspended the first two games stemming from his DUI case). Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry and Andrei Kirilenko join Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez for the most expectation-laden season since Kidd played for the Nets a decade ago. Eyes in Cleveland will focus, for a moment or two, on Mike Brown’s return to the bench, but attention will quickly turn to center Bynum‘s knees, which kept the big man out all of last season with Philadelphia. A healthy Bynum should lift Kyrie Irving and Co. into playoff contention.
Bobcats at Rockets, Oct. 30, Toyota Center, Houston (7 p.m. ET, League Pass)
This might be the first time Charlotte has made this list in its existence as the Bobcats, but that’s what happens when you face the summer’s most prized possession in his first game. Howard makes his Houston debut as he teams up with James Harden, Chandler Parsons and the rest of the Rockets, who returned to the playoffs last season and are now expected to contend for the Western Conference crown. It should be a wild atmosphere in Houston, where fan attendance has waned greatly in recent years. This is the start of the rest of Howard’s career as he’s out of excuses after hand-picking the Rockets in free agency over the Lakers, Mavericks, Warriors and Hawks. And, oh, the Bobcats begin yet another new era with first-year coach Steve Clifford and their less heralded free-agent addition, Al Jefferson.
Heat at Nets, Nov. 1, Barclays Center, Brooklyn, N.Y. (8 p.m. ET, ESPN)
We get an early showcase between the champs and the club that made bold moves to take them head-on. Brooklyn believes it now has the frontcourt size and bulk and the backcourt depth and scoring to challenge Miami in every phase of the game. The Heat made few changes from last season’s title team, losing sharpshooter Mike Miller and adding the mystery that is Greg Oden. Dwyane Wade’s ailing knee remains a question and Brooklyn will be looking to make an early statement on its home floor against the champs.
Spurs at Warriors, Dec. 19, Oracle Arena, Oakland, Calif. (10:30 p.m. ET, TNT)
Who knows what might have happened if Golden State had held on to Game 1 in San Antonio in that amazing semifinal series in which Stephen Curry emerged as a star and the Warriors emerged as a real threat in the West. With Andre Iguodala bringing a veteran, defensive stance to a young team that can really light it up, they will be a handful for any team, and that includes the Spurs, who will somehow have to deal with Golden State’s athleticism at both ends of the floor.
Rockets at Thunder, Dec. 29, Chesapeake Arena, Oklahoma City (6 p.m. ET, League Pass)
Well, this should be interesting. A few years ago it seemed that OKC and Dallas were embarking on a long road as prime rivals. That’s now changed to OKC and Houston, which has the Thunder to thank for its sudden return to prominence. The Rockets acquired James Harden from salary-cap-strapped OKC prior to last season and Harden’s presence greatly assisted Houston signing Howard. Throw in last season’s first-round playoff series, won by Kevin Durant and OKC in six games even with Russell Westbrook injured, and we’ve got the makings for a riveting rivalry led by a pair of young stars on each side.
Nets at Knicks, Jan. 20, Madison Square Garden, New York (2:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
These two bitter neighbors will square off in Brooklyn on Dec. 5, but nothing will compare to their meeting in Manhattan. The Garden will be nuts as the Knicks try to keep the upper hand against a Nets team that, on paper, appears superior. As a Nets player, Kidd had some of the best games of his career playing at MSG and he wrapped up his 19-year career playing for the Knicks. He won’t be expecting a red-carpet return.
Nets at Celtics, Jan. 26, TD Garden, Boston (6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
How many times can the Nets say they’ve been in this category since … well, since Kidd was guiding them to consecutive Finals all those years ago? This space is typically reserved for the Celtics, but no more. These are the new C’s where the lottery looks a lot more likely than another playoff appearance as young coach Brad Stevens takes on this hastened rebuilding project. This is going to be an emotional night for Pierce and Garnett in their return to Beantown, and they will be given a hero’s welcome by adoring Celtics fans appreciative of the 2008 championship and the great runs that followed.
Spurs at Heat, Jan. 26, American Airlines Arena, Miami (1 p.m. ET, ABC)
San Antonio returns to the scene where they lost (some might say gave away) the 2013 NBA Finals. Tim Duncan said Game 7, when he missed a point-blank hook shot, will always haunt him, but Game 6 was in the bag until the Spurs blew a lead in the final 30 seconds. The Heat know they needed a little luck to beat their ageless foe. They got just enough. This could again be a preview of a June series.
Heat at Thunder, Feb. 20, Chesapeake Arena, Oklahoma City (8 p.m. ET, TNT)
If Westbrook never gets injured during the first round, we might have seen a Finals repeat of KD vs. LeBron, and we might yet. Lost in last year’s postseason was Durant’s historic offensive production. It’s guaranteed that he’ll come back hungrier to return to The Finals for another shot at his first title. Last season at OKC, the Heat put a Valentine’s Day beatdown on the Thunder, which cast doubt that KD and Co. could match Miami come June. We never got to find out. Maybe this time we will.
Clippers at Thunder, Feb. 23, Chesapeake Arena, Oklahoma City (1 p.m. ET, ABC)
If the Clippers are going to emerge as a real title threat, winning nationally televised games against top teams on the road will go a long way toward getting them there. This is another matchup that could be something special for years. These two high-powered teams should put on a high-scoring, high-flying, fast-paced show every time they play. Perhaps a playoff preview, it’s going to be hard for any two teams to top the star power of Durant, Westbrook, Paul and Blake Griffin. This is must-see stuff.
Heat at Bulls, March 9, United Center, Chicago (1 p.m. ET, ABC)
This game comes nearly one year after the Bulls snapped the Heat’s 27-game win streak, which stands as the second-longest in NBA history. It surely will be a storyline when ABC cranks up its pregame show. That was without Rose, and this late-season game should give a strong indication of how far the Bulls with Rose have come and if they’ve got the stuff to challenge the Heat when it counts.
Pacers at Heat, April 11, American Airlines Arena, Miami (7:30 p.m. ET)
Miami had a front-row seat for Paul George’s explosion into stardom. He and his team should only be better this season after some key retooling that should make Indiana deeper and more dangerous. If the Pacers pull off Game 1 in the East finals rather than folding in the final seconds, perhaps we’re talking about the Pacers getting back to The Finals instead of looking for a breakthrough. At this point in the season, both teams should be seeking to make a statement.
Spurs at Rockets, April 14, Toyota Center, Houston ( 7 p.m. ET)
An entire season will have passed, so it will be interesting to see how Howard and his new team have fared. If all goes well, you can see the plot to this matchup: Are Howard and the Rockets on the cusp of overtaking Duncan and the Spurs? Houston is the team of the future, but it’s to be seen just how quickly it can all come together and if surpassing the perennially contending Spurs, their Southwest Division rival and longtime superior, is fact or just another fantasy.