NBA schedule 2023: Christmas games and best matchups to watch - ESPN

UniqueThis 27 Aug 17
Aug 17, 2023, 05:00 PM ET

The 2023-24 NBA schedule is officially out. The regular season tips off with a doubleheader on Tuesday, Oct. 24, as LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers visit the defending champion Denver Nuggets, followed by the Golden State Warriors hosting the Phoenix Suns.

Opening week continues Wednesday, Oct. 25, with a full slate of games including the anticipated debut of San Antonio Spurs rookie Victor Wembanyama, who will welcome Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks.

Christmas Day will again bring five games, all to be aired on ABC or ESPN. The slate begins with the Milwaukee Bucks at the New York Knicks, followed by Golden State at Denver and the Boston Celtics at the Lakers. The Philadelphia 76ers are at the Miami Heat followed by Dallas at Phoenix.

What is the most interesting opening week matchup? Which team will have the toughest stretch out the gate? What about games that could be sneak previews of the NBA Finals? And the best Christmas games? Our panel of NBA experts weigh in on what to watch for ahead of the season.

What is the most interesting opening week game?

Kevin Pelton: Phoenix Suns at Golden State Warriors. The NBA's scheduling department did its best to ensure that Kevin Durant finally plays in front of Warriors fans for the first time since leaving Brooklyn via free agency, having previously played in the Bay Area only during the COVID-19-affected 2020-21 campaign. That this is an important Western Conference preview adds to the excitement.

Bobby Marks: Portland at LA Clippers. Close to two months after asking to be traded, Damian Lillard is still a Trail Blazer. With trade talks at a standstill, Lillard in a Portland uniform on opening night. The Clippers also have roster questions. After suffering a knee injury in the first round, will Kawhi Leonard be available to play? And what about James Harden? Could we see the former MVP in the Clippers' starting lineup on opening night?

Andrew Lopez: Los Angeles Lakers at Denver Nuggets. The most interesting game could be the actual season opener. LeBron James, Anthony Davis & Co. will be in Denver for a rematch of last season's Western Conference finals as Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and teammates receive their NBA championship rings. The Lakers retooled by bringing in Gabe Vincent, Cam Reddish, Jaxson Hayes and Taurean Prince and this will be their first chance to test out the new lineups against the champs, who will be looking to repeat.

Jamal Collier: San Antonio Spurs vs. Dallas Mavericks. The first NBA game for Spurs rookie Victor Wembanyama and the first chance for many fans in the U.S. to see him after more than a year of hype. And the Mavericks could be one of the biggest question marks in the league. Good luck predicting how the Kyrie Irving and Luka Doncic pairing will go this season.

Tim Bontemps: Philadelphia 76ers at Milwaukee Bucks. There's no shortage of storylines. On the sidelines, Nick Nurse will be making his debut as the 76ers' coach -- and doing so against Adrian Griffin, who will coach his first game for Milwaukee after working alongside Nurse in Toronto the past few seasons. Oh, and there's also that James Harden guy -- will he be there? Will he be elsewhere? The fact we have yet to mention Joel Embiid or Giannis Antetokounmpo shows there's plenty of things to pay attention to.

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Windhorst: Spurs have to learn how to use Wembanyama

Brian Windhorst and Kendrick Perkins detail the Spurs' reported decision to shut down Victor Wembanyama for the remaining summer league games.

What is the most compelling Wembanyama matchup?

Pelton: Nov. 14 at Oklahoma City Thunder. My first exposure to either Wembanyama or Chet Holmgren was when they squared off in the 2021 FIBA U19 World Cup, ahead of Holmgren's lone season at Gonzaga and Wembanyama's breakout season in France. Although the USA won that final 83-81, Wemby was the best player on the court with 22 points, 8 rebounds and 8 blocks. The two skilled big men haven't met since and I'm looking forward to seeing how they match up now.

Marks: Dec. 19 at Milwaukee. Wembanyama will get a mid-December education that NBA basketball is much different from playing Charlotte in summer league. Facing the Bucks for the first time will be a tall task for Wembanyama. The No. 1 pick will square up against two All-NBA defenders in Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez.

Lopez: Dec. 1 at the New Orleans Pelicans. Wembanyama against Zion Williamson. In summer league, there were plenty of occasions when the Spurs had Wembanyama out guarding the perimeter instead of down low. In fact, they listed him as a forward on the summer league roster. Does that mean we'll get some Williamson-Wembanyama matchups? It should.

Collier: Dec. 13 vs. Los Angeles Lakers. The most hyped NBA prospect since LeBron goes up against LeBron. It's compelling to see how Wembanyama will handle it, but also how the 20-year vet goes at the rookie.

Bontemps: Oct. 25 vs. Dallas. Yes, we saw Wembanyama play in summer league in Las Vegas, but this will be everyone's first chance to see him under NBA game conditions -- and he'll be doing so against one of the league's biggest stars. Sign me up for that.

What reunion are you most excited for?

Pelton: Jordan Poole against Draymond Green and the Golden State Warriors. Since Poole was dealt to the Washington Wizards ahead of the NBA draft, Green has been airing his side of the story of their training-camp altercation that resulted in his punching Poole. Although I don't expect a confrontation, Poole will be plenty motivated to show his old team what it lost.

Marks: Almost a year to the day that he was traded, Kyrie Irving returns to Brooklyn for the first time on Feb. 6. Considering that his time in Brooklyn was clouded with turmoil and the messy breakup at the end, do not expect Irving to get a warm welcome by the Nets crowd.

Lopez: While I can't say Lillard's first game back in Portland just yet, let's go to Dec. 15 for the Houston Rockets at the Memphis Grizzlies. What will the atmosphere in Memphis be like for Dillon Brooks' first game back as an opposing player? Brooks has long been a player opposing teams love to hate. The first matchup between the two teams is just two days earlier in Houston.

Collier: I'm with KP on this one. The moment Jordan Poole calls for a switch to go at Draymond Green will be must-see.

Bontemps: Marcus Smart coming back to Boston on Feb. 4. Smart was the heart and soul of the Celtics virtually from the day he arrived in Beantown nine years ago. Now, he'll be welcomed back as a member of the Grizzlies, and the Celtics will undoubtedly be ready to celebrate Smart's return to TD Garden.

The hardest first 10-game stretch for a contender?

Marks: The Knicks open up at home against Boston and then face Atlanta, New Orleans and Cleveland on the road. Things do not get easier when they return home to play the Cavaliers. The next stretch of five games consist of at Milwaukee, LA Clippers, San Antonio, Charlotte and then the Celtics again -- but on the road.

Lopez: Golden State plays seven of its first 10 games on the road and the three home games are against the new-look Phoenix Suns with Bradley Beal on opening night, a matchup against the Sacramento Kings on Nov. 1 in a rematch of last year's first-round series that went seven games and then a game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Nov. 11. With the Warriors trying to work Chris Paul into things, it's certainly not the easiest stretch to kick off the year.

Collier: The Warriors. Golden State has matchups with Phoenix, Sacramento (twice), Denver and Cleveland in its first 10 games along with Oklahoma City and New Orleans. With so many road games right out of the gate, the Warriors will have a chance to put last season's road woes behind them.

Pelton: The numbers agree with Andrew and Jamal. Using over/under win totals from Caesars Sportsbook to estimate team strength and adding a two-point factor for home-court advantage, the Warriors' first 10 games are 2.1 points harder than average. The next-highest schedule is 1.6 points harder than average (New York and Utah).

Bontemps: The Lakers will get an interesting test to begin the season, with games against Denver, Phoenix and Sacramento across the first week, followed by a nearly immediate cross-country road trip that begins in Miami and ends in Phoenix. We should at least have an idea by then if the version of the Lakers that advanced to the West finals last season has returned.

The Christmas game you can't wait to watch?

Pelton: Warriors at Denver Nuggets. How the full-strength Nuggets might handle Golden State after a first-round sweep without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. was one question that wasn't answered in Denver's impressive march to the 2023 title. This season's matchups between the past two champions are worth watching in case the Warriors can advance far enough for a playoff meeting next spring.

Marks: Philadelphia at Miami. The appeal is less about the rivalry between the two teams and more about who will (or won't) be on the court Christmas Day. Will the 76ers' James Harden finally get his trade demand granted? And could we see Lillard in South Beach? More importantly, what is the mindset of MVP Embiid if turmoil reigns over Philadelphia?

Lopez: Let's go with the nightcap of Mavs vs. Suns. Once all the presents have been opened and you're sitting back on your couch and realize there's more NBA to watch, there's this treat to wrap up the day. Luka and Devin Booker. KD and Kyrie. It's easy to see why the league wants to finish off things with a matchup like this that could be ripe for drama.

Collier: Celtics at Lakers. It's the marquee rivalry. Another Christmas game for LeBron. The star power. Both teams enter the season as contenders. This will be the must-see game of the day.

Bontemps: Let's go with the game to start the day -- the Bucks in New York against the Knicks. Madison Square Garden is virtually always the host of the first game on the schedule, and five years ago saw Antetokounmpo make his Christmas Day game debut there. Plus, New York has the kind of physical defense capable of making things tough on the Bucks. This will be a fun way to start off the Christmas Day slate.

The easiest path to advancing in the NBA Cup?

Pelton: Boston Celtics. The way the NBA structured the in-season tournament groups makes it a bit less likely there's a "group of death" or a walkover, but having the Brooklyn Nets as the second-best team seems to benefit Boston.

Marks: I have to agree with Kevin and also say Boston. The Celtics group that consists of Brooklyn, Toronto, Orlando and Chicago is by far the easiest to advance out of. In fact, outside of the Celtics, you can make a strong argument that none of the other four teams will be fighting for a top-six playoff spot. Of course the Celtics' fortune changes if Kristaps Porzingis and Malcolm Brogdon do not return at full strength.

Lopez: How about the Cleveland Cavaliers having an easier path toward advancing out of East Group A? While the Celtics could have an easier time through Group C, the potential turmoil brewing in Philadelphia with the James Harden saga could open things up for a Cavaliers squad looking to build on a 51-win performance last season that culminated in a disheartening first-round loss to the New York Knicks.

Collier: Yeah, it's Boston. It's not even clear who the second-best team is in its group.

Bontemps: The Celtics. There's not much of a debate here, as Boston not only is one of the league's best teams, but is the only clear playoff team in its entire group. It should waltz into the quarterfinals.

Which regular-season game is an early NBA Finals matchup?

Pelton: Nuggets at Celtics (Jan. 19). At this point the defending champs are the safest bet to win the West. Despite some concern about how Boston will handle the loss of Smart, it's my pick to come out of the East.

Marks: Phoenix at New York (Nov. 26). Star power versus roster continuity. Yes, I have penciled in both teams as my early favorites to represent each conference in June. The styles in how the two rosters were built are totally opposite. The high-spending Suns went all-in with the Kevin Durant trade in February and then added Bradley Beal in June. The Knicks, on the other hand, have taken a more conservative approach, returning 13 players that lost to Miami in the second-round while adding only Donte DiVincenzo in free agency.

Lopez: Nuggets at Bucks (Jan. 29). For every other West contender, there's still an element of "prove it" on the table. There's nothing to suggest a drop-off coming from the defending NBA champions, so they are still the pick coming out of the Western Conference. As for the East, while the relative health of the group will play a big factor, the Bucks still have one of the best players in the world in Antetokounmpo.

Collier: Bucks at Suns (Feb. 6). With a full offseason and regular season to play together, the Suns' overwhelming star power should find a way to develop an identity. And Antetokounmpo and the Bucks have something to prove after their early playoff exit last season.

Bontemps: Nuggets at Celtics (Jan. 19). This feels like a pick by default. Milwaukee has injury and age questions (as does Boston), while Miami and Philadelphia are in flux because of the Lillard and Harden situations. And, out West, while Denver took at least a slight step back this offseason, I don't think the contenders closed the gap. By the time this game rolls around, we'll have a good sense of where both sides are, and whether they're still the favorites.