On Tuesday, the NBA released its slate of nationally televised games for opening week and Christmas Day.
The defending champion Milwaukee Bucks will kick off the 2021-22 season on Oct. 19, hosting the Brooklyn Nets, who they sent home in a Game 7 overtime thriller to advance to the NBA Finals. Russell Westbrook will then make his Los Angeles Lakers debut as the Lakers host the Golden State Warriors to close out opening night.
Christmas Day will showcase the league’s best trios and biggest names.
The action tips off at noon ET with Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks returning to Madison Square Garden, where Young ended the resurgent New York Knicks‘ season in the first round of the playoffs with a bow.
The Nets and Lakers, the two teams installed as betting favorites to win the title, will square off in primetime at Staples Center on Christmas. LeBron James‘ Lakers retooled this offseason, adding Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony to compete with Brooklyn’s trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving.
Which player’s debut with his new team is a must-watch? Which matchups stand out most? Our insiders answer the biggest questions about the upcoming NBA schedule.
MORE: 2021-22 NBA schedule
1. Which opening-week game are you most excited to see?
Tim MacMahon: It doesn’t get much better than bringing the Nets to Milwaukee for the season opener — and the Bucks’ ring ceremony. It’s not just a rematch of one of the best playoff series in recent memory. It’s also the first time the Nets will see Giannis Antetokounmpo since he took some thinly veiled shots at them during the championship celebration, when he made a point to talk about how easy it would be to win a title by jumping on a superteam bandwagon.
André Snellings: I want to start off the season with Nets-Bucks because it pits last season’s champs against the team favored to win this season. And there’s the added personal spice, since the Bucks went through the Nets on their way to the championship in a seven-game thriller that many believe the Nets would’ve won if healthy. This has the markings of a new rivalry, where both sides have something to prove and a chip on their shoulders every time they face-off.
Kevin Pelton: Warriors-Lakers because I have the most questions about how those two teams will look after their offseason changes. Unfortunately, Klay Thompson may not be back for opening night, and he’s the biggest Golden State addition. The Warriors, however, will add Nemanja Bjelica, Andre Iguodala and Otto Porter Jr. to the bench. The Lakers, meanwhile, will have a completely new look to their lineup after trading for Westbrook and loading up on veteran free agents.
Christmas arrived early 🎄🏀 pic.twitter.com/zrTrKe2yTz
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) August 17, 2021
Marc J. Spears: Warriors-Lakers. Klay Thompson — who hasn’t played since the 2019 Finals due to ACL surgery — could be back by then, and Russell Westbrook will be playing at home as the Lakers debut their revamped big three. I don’t think there’s a better opening-night game the NBA could pick, with two potential Western Conference finalists facing off inside Staples Center.
Nick Friedell: I’m intrigued to see Suns-Lakers. The Lakers are going to be a season-long soap opera because of all the interesting pieces on the roster, but they also have to feel like they owe the Suns for the way the playoffs ended. Can Phoenix send an opening message at Staples? I don’t think so, but it will be fun to watch.
Kemba Walker expresses how excited he is to join the Knicks and jokes about whether he’ll be playing back-to-back games this season.
2. Which player’s debut with his new team is a must-watch?
Pelton: Would I be wrong to say Ben Simmons if he gets traded between now and then? Kemba Walker going up against the Boston Celtics months after they cut him loose in a trade will be a fun storyline in his debut for the New York Knicks — especially if he matches up against fellow free agent Dennis Schroder.
Friedell: I want to see Kemba in New York. I think he’s really going to enjoy playing for head coach Tom Thibodeau and he’s going to embrace the stage that is playing at Madison Square Garden every night.
Spears: Russell Westbrook’s debut with the Lakers will be must-see television. No one plays harder than Westbrook or has more energy. And now consider how much extra swag and fire he will add with the name of his hometown on his jersey. Adding to the interest is seeing how Westbrook will coexist with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. It will be fun seeing philanthropic-minded Westbrook in Los Angeles on and off the court. Lakers fans will adore the hometown kid from the moment he steps on the floor.
Snellings: Russell Westbrook’s debut with the Lakers isn’t just the obvious answer, it’s a potentially historic event. For all of the great teammates LeBron James has played with in his career, he’s never matched up with another former MVP who’s still close to his prime like Westbrook. Watching the Lakers form their new dynamic around three mega-stars, two of whom are extremely ball-dominant, will be fascinating to see. Is LeBron still the king? Will he be able to easily share the throne (and the ball) with Westbrook? How does a healthy Anthony Davis factor in?
MacMahon: I’ll go with Rockets rookie Jalen Green, who has a fascinating combination of athleticism, skill and moxie. He will be one to watch in the same way that Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards was last season. With the Rockets rebuilding, he arrives as the new face of the franchise. Houston won’t be good this season, but the franchise has a clear path to relevance again with a 21-and-under core headlined by Green and Kevin Porter Jr.
3. Which Christmas Day matchup has the juiciest storyline?
Spears: Nets-Lakers. I’ll be changing my plans so I can be in L.A. for this one. I can’t recall a Christmas Day game this exciting since 2005, when Shaquille O’Neal went back to face Kobe Bryant’s Lakers in a Miami Heat jersey. Big three vs. big three — put your presents to the side and pay attention to this one.
Snellings: Nets-Lakers can’t be topped. Two teams featuring historic-level big threes? LeBron vs. Durant for the consensus throne? KD and Harden vs. Westbrook, their former triumvirate becoming direct competitors for the title? LeBron vs. Kyrie again? This game doesn’t just have one singular “juiciest storyline,” it might have about four or five.
MacMahon: Nets-Lakers has the most star appeal — and Westbrook vs. Durant always has potential for verbal fireworks as well — but I’ll take Young returning to Madison Square Garden. He proved himself as one of the NBA’s premier showmen in the playoffs against the Knicks, displaying a rare combination of skill, a sharp tongue and some serious moxie. It’s only right to put him back on the MSG stage during the biggest showcase of the regular season.
Friedell: Warriors-Suns. It’s always fun to see Stephen Curry and Chris Paul face off against one another, but the key here is that Thompson should be back at this point. He’s been dying to get back on the floor and the Christmas stage is a perfect opportunity to remind the whole country just how great he can still be.
Pelton: There’s only one playoff rematch among the five games, and that’s the opening game between the Hawks and Knicks. Going up against an Atlanta team that handled them in five games in the opening round should be an interesting litmus test for New York after a busy offseason that upgraded the backcourt. Meanwhile, we’ll see if the crowd at noon on Christmas Day will be as wild as it was in the playoffs.
Jimmy Butler explains his decision to re-sign with the Heat and says he’s excited to play with all the new additions to the team.
4. Which team is not playing on Christmas Day but should be?
Pelton: I’m surprised Miami didn’t make the cut after adding Kyle Lowry and P.J. Tucker this offseason. If things go well, the Heat have a good chance to be a bigger threat to Brooklyn and Milwaukee in the East than the other three teams from the conference who will play on Christmas. Last year’s Christmas Day appearance will remain Miami’s only one since 2015.
Friedell: Miami. That team belongs on the Christmas stage. Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo have built a solid foundation – one that Lowry and Tucker should fit very well into this season. When healthy, the Heat have shown the ability to rise to the occasion when needed — it would have been fun to see what they could have done in this moment.
Snellings: It has to be the 76ers, right? They were the top seed in the Eastern Conference last season and feature a charismatic superstar in Joel Embiid, who just finished second in the last MVP vote. While teams like the Knicks, Hawks and Celtics are exciting with great young players and passionate fanbases, there’s no excuse for the 76ers team that dominated the conference in the regular season to not be on the marquee stage with every other elite team on Christmas Day.
Spears: LA Clippers. If I’m the Clippers, I’m really upset about this. Being a conference finalist last season and watching their Staples Center neighbors play on Christmas night will really hurt. Regardless of Kawhi Leonard‘s absence, this could be the most disrespectful omission to the Christmas Day schedule that I’ve seen.
MacMahon: I get that a smaller-market team that will be missing its second-best player might not be a big TV draw, but it doesn’t feel right that the reigning MVP will be sitting on the couch on Christmas. As much as I enjoy watching Nikola Jokic play, however, it’s hard to make a strong business case for subbing his Denver Nuggets in for any of the teams on the schedule.
5. Fact or fiction: The Lakers will be leading the Western Conference on Christmas Day.
MacMahon: Fiction. The last two seasons offer a pretty strong indication that Russell Westbrook and his new teammates will need some time to adapt to each other. LeBron James’ teams have gotten off to similar, relatively slow starts when he’s joined forces with ball-dominant star guards. It’s a good bet that the Lakers will be better in the second half of the season than they are in the early stages.
Pelton: Fiction. I think the Lakers are favorites to win the West entering the season but there are two reasons to think they won’t be atop the conference standings. First, the field is almost certainly a better bet than any individual West team. Second, the Lakers may start slowly as they integrate all their new pieces. They did better than expected in that regard in 2019, when they were the West leaders on Christmas, but I’d bet against it this time.
Spears: Fiction. There are too many new impactful players for their chemistry to be where it needs to be by the time Santa shows up. Trying to get LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook on the same page is a task in itself. Such could very well be the case in the second half of the season, but expect the Lakers to have most of their speed bumps early on.
Friedell: Fiction. There are too many new pieces to think the roster could come together this quickly. I still believe Russ is going to make it work with LeBron, but even great teams take time to find their collective rhythm — especially early in the year.
Snellings: I’ll say fact. This concentration of talent — assuming it’s healthy — should be too much for their opponents pretty much every night. While there could be some growing pains, Westbrook’s presence should allow James and Davis to operate at lower intensity during the season while still keeping the Lakers on top. And after their injury-laden seventh place finish a season ago, the Lakers will be motivated to place their stamp on this season and establish their dominance over a crowded field of challengers.