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NBA schedule release 2019-20: Lakers have early opportunity, Warriors face tough closing stretch, and more key takeaways

It might feel like the NBA season just ended, but here we are ready to take our first look at the layout for the 2019-20 season with the release of the full league schedule on Monday. 

Here are 11 takeaways from the newly released NBA schedule:

1. National TV start times moved up

With LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George all playing in Los Angeles, not to mention Stephen Curry in San Francisco, the NBA — which reportedly saw a 15 percent ratings decline for its TNT national games and a one-percent decline on its ESPN national slate — had to do something about all the East Coast viewers it was losing to the 10:30 ET West Coast start times. 

So it did.  

Last season, the Lakers had 19 games start at 10:30 ET. This coming season, that number will be down to 10. Likewise, Curry and the Warriors will see their 10:30 ET start times drop from 18 to 11. This is a smart move. Throw in Damian Lillard in Portland, and six of the league’s best and most popular players are on the West Coast, not to mention the top-two odds-on favorites to win the NBA championship in the Clippers and Lakers. You need as many eyeballs as possible on those teams and players. 

2. Lakers have early, and late, opportunity

Here are the Lakers’ first 10 games:

After the Clippers and Jazz, the Lakers probably should win their next eight games. Split the opening two, and throw in a random loss to be realistic, and an 8-2 start — with an outside shot at perhaps a 9-1 start — will have everyone buzzing. But it’s not just about buzz and good vibes around a team with the highest of expectations, it’s about wins. Period. While a 10-game stretch is nothing in the grand scheme of the season, playing from ahead in a Western Conference where a few wins could potentially separate four or even five seed spots, is a big deal. 

Last season the Lakers started off with eight of their first 11 games against playoff teams; this season only four of their first 11 opponents were in the playoffs last year. Then, at the end of the season, when the Lakers will likely be jockeying for playoff seeding, they will get seven non-playoff opponents in their final 10 games. Opportunities early and late for the Lake Show. 

3. Notable homecomings

4. Warriors’ tough closing stretch

If you’re on the “Warriors could miss the playoffs” train, you’ll feel emboldened by their tough closing stretch of games:

If the Warriors are within a few games of missing the playoffs, for starters, I recommend you jump off. But if you insist on staying put, this closing stretch for Golden State will be a real storyline as all these teams (besides Cleveland) will likely be in the playoff hunt and thus largely incentivized to secure their own berth/seeding — and, yes, these are all very good teams. But remember, Klay Thompson could very well be back by this time. Also, the Lakers and Clippers could be resting their big guns by this point, either because they’ve already locked up good enough seeding (more likely for Clippers, in my opinion) or, in the case of the Lakers, they perhaps don’t care so much about seeding with much more interest in saving LeBron’s legs. 

So there are some fluid variables here, for sure. But it’s something to keep any eye on if the Warriors indeed look like they are going to be fighting for a playoff spot come March and April. 

5. Kawhi’s load management

As you’ll see a bit down this post, back-to-backs are down throughout the league. But they still exist, and the Clippers have 13 of them. If they handle Kawhi Leonard with the same load-management gloves Toronto did (which worked out pretty well), expect Leonard to be sitting a lot of those back-end dates, if not all of them — at the every least. The same could be true for Paul George on a Clippers team that is now officially in the business of planning, and playing, for one thing and one thing only: A championship run in May and June. 

6. Introducing Kemba Walker

Hardcore NBA fans know all about Kemba Walker. Casual fans, perhaps not so much. Playing the first eight years of his career in Charlotte, Walker wasn’t exactly on the big stage very often. With the Celtics, he’ll get 34 nationally televised games (see full list below). 

A lot of people are going to get introduced to one of the six or seven most exciting players in the league — a player that Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told me last year is one of the handful of players in the league he would pay to watch. 

Walker deserves this. He has done everything right, turned himself into an All-Star and borderline superstar and now he gets to play some actual high-stakes basketball. Boston isn’t a title contender in most people’s eyes, but it’s a really good team, and the extremely generously listed 6-foot-1 Walker has made a career of proving people wrong. 

Watching last year’s Celtics team was a root canal. 

This year will be something far more enjoyable, largely because of Walker. 

7. National TV love

Including spots on ESPN, ABC, TNT and NBA TV, the Lakers will lead the league with 43 nationally televised games. The Warriors land second with 42. Then it’s the Clippers and Rockets with 38, the Sixers with 36 and the Celtics with 34. Below is the complete national TV breakdown courtesy of the great @JADubin5:

These dates are probably most notable to the players. The regular season is a slog, but everyone gets up when they know everyone is watching. 

8. The Zion effect

Sticking with the national TV theme, the Pelicans, who lose one of the best players in the league in Anthony Davis, are going to be on national TV 30 times this season. There is one big reason for that: Zion Williamson

The Pelicans are going to be one of the really exciting teams to watch with Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, JJ Redick, Derrick Favors and a couple of intriguing rookies in Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker — but Zion is the draw. He’s the player who’s going to sell tickets, and if he’s as good as a lot of people think he will be right away, he could be the player that lifts the Pelicans into playoff contention. 

9. Back-to-backs are down again

This is nothing but good news. Back-to-backs are bad for players (injury risk and general fatigue) and fans (this is when teams often sit their best players on either the front or back end; and even when guys play both ends, they’re not at their freshest and best). The league needs to continue limiting these back-to-back dates until it figures out a way to reduce the total amount of games from 82 to something closer to 70 without costing the players any money, as that’s the only way the union will go for it. 

10. Rookies duke it out in MSG showdown

On Jan. 10, Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett — Duke teammates and the Nos. 1 and 3 overall picks this past June — will square off in Madison Square Garden. This was not a star-studded draft class in terms of name value, but these two were, and are, the exception. Knicks fans had their collective heart set on landing the No. 1 pick, where they would’ve taken Williamson, along with a couple max free agents. They didn’t get any of them. 

Through this lens, Barrett has a heavy load to carry to not end up a disappointment as compared to the height of Knicks’ fans wishes for the summer of 2019. Showing out against Zion would be a great start. 

11. Last-game nerves

Every year when the schedule comes out, one of the first things I like to look at is the schedule on the last few days of the season. Yes, in many cases seeds are locked up and players are sitting by this point, but there’s almost always a game or two that feel like a March Madness one-and-done situation — either for a playoff seed or an outright playoff spot. 

Two years ago, Denver and Minnesota squared off on the last night of the season in a one-game showdown for the final playoff spot. Last year, the Trail Blazers came back from 26 points down to beat the Kings and secure the No. 3 seed, which was a big factor in their advancing to the conference finals as it allowed them to avoid the Warriors in the second round. 

So what’s going to be the pivotal game(s) in the final week this season? 

Portland and Golden State play on the third-to-last night of the season, which could very well have major seeding implications. Miami and Toronto play on the next-to-last night of the season, and that could have a big say in the final four seeds of the East. Denver and Utah also play that night, two teams who could well be in position for the No. 1 seed out West. The Pelicans and Spurs play on the last night of the season, and it’s not entirely out of the question that that could be a play-in game as both teams figure to be on the playoff bubble this season.