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Charlotte Hornets v Cleveland Cavaliers
Gordon Hayward is expected to make his debut on Wednesday when the Charlotte Hornets visit the Cleveland Cavaliers in the season openers for both teams. Hayward, who was signed to a four-year, $120 million contract in the offseason, has been sidelined since sustaining a fractured finger on his right hand during a preseason game against Toronto on Dec. 14. Should Hayward remain healthy, he is expected to join former teammate Terry Rozier as well as Devonte’ Graham in helping a Hornets team that finished with a 23-42 record last season. LaMelo Ball, who was the third overall pick of the 2020 NBA Draft, will look to provide an immediate impact for Charlotte. Like the Hornets, Cleveland also fell significantly short of the playoffs in 2019-20. The Cavaliers, in fact, have followed up their glory days during LeBron James’ second stint with the team with back-to-back 19-win campaigns. Collin Sexton aims to continue his development after leading the team by averaging 20.8 points per game last season. Like Hayward, Kevin Love will need to find a way to stay on the court while Andre Drummond is out to improve his defensive play this season.
New York Knicks v Indiana Pacers
Tom Thibodeau will make his debut as head coach of the New York Knicks on Wednesday night when the team opens the season against the Indiana Pacers in Indianapolis. Thibodeau is a tough taskmaster, and his latest challenge is a big one: Turn around the flailing Knicks, who have endured seven consecutive sub-.500 seasons. New York has a bright spot in rookie Obi Toppin, the No. 8 overall pick in this year’s draft out of Dayton. The Knicks also will look for more development from guard RJ Barrett, now entering his second season. It could be a difficult opener for the Knicks against a seasoned Indiana team that includes veterans such as Victor Oladipo, Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis. The Pacers also have a skilled big man in Myles Turner, who missed a pair of exhibition games as part of concussion protocol but is expected to be available for the opener. Another Pacers player to watch out for is forward T.J. Warren, who emerged as an unlikely star during the NBA’s bubble competition in Orlando. Just like the Knicks, the Pacers also have a new coach, Nate Bjorkgren, who vows to instill more of an up-tempo offense with a greater reliance on 3-pointers.
Miami Heat v Orlando Magic
After losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games in October’s NBA Finals, the defending Eastern Conference champion Heat will begin their quest for a title in the same city in which last season’s run ended. Jimmy Butler, who registered a playoff-leading 806 minutes while averaging 22.2 points a game, headlines the Heat’s returners alongside fellow All-Star Bam Adebayo. Miami flashed depth in the bubble last season, with rookie Tyler Herro averaging 16 points during the playoffs. Orlando absorbed a sizable blow when it lost forward Jonathan Isaac for the season with a torn left ACL. Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic will look to shoulder an increased load in the frontcourt as Orlando vies for a third consecutive playoff appearance. The Magic are eager to see development from Markelle Fultz, the top pick in the 2017 NBA Draft by Philadelphia who struggled with injuries and shooting woes and was traded to Orlando in February 2019. The Magic have won nine of the past 15 meetings with their in-state rival but are 7-11 against the Heat in the teams’ last 18 games in Orlando. The Heat won the season series 3-1 in 2019-20. The teams have met in the season opener seven previous times.
Washington Wizards v Philadelphia 76ers
Be mindful of debuts aplenty in this one, as the 76ers play their first game under coach Doc Rivers while the Wizards see how recently acquired guard Russell Westbrook begins to jell — and, ideally, score — at guard. While Philadelphia returns numerous stalwarts from previous seasons, including the core of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris, a front office shakeup still occurred, with Seth Curry and Danny Green among those acquired via trade as the team looks to boost its perimeter game. The 76ers also shored up their frontcourt by signing 16-year veteran Dwight Howard, who was part of the Los Angeles Lakers’ NBA championship team last season. The Wizards traded John Wall in a deal for Westbrook, a former MVP who averaged 27.7 points a game with Houston last season. The organization, which missed the playoffs in 2019-20, hopes Westbrook and Bradley Beal (30.5 points a game in 2019-20) form an electric combination while young frontcourt players Thomas Bryant and Rui Hachimura continue their development on both sides of the floor. Ish Smith figures to provide energy and scoring off the bench, as does big man Davis Bertans, who averaged 15.4 points last season largely as a reserve.
Milwaukee Bucks v Boston Celtics
Giannis Antetokounmpo has deepened his commitment to Milwaukee and looks to get the Bucks started toward an NBA Finals appearance when they visit the Boston Celtics in Wednesday’s season opener for both teams. The two-time MVP recently signed a five-year, $228 million contract extension and his assignment to get Milwaukee over its playoff hurdles. The Bucks recorded the best record in the NBA in each of the last two seasons but lost in the Eastern Conference finals two seasons ago and fell in the second round last season. The club looked to get Antetokounmpo more help and succeeded by landing point guard Jrue Holiday from the New Orleans Pelicans. All-Star forward Khris Middleton and big man Brook Lopez also are key pieces for the Bucks. Boston is also looking to go deeper in the postseason as young stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown figure to keep getting better. Tatum signed a five-year, $195 million extension in the offseason and he will look to improve his performances against the Bucks. The All-Star shot just 33.3 percent from the field while averaging 15.7 points and six rebounds as the Celtics went 1-2 against the Bucks last season. Tatum experienced a miserable 2-of-18 shooting effort — including 1 of 11 from 3-point range — while scoring just five points in the first game at the Orlando-area bubble on July 31. Four-time All-Star point guard Kemba Walker (knee) is sidelined so defensive standout Marcus Smart is in the starting lineup.
New Orleans Pelicans v Toronto Raptors
The New Orleans Pelicans figure to be a vastly improved team this season and they look for second-year pro Zion Williamson to begin leading the way when they open the season in Tampa, Fla., against the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday night. Williamson, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2019, got his rookie campaign off to a late start due to a preseason knee injury but played well despite the team placing restrictions on his playing time. Williamson averaged 22.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 27.8 minutes in 24 games, displaying that he is on his way to becoming a big-time star. Williamson and All-Star forward Brandon Ingram have more help as the Pelicans landed big man Steven Adams from the Oklahoma City Thunder and point guard Eric Bledsoe from the Milwaukee Bucks in the offseason. The Raptors are playing their home games this season in Tampa due to Canada’s COVID-19 protocols. Toronto re-signed guard Fred VanVleet and forward OG Anunoby but sustained two big frontcourt losses as Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka both departed as free agents. The Raptors may be without Norman Powell in the opener after the club listed him as questionable due to “health and safety protocols.” The team hasn’t elaborated further. Toronto will again be led by six-time All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry and forward Pascal Siakam, who was a first-time All-Star last season when he averaged 22.9 points and 7.3 rebounds.
Atlanta Hawks v Chicago Bulls
The Chicago Bulls have a new front office, a new head coach and new excitement heading into their season opener against the visiting Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday night. Former Denver Nuggets executive Arturas Karnisovas took over during the offseason as the Bulls’ top decision-maker, with John Paxson transitioning into another role and ex-general manager Gar Forman moving on. Karnisovas brought in Marc Eversley from the Philadelphia 76ers as general manager, and the pair hired Billy Donovan as head coach to replace Jim Boylen. This figures to be a developmental year for Donovan and his new team, but there is promise with young pieces such as Zach LaVine, Wendell Carter Jr., Lauri Markkanen, Coby White and Patrick Williams. At 19 years old and the No. 4 overall pick in this year’s draft, Williams is set to make his NBA debut against the Hawks. Atlanta also has higher hopes this season after floundering in 2019-20, and the team brought in several veterans, including Rajon Rondo, Clint Capela and Bogdan Bogdanovic. All of them will look to strengthen the roster around its best player, Trae Young, who enters his third season with an eye toward team success and not just eye-popping individual stat lines. He ranked fourth in scoring (29.6 points per game) and second in assists (9.3 per game) last season.
Oklahoma City Thunder v Houston Rockets
As of now, James Harden is a member of a Houston Rockets team that is getting set to face the Oklahoma City Thunder in the opener of the 2020-21 season for both teams. Who actually takes the floor at the opening tip for the Rockets still is up for conjecture after Harden’s trade demands. Harden finally showed up to training camp and had nice things to say about new Houston guard John Wall, but there has been no indication his heart is into playing another season in Houston. In addition to Wall, the Rockets will welcome aboard Christian Wood, who has been well traveled in his young career having played for five teams in four seasons but appears to have a place where he can finally settle down. The Thunder revamped its roster last season and still made the playoffs. Another roster upheaval took place this offseason but a return to the playoffs seems unlikely. The Thunder has all eyes on the future with a whopping 17 first-round picks in hand over the next five drafts. In his third season, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander becomes Oklahoma City’s main man. He averaged 19.0 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists last season, and while it would be prudent to work on his play-making skills, this youthful bunch will need a go-to scorer.
San Antonio Spurs v Memphis Grizzlies
The Spurs (32-39 last season) will be seeking to rebound after having missed the playoffs for the first time since 1997. The Spurs had their youngest roster of the Gregg Popovich era last year, with an average age of 25.5 years, and return all their key players except Bryn Forbes (signed as free agent with Bucks) and Marco Belinelli (playing in Europe). Point guard Derek White begins the season on the sidelines as he recovers from offseason toe surgery. Veteran Patty Mills led the Spurs in scoring in the preseason with 49 points in just 65 minutes. Rookie Devin Vassell had an impressive preseason with 41 points, 16 rebounds and a team-high nine steals in 83 minutes. The Grizzlies (34-39 last season) tip off their 20th season in Memphis seeking a seventh win in their last nine home openers. They split last year’s season series 2-2 with the Spurs, falling 108-106 in the bubble in the most recent meeting despite a late game-tying 3-pointer by Jaren Jackson Jr. The Grizzlies will be without Jackson at the start of the season as he rehabs a surgically repaired left knee. Jackson averaged 17.4 points per game last season, second on the team to Ja Morant’s 17.8. Morant led the NBA in the preseason with 39 assists in four games, and also led the team in scoring with 70 points in 103 minutes, shooting 55.6 percent from the field. The Grizzlies have missed the playoffs the last three seasons.
Detroit Pistons v Minnesota Timberwolves
The Pistons (20-46 last season) will sport an overhauled look this year as they pursue just their third playoff berth in the last 12 years. The top returners are Derrick Rose, who led the team in scoring last season at 18.1 points per game, and Blake Griffin, who is seeking to rebound from a year in which he averaged a career-worst 4.7 rebounds. Chief among the many Detroit newcomers are Jerami Grant, who finished second to Rose (45) in scoring in the preseason with 43 points in four games, veteran additions Mason Plumlee and Delon Wright, and rookies Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart. Detroit returns just four players from last year’s roster, a team that saw an eight-game winning streak against the Timberwolves end in a 120-114 defeat in the clubs’ only meeting of the season. Meanwhile, the Timberwolves (19-45 last season) look forward to seeing stars Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell on the floor together more often this season after that occurred just one time last year after Russell was acquired in an in-season trade from Golden State. But Russell opens the season with a sore right ankle, one that kept him out of the Timberwolves’ final preseason game last Thursday. Towns looked fully healthy in the preseason, leading the team in points (47) and rebounds (24) while also ranking among the leaders in assists (eight) in 75 minutes. The Timberwolves have given Towns and Russell an improved supporting cast this season with the acquisition of Ricky Rubio in a trade and the selection of Anthony Edwards with the first pick in the draft. Edwards struggled in the preseason, shooting just 11-for-38 (29%) while accumulating a minus-25 plus/minus in 79 minutes.
Sacramento Kings v Denver Nuggets
The Denver Nuggets will be walking tall into their season opener Wednesday, although their opponent, the Sacramento Kings, will have a bit of a strut as well. Sure, the Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA title last season, but perhaps no team did more to raise its profile inside of the NBA bubble this past summer than the Nuggets, who rode Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray into the Western Conference finals. Jokic has even raised some long shot MVP buzz, although that would appear a tall order at this point. The Nuggets, who rallied from a pair of 3-1 deficits in last season’s playoffs, could have their fortunes boosted by improved play and consistency from Michael Porter Jr. Talented but inconsistent, the Kings struggled last season to control the paint but had an answer for that this offseason with the acquisition of Hassan Whiteside. Add the 7-footer to the likes of D’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Harrison Barnes and Marvin Bagley III and suddenly the Kings look like they have playoff potential. After showing steady progression, Hield slipped a bit last season. His 19.2 points per game were a point and a half lower than 2018-19 and his 39.4-percent shooting from 3-point range was under 40 for the first time since his rookie season.
Utah Jazz v Portland Trail Blazers
Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert aim to pay immediate dividends on the large contracts they signed when the Utah Jazz open their season against the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday. Mitchell signed a five-year max extension last month that is worth up to $195 million while Gobert inked a five-year, $205 million pact. Gobert also squelched any rumors of a rift between the pair, saying the two have turned the page and plan to help the team reach the next level. Mike Conley looks to move past misfiring on a 3-point attempt at the buzzer as the Jazz squandered a 3-1 series lead in a first-round loss against Denver. Portland doesn’t have fond memories of its first-round series, either, as a knee injury to superstar Damian Lillard ended any bid for an upset. Lillard averaged career highs in points (30.0) and assists (8.0) in 2019-20 before the Blazers owed out in the first round to the Los Angeles Lakers. CJ McCollum, who contributed 22.2 points per game, can also produce while acquisitions Enes Kanter and Robert Covington could go a long way in addressing Portland’s porous defensive effort from last season.
Dallas Mavericks v Phoenix Suns
Chris Paul is set to make his Phoenix debut when the Suns open the season against the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday night. The 10-time All-Star point guard was acquired from the Oklahoma City Thunder due to the franchise increasing its focus on ending a 10-season playoff drought. The Suns went 34-39 last season but were electric with an 8-0 mark in the Orlando-area bubble to build hope that they can reach the postseason this season. Paul has expressed eagerness to play with All-Star shooting guard Devin Booker, the face of the franchise who averaged 26.6 points in each of the past two seasons. Paul has been nursing an ankle injury but is ready for the opener as he goes up against Dallas star Luka Doncic. The 21-year-old All-Star averaged 28.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists in 61 games last season. Doncic has 25 triple-doubles in just 133 career regular-season games. Big man Kristaps Porzingis isn’t ready for the start of the season as he is still recovering from right knee surgery to repair meniscus damage. Dwight Powell has recovered from his Achilles tendon injury of 11 months ago and will be the club’s starting center. The Suns went 3-1 against the Mavericks last season, including two victories in the bubble — 117-115 on Aug. 2 and 128-102 on Aug. 13.