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Lakers back in national spotlight as NBA releases marquee TV schedule

LeBron James debuting for the Lakers in front of some Nike executives and lots of beards. The Golden State Warriors taking on the Westbrooks. The future of the East — Philadelphia and Boston — reigniting one of the best, if somewhat overshadowed, rivalries of basketball’s most important era.

The NBA-crazed fiends who are looking for any hint of basketball news got a chance to start fantasizing Wednesday when the national TV schedules were released for the first week, Christmas Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

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Kudos to the NBA for somehow milking multiple days of coverage out of the giant administrative task that is putting together 82-game schedules for each of its teams — a reveal that’ll be completed in full Friday.

Here’s what we’ve got so far:

  • The Lakers open the season Thursday, Oct. 18, in Portland before James makes his Staples Center debut the following Saturday against Houston.
  • The Warriors and the Lakers will play on the NBA’s two biggest days of the regular season — Christmas and MLK Day.
  • The top of the Eastern Conference will play in the spotlight again and again and again, with Philadelphia and Boston opening the season schedule Oct. 16 and meeting again on Christmas in the prime afternoon time slot.
  • Speaking of Christmas, the Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Rockets, Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz are all in with the 76ers, Celtics, Warriors and Lakers. The San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors are surprisingly out.
  • The Clippers will appear just once during these marquee periods, hosting Houston to end opening week on Sunday, Oct. 21 — a reminder that the Lob City days are long gone.

The early schedule release also gives us a glimpse as to what the NBA thinks of the upcoming season, and it’s clear that they’re betting heavily on a wave of change at the top of the league.

While the Warriors are the safe bet to win another NBA title, James’ move to the Western Conference means it’s a new day in the East.

Boston seems most primed to slide into the role Cleveland and Miami have held for the last decade, with the Celtics adding All-NBA talent to a team that came within two quarters of improbably making the NBA Finals.

In their way is Philadelphia, which is stacked with young talent ready to take the next step from stardom into superstardom. And lurking — they’re barely mentioned in the initial wave of games — are the Raptors, who might now have the conference’s best player in Kawhi Leonard, assuming he’s healthy.

It’s a little surprising that the Warriors and the Rockets weren’t slated for one of these top spots, especially since their seven-game series last spring served as the de facto NBA Finals in the eyes of many.

It’s a little surprising the NBA resisted throwing the Lakers and the Celtics together — especially on Christmas. And it’s a little surprising that the league would have the Lakers open on the road instead of Staples Center, postponing it two days when the city could be split between James’ L.A. debut and Game 7 of the NLCS, which could again feature the Dodgers.

Ultimately, the least surprising — and most telling — thing to come out of Wednesday’s schedule tease is the Lakers are officially back square in the public eye.

That’s the beauty of having James onboard — even if the team looks closer to missing the playoffs in year one than hoisting a trophy. The Lakers are once again in the main event, playing the role of hated rivals to just about every team in the league, starting with Portland, a city that certainly remembers a wild seven-game conference finals in 2000.

With James in a Lakers uniform, it doesn’t matter who they play or when they play. The NBA knows what we already know — it’s going to be a big deal.

NBA NATIONAL TV GAMES

OPENING WEEK

all times Pacific

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Oct. 16: Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics, 5 p.m. (TNT)

Oct. 16: Oklahoma City Thunder at Golden State Warriors, 7:30 p.m. (TNT)

Oct. 17: New Orleans Pelicans at Houston Rockets, 5 p.m. (ESPN)

Oct. 17: Dallas Mavericks at Phoenix Suns, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Oct. 18: Chicago Bulls at Philadelphia 76ers, 5 p.m. (TNT)

Oct. 18: Lakers at Portland Trail Blazers, 7:30 p.m. (TNT)

Oct. 19: Boston Celtics at Toronto Raptors, 5 p.m. (ESPN)

Oct. 19: Golden State Warriors at Utah Jazz, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Oct. 20: Toronto Raptors at Washington Wizards, 4 p.m. (NBA TV)

Oct. 20: Houston Rockets at Lakers, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Oct. 21: Houston Rockets at Clippers, 6 p.m. (NBA TV)

CHRISTMAS SCHEDULE

all times Pacific

Milwaukee Bucks at New York Knicks, 9 a.m. (ESPN)

Oklahoma City Thunder at Houston Rockets, noon (ABC)

Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics, 2:30 p.m. (ABC)

Lakers at Golden State Warriors, 5 p.m. (ABC/ESPN)

Portland Trail Blazers at Utah Jazz, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)

MLK DAY SCHEDULE, Jan. 21

all times Pacific / all games on TNT

New Orleans Pelicans at Memphis Grizzlies, 2:30 p.m.

Houston Rockets at Philadelphia 76ers, 5 p.m.

Golden State at Lakers, 7:30 p.m.

4:50 p.m.: This column has been updated with more information on the release of NBA schedules.

This column was first published at 11:20 a.m.

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