In today's preview for the Clippers-Pacers game, I let it slip that I've put pencil to paper as concerns how the Clippers might get to 41 wins this season. Why 41? Well, it represents a .500 record on the season, an accomplishment in and of itself for a young team, but a Herculean task considering the 1-13 start. Furthermore, with Portland sitting at 22-20 in the eighth spot in the West, and with Denver likely to fall out of the race once an inevitable Carmelo Anthony trade is consummated, a .500 record is a good guess for what it might take to grab the eighth playoff seed. It might take more, it might take less. But it's a reasonable stake in the ground.
In broad strokes, with the Clippers currently sitting at 15-25 one game shy of the season midpoint, they would have to go 26-16 in their remaining 42 games to finish 41-41. That seems pretty darn reasonable on the surface. After all, 26-16 is a .619 winning percentage, and over the Clippers last 14 games, they've won 10, which is a .714 winning percentage. If you're going to dream, obviously your starting position is that the team is going to play at least as well as it has been playing, so given that their current win rate is well above what they would actually need, suddenly this doesn't seem like such a pipe dream, right?
Well, not so fast. The Clippers just happen to have played more home games than any other team in the NBA so far, with 25 of their first 40 games coming in Staples Center. Likewise their recent run has been home heavy as well, with 10 of their last 14 at home. Obviously, if they've played more home games than any other team so far, it stands to reason that they will have more road games than any other team the rest of the way.
In fact, of their remaining 42 games, only 16 of them will be at home while 26 of them will be on the road (including two at Staples Center on the Lakers' court). The perhaps overly simplistic road map I've set out for getting the team to .500 overall involves them winning half of their 26 road games, which would then require them to win 13 of 16 home games. Of course, a million other things could happen: they could win a few more road games, lose a few more home games; they could win a few more of both and surpass 41 wins for the season; more likely, they'll come up short on both and finish below .500. But with 26 more wins needed from this point forward, I like the balance of 13 homes wins, 13 road wins, and 13 road losses. And it gives us a rubric we can track as we go along.
On the surface, 13-3 at home may seem the more daunting task, but I'm not so sure. That's because, among the Clippers 26 home games so far, they've played an inordinate number of top teams (and beaten a fair number of them, I might add). With 16 home games left, only five of them come against team's with winning records, and one of those is Denver in March, a couple weeks after the trade deadline and presumably after the Nuggets have blown up their current roster. No wonder the Clippers sales department is hard selling remaining dates against Chicago, Boston, Dallas and Oklahoma City - those are the only marquee opponents left at this point. Nor will the Clippers be particularly intimidated by any of those teams - they've already beaten the Bulls and Thunder after all, and have shown that they can beat any team in the league. Still, if they are to lose three or fewer in their 16 remaining home games, the margin for error is razor thin. They can ill afford to have a flat performance against anyone, and let's face it, every team comes out flat every once in a while.
As for the 13-13 goal for the remaining road games, here's another nice piece of symmetry to add to the puzzle; of the 26 games, 13 come against teams with winning records, 13 against teams with losing records. So the picture becomes even clearer - beat the sub .500 teams on the road to stay on pace. For every game you lose to a sub .500 team, you have to make one up against an opponent with a winning record.
But the biggest problem with this plan lies in the sheer number of teams that lie between the Clippers and that Western Conference eighth seed. Out of 15 teams in the conference, only two (Minnesota and Sacramento) are currently behind the Clippers in the standings, and those are the only two who can reasonably be viewed as out of the playoff picture. Even Phoenix, whom I would have assumed all but dead after their recent trades, has won three of their last four, and as long as Steve Nash has a pulse, they're dangerous. Memphis and Houston are within a few games of .500 already and have probably not played their best basketball yet this season. And don't count out the Warriors, who in contrast to the Clippers have an incredibly home friendly remaining schedule. As for the Blazers, everyone expected them to fade when Brandon Roy was lost "indefinitely", but they actually have a better record without Roy than with him this season. In other words, there are seven teams that currently have designs on the final two West Playoff spots held for the time being by Denver and Portland, and the Clippers are seventh among them. If any two of those other teams catch fire down the stretch, then 41 wins will be nothing more than a moral victory.
It's probably more accurate to view the remaining road opponents in three tiers instead of just in black and white terms of winning and losing records. If we place the seven Western Conference foes into a middle tier, suddenly the task looks very different. With six road games left at Memphis (2), Houston (2), Phoenix (1) and Portland, the Clippers have many chances to make up ground against potential playoff rivals. But five of those games are among those that are officially against 'losing' teams, so don't think for a moment that games at Houston or at Memphis are going to be gimmes.
One big unknown in all of this is exactly how good the Clippers are, or can be. The 10-4 record in the last month is great. It also fits nicely into a trend for the season so far:
- first 14 games - 1-13 - .071
- middle 12 games - 4-8 - .333
- last 14 games - 10-4 - .714
Is it possible that the team is going to be even better in the second half of the season than they've been in the last month? Bear in mind that among the 4 losses in the last 14 games were big leads blown at home against Utah and Atlanta. In the ongoing maturation process of the team, it's not unreasonable to think that the Clippers of mid-January would actually close out those games. In other words, this may be more like a 12-2 team today. Then there is the Chris Kaman factor. Of the seven teams who fancy themselves contenders for the final playoff spots, only one will be adding an All Star within the next few weeks (though Portland could be adding Roy at some point after his knee surgery). The Clippers have been playing great basketball, but they will certainly be better and deeper when Kaman returns to the lineup, hopefully for the brutal month long road trip that is February.
In the end, 41 is probably not a realistic goal. The Clippers remain an incredibly young team, and are only 3-12 on the road this season. Yes, they opened with 11 losses and their recent record of 3 wins out of 4 road games since would be a more than adequate pace for the rest of the season. But the loss in Oakland on Friday was a bit of an eye-opener; as well as the team has been playing, without a big crowd cheering them on, they didn't seem to have the energy to dig down and get stops against the Warriors. If the team has to beat all of the sub .500 teams remaining on their schedule, losing to the 15-23 Warriors was a bad omen. With an unprecedented 11 game trip set to run from February 4th through the 25th, a trip that opens against four of the six best teams in the East, the road to 41 may hit a detour right away.
However, if my rules of thumb are accurate (13-13 on the road, 13-3 at home), we'll be getting some feedback on the plan sooner rather than later. The Clippers need to win at least one of the next three roadies, at Portland, Dallas and Houston; two victories would put them a bit ahead of schedule. At the same time, they can't lose at home the rest of January, in games against the Timberwolves, Warriors, Bobcats and Bucks. The February 2 matchup against the Bulls - their last home game before their Odyssey - will then be a chance to build a bit of a cushion against their goal, and to build some momentum for the brutal trip that lies ahead.
The very fact that we're having this discussion with a straight face is pretty exciting news for Clips Nation. Let's see just how exciting the team can make it the rest of the way.