At the risk of jinxing the whole thing, I can't resist pointing out the opportunity in front of the Los Angeles Clippers with their December schedule. The recent four game losing streak was painful, but the 10-6 record is pretty darn good in spite of it, particularly when you consider that the Clippers played the most difficult schedule in the NBA through the end of November. And now that they're through November it's time for the schedule to even out a bit.
The NBA schedule is about as balanced as it can be. For teams in the same conference, everyone's schedule ends up being more or less the same, the only differences being a Simpsons-handful of teams you play three times instead of four times. And given the fact that teams can't play themselves, ultimately the good teams will have easier schedules than than the bad teams, since the Kings are the only team that doesn't get to beat up on the Kings and the Spurs are the only team that doesn't have to play the Spurs. Since the Clippers are now a "good team" eventually their strength of schedule should drop down into the lower half of the Western Conference teams.
Through games of December 2nd, there are nine teams in the entire NBA with a winning percentage of .600 or better, the Clippers being one of them. Of the eight potential opponents in that group, the Clippers have played nine games against seven of them -- the only top team they've yet to face is New York, and they've played the Spurs and Hawks twice each. They've gone a more than respectable 5-4 in those nine games. They've also got a tenth game (another win) against a Lakers team that is still widely considered to be a contender, their poor start to the season notwithstanding.
With nine (or ten) of their first 16 games having come against the top 30 percent of the league, that leaves a LOT of games yet to be played against the other 70 percent. And for the entire month of December the Clippers will be facing exclusively that less intimidating group. Including the already vanquished Kings a couple of days ago on December 1st and stretching through a game against the Nuggets on New Years Day, the Clippers have 17 straight games against teams that are currently no better than a game above .500 -- and there are only three of those teams (8-7 Chicago, 8-7 Milwaukee and 9-8 Boston).
There are certainly difficult games in that mix. Boston and Denver (8-9) are generally considered to be underachieving thus far and might figure it out at any moment, Milwaukee has been surprisingly good, tonight's opponent Utah (9-9) is undefeated at home where they are always tough and the Clippers have to travel there again in late December. Not to mention that the Clippers have suffered several losses this season to teams they should have beaten. But on the other hand, looking at the next 16 games, I see only one (at Utah December 28 on the second night of a very difficult L.A.-to-Salt Lake back-to-back) in which I would expect the Clippers to lose. All of the games are winnable, and if I were setting the odds I'd have the Clippers favored in 15 of them.
Let's dig in a little deeper.
The 16 games from now to New Years are split evenly between home and away games, so there's no major discrepancy there. However, there is only one extended trip during that span, a four gamer to the East in the middle of the month, and they will have a relatively leisurely pace for that trip as compared to most. They have only one back-to-back on the trip, at Charlotte on December 12, and forgive me if I'm still not particularly intimidated by the 7-8 Bobkitties. After Charlotte they have two days to prepare for the Bucks in Milwaukee and the trip ends in Detroit, one of the worst teams in the entire league.
There are two other back-to-back games on the schedule in December. Next weekend they'll play back-to-back matinees against the Suns and Raptors and then they've got that tough trip to Utah on December 28 after playing the Celtics the day before in STAPLES. Toronto at home shouldn't pose too big a problem, but as I mentioned that Utah game looks a lot like a schedule loss from this vantage point.
If the Clippers squander this opportunity to fatten up the winning percentage, they'll regret it later. There are plenty of games left against Memphis and Oklahoma City and the other top teams -- they can't keep playing the .500 club forever. Now is the time to build a nice cushion in the Pacific Division (where they remain tied with the Warriors currently) and in the Western Conference playoff race. If you still believe that the Thunder, Spurs, Grizzlies, Clippers and Lakers are the top five teams in the conference, they can't all secure home court advantage in the playoffs -- and that is ignoring the underachieving Nuggets and the overachieving Warriors. Now is the time for the Clippers to build an elite record to solidify their elite status.
The Clippers will not go 16-0 between now and New Years Day -- those types of runs are incredibly rare in the NBA and there's no reason to think that it will happen here. But they can a should win a LOT of games. If they were to repeat their record from the first 16 and go 10-6 over the next month it would be a major disappointment. What's realistic? 13-3? 14-2? They need to get on a roll and win a bunch or it could come back to haunt them.