The NBA schedule was released yesterday, and with it the schedule for the Los Angeles Clippers as they attempt to reach the playoffs for consecutive seasons for the first time in 20 years. After last season's lockout-truncated slate, we are back to a full 82 games this year, and with that we are also back to a much more balanced schedule. Every NBA team plays the 15 teams from the opposing conference twice each, home and away, while playing ten of their 14 conference opponents four times each, split between home and away games. That means that four conference opponents that teams play three times each represents the sum total in the strength of schedule difference between teams in the same conference. Which is no big deal over the course of 82 games.
Still, there are subtleties to look for in the schedule. Let's begin with those four conference opponents the Clippers play three times instead of four. Those teams must be outside of the Clippers division, which is a break since three of the four other teams in the Pacific (Phoenix, Golden State and Sacramento) missed the playoffs last season (though the Warriors could certainly be much improved this year). The Clippers will miss out on one game each against the Mavericks, Grizzlies, Nuggets and Rockets -- a middle of the road pack if ever there were one. Ideally you'd like to miss games with the Thunder or the Spurs, but part of reaching a higher level of NBA visibility is participating in marquee matchups, and the TV networks definitely want to see Clippers-Spurs games and Clippers-Thunder games (five of the eight are on national TV this season).
Beyond the Thunder, Spurs and Lakers, it's pretty difficult to measure which teams you'd like to avoid this season. Memphis is probably one of them, as they were clearly in the top group in the conference last season. The Nuggets have been hard to figure for awhile, but could be very good. Meanwhile, the Mavericks and Rockets will be wildly different teams from the ones they were last year, and it's tempting to think they'll both miss the playoffs, but those teams have fooled us before.
The Clippers have a very home friendly start to their schedule, playing seven of their first nine games at home, and eight of those in STAPLES Center including a road game against the Lakers in the second game of the season. That gives the Clippers a chance to build some momentum and some buzz early in the season -- but of course the schedule will eventually level out and they'll pay for that home-heavy start eventually.
For the L.A. teams that leveling out usually comes in February when the Grammy Awards come to STAPLES Center and the home teams all hit the road. This season February is bad... but not as bad as it frequently is. The Clippers take a season-long eight game road trip from January 30 through February 11 (the Grammys are on the 10th) and overall play nine of 13 games on the road that month (though once again one of the road games is in L.A. against the purple and gold). It sure would be great if the Grammy people would just schedule their clambake for the same time as the NBA All-Star break and minimize the scheduling difficulties for everyone, but clearly that's not an option in years that STAPLES wants to host the All Star Game.
The TV schedule reflects a growing national interest in the team of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin as you might imagine, with 30 of the Clippers 82 games appearing on National TV (that includes seven on NBA-TV). With 23 games on ESPN, TNT and/or ABC, the Clippers are entering the upper echelon of exposure in the league along with the Lakers, Heat, Thunder and Knicks. So be prepared for even more backlash against Blake. The Clippers appear on the ABC's Sunday National TV schedule four times this year, which is completely unprecedented. For once, all those Sunday matinee games at STAPLES Center actually make sense.
Because even though the Clippers have become one of the top draws league wide, they are still third fiddle when it comes to scheduling on their home court, behind the Lakers and the NHL Kings. As such, they will play eight weekend matinees tipping at 12:30 this season, which is about what they do most seasons. The fact that three of those in March and April are going to be nationally televised should at least raise the energy level inside of STAPLES Center for those games.
Part of being last in the scheduling pecking order for your own building is playing back-to-backs, and the Clippers as per usual play a bunch of them -- 20 this season to be exact. The Lakers play 16 back-to-backs this season, which frankly is a much smaller discrepancy than we've seen in the past. The Clippers have several stretches where they play four games in five nights, with the first such stretch coming December 8 through 12.
Beyond back-to-backs and minor schedule variances in which teams you face, there is also a timing element that can affect a team's schedule. For the most part that will play out through blind luck, as teams catch opponents on bad nights, or with a star injured, etc. However, we already know that Derrick Rose, the 2011 NBA MVP, will miss most of the season, and certainly will miss the early part, so the fact that the Clippers' two games against Chicago come in November and December is a definite advantage.
Finally, there's one last item on the schedule of importance. The Clippers open the season at home on Wednesday October 31 against the Memphis Grizzlies. Obviously this is an important rematch between playoff opponents last season, between two teams who fancy themselves contenders in the Western Conference. But more importantly it's Halloween -- which means the Clipper Spirit in sexy Halloween costumes on opening night! That's the way to start an NBA season.