The Los Angeles Clippers open a seven game road trip Wednesday against the Hawks in Atlanta. Some teams have particularly long road trips when their home arena is specifically unavailable for NBA basketball. The Bulls for instance just finished their famous "Circus trip." But Chicago's Circus trip had them away from the United Center for six games, while the Clippers will be gone a full seven games. And what is the conflict that has the Clippers on the road for such an extended period of time? Nothing in particular.
The Clippers do have an annual "Grammy trip" in February that is always long -- this season it is their second seven gamer. But life on the West coast, particularly life in a home arena that is shared with another NBA team and an NHL team, just includes long road trips. The Bulls have to cross half a continent to play in California -- but the Clippers have to cross the entire continent to play in New York, and fully 60 percent of NBA teams are located east of the Mississippi, with another four in Texas and Oklahoma, not exactly a short trip either. The California teams are going to rack up the miles one way or another, and either you stay out on the road for a while, or you spend even more time in planes going back to LA and then going out again.
So the Clippers head out east for long trips periodically. Western Conference teams only play away games against the East once per season; the six games against Eastern foes on this trip (Memphis, a West team, is thrown in as well) represent fully 40 percent of the team's Eastern Conference road games all season.
We've already discussed how the gap between the powerful Western Conference and the weaker East is bigger than ever this season -- the Clippers have already played in Miami this season and are no doubt looking forward to a chance to redeem themselves in Indiana, which won't occur until mid-January. Any other road game in the East is pretty much a chance to pad your road record this season.
There's a decided home court advantage in the NBA, and road games are always tough. But while the Clippers have played the toughest schedule in the league through their first 18 games, there is not a single opponent currently above .500 awaiting them on this trip. Throw in a Memphis team that is 1-3 since star center Marc Gasol got hurt, and the reality is that the Clippers will probably be favored in all seven games of this trip.
Last December the schedule was uncommonly favorable, and the Clippers got greedy and went 16-0 during the month, part of a franchise record 17 game winning streak. This December won't be that cushy (nor that successful) -- seven game trips are never easy, it doesn't matter who you are facing. But the reality is that in order to secure a top playoff seed, you have to win a lot of regular season games, and you do that by beating up on the weaker teams. Anything less than 5-2 on this trip would be a disappointment. A seven game winning streak would be nice.
If you look a little closer at each opponent you'll see that seven straight is not just wishful thinking.
Atlanta, 12/4 -- The Hawks have the third best record in the East at present at 9-9. They are the only EC team other than the Heat and Pacers that does not have a losing record, and that will probably change tonight when they visit the Spurs. When you dissect the Hawks' results a bit, they get even less daunting. Atlanta is 1-5 against opponents with winning records. They are 2-4 against the West. Their most impressive win this season was a one point home victory over Dallas. Al Horford is very good, Paul Millsap has always played well against the Clippers and Jeff Teague is coming into his own, but this is not a scary team. They are however one of the better teams the Clippers will face on the trip, so the fact that this game happens right at the outset, and the Clippers will be playing after two days off, is a good thing.
Memphis, 12/5 -- This is probably the most difficult game of the road trip, depending upon (a) how badly the loss of Gasol hurts the Grizzlies and (b) whether Zack Randolph's sore toe lets him play. Randolph will probably be back, but the Grizz have lost three straight at home since losing Gasol, and he's clearly very important to them. Then again, the Clippers have lost five straight to Memphis going back to last season and there's no team that Grizzlies would rather beat than the LAC, so one would be wise to expect a dogfight regardless of who's playing. The Clippers will be playing back-to-back, which doesn't help.
Cleveland, 12/7 -- the Cavs are 5-12 and have lost eight of their last ten games. They would have to be placed in the "disappointment" category, as the talent seems to be there to at least be a playoff team in the East, but Kyrie Irving isn't making shots and first overall pick Anthony Bennett is playing like the biggest bust in draft history so far. However, if Andrew Bynum starts producing like his 30 minute, 20 point 10 rebound game Saturday against Chicago, it could turn around for the Cavs.
Philadelphia, 12/9 -- Entering the season, the Sixers were one of the teams that appeared to be actively trying to be bad heading into a great draft; they went so far as to imply that they would keep rookie Nerlens Noel out all season, just as a precaution. Then they won their first three games and five of their first nine and everyone starting thinking they might be OK. Well, since then, they've lost eight out of nine. So they're better than what we had suspected -- they're not "worst team of all time" bad -- but they're still pretty bad.
Boston, 12/11 -- The Celtics may not have devastated their roster to the same levels as Philadelphia, but only because they started with more talent. Boston blew up their aging roster during the off-season, even trading their coach to the Clippers for a first round draft pick. With Rajon Rondo still not back from an ACL injury (there's no real timetable, though I suppose he could conceivably be back in 10 days) the Celtics are a mishmash of young guys and veterans on short terms deals. -- and they're overachieving to be 7-12.
Brooklyn, 12/12 -- If the Cavs are somewhat disappointing, the Nets are massively so. They took on the Celtics stars hoping they had another run in them, facilitating the Boston reboot. Now Brooklyn has the most expensive roster in the NBA and were supposed to be a real contender in the East -- but instead they're 5-12. Injuries have played a big role in their problems, and they could be healthy by the time of this game. At some point, this will probably be a formidable team again -- let's hope it's not yet when the Clippers face them in their second game in two nights.
Washington, 12/14 -- The final game of the trip comes against yet another team that was supposed to be challenging for a second tier playoff spot in the Leastern Conference. In that sense, I suppose the 8-9 Wizards are actually exceeding expectations -- they currently have the fourth best record in the East, and would host a first round playoff matchup if the playoffs started today. Unlike the other teams on the trip, the Wizards are actually playing well lately, having won six of their last eight games, and John Wall is beginning to really come into his own. Given that the Clippers will be road weary for the final game of this long trip, this could well wind up being the toughest game of the set.
It's a long trip to be certain -- the Clippers will not play in STAPLES Center again until two weeks from today, when the might Spurs come to town. But while it's a challenge, it's also an opportunity. The seven opponents are collectively 20 games under .500 as of today, and not a single one has a winning record. There are two back-to-backs, which will be tough, but the final four opponents are all packed into the Northeast in close proximity to one another, limiting travel distances.
The Clippers will of course be without J.J. Redick for the entirety of the trip (and then some), and while it's possible that Matt Barnes could rejoin the team for the last two or three games, it's probably more likely that he'll wait until the team returns home. So they're going to have to figure out how to play (and how to win) with the group that they have.
Winning two-thirds of your games is a sign of a good team; the Clippers are 12-6, on a pace to win 55 games. But winning three-fourths of your games is the sign of a very good team -- I pegged the Clippers for a 60 win season this year, and honestly, 12-6 given the difficulty of the schedule so far, is not far off the pace. But a hard schedule can only be used as an excuse if you then win big when the schedule turns softer. Yes, these are road games -- but they're winnable road games. So let's get some wins.