Six games into the season, the Clippers are 4-2. The fact that they've lost two straight makes fans feel less hopeful, but it's still a great start. Overcoming the absences of Brand and Livingston in the first four games was impressive. Subtracting Mobley as well - playing without three of their top six players - has proven too much to overcome thus far. It's understandable - imagine taking Stoudemire, Bell and Barbosa away from the Suns.
The goal for the early season remains the same - win enough Generic games to be in the playoff picture when they can once again use the name Brand. In addition to the long term wait for Brand's return, they now have the hopefully very short term wait for a healthy Mobley. In that light, the win against the Pacers when Cat left the game early is just huge. Any win from such a depleted roster is unlikely. A road win is almost unimaginable.
The November schedule is crucial. Let's take a quick look at the eight games remaining in the first month of the season:
- Home 11/14 vs. Knicks - Still no Mobley for this one. The Knicks are currently 2-3, and are playing at Phoenix the night before their matchup with the Clippers, so that's a scheduling break. New York has been an NBA joke for several seasons, but there's no lack of talent on this roster. Marbury, Randolph, Crawford and Curry are all among the most gifted offensive players at their positions. And none of them are particularly good basketball players. Tim Thomas guarding Randolph is probably the key to this one. Zach could easily score 40 against the frequently disinterested Thomas.
- Away 11/16 at Warriors - Mobley could be back for this one, but even if he is, who knows if he'll be 100%? It would be great to have him - he basically won the first game against the Warriors single-handedly in the fourth quarter. The Warriors will like be 0-6 going into this game (they have the Pistons between now and then) and the question may be if they'll be desperate enough to get their first win, or if they'll mail it in, awaiting Stephen Jackson's return from suspension two days later. Two wins against the Jackson-less, disoriented Warriors is still two wins. The fact that they're against a division rival and a potential playoff team makes it all the more important.
- Home 11/17 vs. Bulls - Given that Mobley scored 33 in the first meeting with the Bulls, obviously it would be nice to have him in this one. The Bulls have not looked good - they are 1-5 and followed up their only win against the Pistons with a 30 point blowout loss at home against the Raptors. The Clippers need to go 4-0 against the Warriors and Bulls in November, kicking these teams while they're down. Both teams are better than their early season performance indicates, but after 82 games no one's going to care that these wins came against underperforming teams.
- Home 11/21 vs. Nuggets - I haven't looked, but it seems certain the Clippers are going to have to pay for some of their scheduling advantages later in the season. This is at least the third time in their first 10 games that the Clippers will be rested while facing a team playing the second game of a back-to-back. Of course it didn't seem to help in Detroit - and you'll recall that the Clippers were actually best in their own back-to-back situations last season, so go figure. The Nuggets are a dangerous team, though still erratic. Traditionally they are not a good road team, although they have won three games at sea level already this season. The Clippers owned the pre-AI Nuggets. Since then it's been a different story. Tim Thomas against his old NY/NJ fugazi pal Kenyon Martin will be an interesting storyline in this one. This is the first of five straight against very good Western Conference teams.
- Away 11/23 at Suns - Mark it down as a loss. Beating the Suns in Phoenix without Brand and Livingston is just not gonna happen. The Suns will play Nash and Barbosa together a lot, which takes Cassell off the floor. Kaman could have a big game, but unless Phoenix just has an off night (which does happen), the Clippers won't have enough in this game.
- Home 11/24 vs. Hornets - Maybe the most important game on this list. The Hornets missed the playoffs last season while they were racked with injuries - they are the smart pick to displace the Lakers or the Warriors in the postseason, and have opened up 5-2. The Clippers would like to think that they are the other outsider with a chance to crash the playoff party. Like the Clippers, many of the Hornets wins have come against weak opposition (Sacramento, Portland and Philadelphia) but they also have road wins against the Lakers and Nuggets. Both teams are playing in the second of back-to-backs in this one.
- Home 11/26 vs. Rockets - The Rockets could be the most improved team in the NBA this season, and they were plenty good last season. This is the best team coming to Staples to play the Clippers in the first month. The Clippers played the Rockets tough several times last year, but came up short in a couple of heartbreakers during the late playoff push. It will require a great team effort to reverse those outcomes.
- Away 11/30 at Nuggets - Yet again the Clippers will be well-rested (three full days off) while their opponent played the night before (in LA as it happens). Never being on TNT's Thursday schedule has it's advantages I guess. The Nuggets are an enigma - superstars at two positions, Camby rebounding and blocking shots, and a mess at the two and the four. Sure they have $110M in salary dedicated to two power forwards, but Hilario is injured yet again, and Kenyon Martin is an overpaid time bomb. But they can be very tough in Denver, running up and down in the thin air.
There you have it. Eight more games in the month, five of them at home. If you figure that the Clippers at least have a chance at home, then six or possibly seven (depending on your impression of the Nuggets) of these games are winnable. But you can also make a case that they could lose every single one of them. Six of the opponents made the playoffs last season - and the Hornets expect to be there this season. The next three feature the weakest opposition on paper - but are also the games where Cat Mobley is likely to be missing or possibly limited. After that, the next five could get ugly.
Riding a 2 game losing streak already, if the Clippers close the month 2-8 (or worse) then the Grizzly comparisons (or grisly comparisons, as the case may be) will return. The 4-0 start will be written off as a fluke, and confidence and momentum will be hard to regain.
On the other hand, 4-4 in these eight would be great. If this team can finish the month with a winning record, it could be in the playoff race to stay.