As the Los Angeles Clippers prepare to depart on a season-long eight game road trip, the players could be forgiven if they're asking themselves, "Aren't we already in the middle of a long road trip?"
No sport has a more distinctive home court advantage than basketball. Just look at the home and away records of NBA teams if you don't believe me. There is only one team in the Western Conference with a losing record (the New Orleans Hornicans at 7-15). There are only four in the Eastern Conference. That means that 25 of 30 NBA teams are .500 or better at home. On the other side of the coin, there are only seven teams in the NBA with winning road records. The home court advantage in the NBA is huge (particularly during the regular season). But ask yourself why.
Obviously the home crowd is one factor. Having 20,000 or so people screaming for you can raise your energy level, and having those same 20,000 booing you might not feel so great (though there are a few players who have been able to use that as motivation as well). But it goes beyond the cheering fans.
Travel and rest are the real story of the home court advantage. The home team is sleeping in their own bed, going through their standard routine to get to practice and to the game. Meanwhile the visitors are spending all their free time on airplanes, in buses, and sleeping in hotels. It's luxury all the way of course, with charter planes and five-star hotels. But an airplane is an airplane, and no matter how you trick it out, they aren't designed for power forwards. You know all those "Got 'em" photos DeAndre Jordan takes of his sleeping teammates? Ever wonder why they're sleeping? Because they're exhausted, and you can bet the little sleep they are getting on flights is not as restorative as the home team is getting in their comfy beds.
Since January 14, the Clippers have played nine games, six on the road and three at home. However, all three of those home games were one-and-done; they haven't had a "home stand" since they played four straight in STAPLES from January 4 to January 12. And with the exception of the two days off they are currently enjoying, they've not had any extra days to hang out in Los Angeles either. Consider the just completed sequence of seven games. The Clippers were in:
Minneapolis on 1/17;
Los Angeles on 1/19;
Oakland on 1/21;
Los Angeles on 1/22;
Phoenix on 1/24
Portland on 1/26;
Los Angeles on 1/27.
Technically that's four road games and three home games. But from a travel standpoint, it's seven road games. Yes, they did get to sleep in their own beds three nights along the way and they didn't have to pack as much, but from a travel perspective, playing a standalone home game is no different than a road game.
So the Clippers are leaving on an eight game road trip -- on the heels of something akin to a nine game road trip. All told, from January 14 through February 11, in the course of 29 days, the Clippers are playing 17 games with 17 flights (unless they decide to take the train from New York to Philadelphia, in which case it will be 16 flights and one train trip -- but it's 17 trips regardless). Throw in the first game back against Houston on February 13 and it's 18 games and 18 trips in 31 days. That's simply brutal -- it's the travel schedule of a presidential candidate, not a basketball team. Just the frequency alone is one thing -- 18 games in 31 days is absurd, as the Clippers have five back-to-backs during that span -- but I'm guessing that having to travel 18 times in a 31 day period is an all-time record, given that few teams are ever scheduled for that many games, let alone being asked to travel for every single one.
All this to say that the Clippers will be completely exhausted by the All Star break. I mean, so exhausted that Blake Griffin really should beg off playing in the game, though of course he can't. Maybe the fact that Chris Paul has been hurt is a blessing in disguise here; at least he's not putting his body through this insane schedule (though of course he is taking all the same flights as everyone else, so it's still taxing).
The Clippers depth is certainly a benefit during this trying time. The days leading up to the All Star break, with teams coming to their first major rest in almost four months, is difficult on all NBA teams, and the Clippers at least have 10 or 11 or hopefully eventually 12 guys who can share the load while still remaining competitive on the floor. But by the end of this trip, don't be surprised if the Clippers are losing some games you expected them to win, even if Paul returns. They are being asked to maintain a ridiculous and almost certainly unprecedented pace. Given that the NBA knows the Clippers have to vacate STAPLES Center in February for the Grammy's why they would give them such a tough series of games in late January is a mystery (unless it's a conspiracy).
The good news is that if they can remain in a solid position in the standings through the All Star break, the schedule will calm down significantly over the final couple of months. For one thing, the pace will slow significantly. Only two teams have played more games to this point than the Clippers, and with 10 games in the 17 days between now and the All Star break, the Clippers will have played a league high 56 games by then. Of course, that means they will play a league low 26 games in the 58 days AFTER the All Star break. Of those 26, only 12 will be on the road, including just a single four game trip to Texas and Louisiana -- the rest of the road games after the break are either one or two game trips, out and back.
So don't be surprised if the Clippers are limping into the break. With or without Chris Paul back in the lineup, they've been on a brutally exhausting travel schedule and it will take it's toll. Yes, six of the eight opponents on this trip are currently below .500, and teams like the Timberwolves and Celtics have suffered devastating injuries, and yes the Clippers have had some terrific road trips this season. But all of that travel can wear a team down, and I expect them to look pretty haggard by the time they return to L.A. to face the Rockets and the Lakers (another road game officially, but for once there's no travel involved).
But once they've made it through the next couple of weeks, they will have a very different schedule down the stretch. Hopefully that will allow a fully healthy team to build some serious momentum heading into the playoffs.