The pre-season is getting serious as of today, with the Los Angeles Clippers playing three games in the next four nights, five in the next eight. With the start of the regular season a little over two weeks away, we're basically going to have games to talk about for the rest of the pre-season.
Sadly, the Clippers' pre-season schedule looks a bit like a bit like the non-conference schedule for a Big East team (or rather for what we used to call Big East schools). It doesn't help their RPI at all, but the Clippers seem to have scheduled all of the cupcakes of the Western Conference this off-season.
There seem to be three distinct strata of West teams this year -- the Big Six (Clippers, Spurs, Thunder, Rockets, Grizzlies and Warriors) are more or less guaranteed playoff spots barring injury or a major surprise. Then there are six more (the Wolves, Nuggets, Mavs, Blazers, Pelicans and Lakers) who have the talent to grab one of the last two playoff spots if things go well for them. And there are three teams that are more or less considered the cellar dwellers of the conference (the Jazz, Suns and Kings). The consensus could be wrong of course, but that's how it looks heading into the season.
The Clippers next three games come against the three bottom feeders of the West -- and with a second game each against the Jazz and the Kings to finish the pre-season, that makes five of the next seven games against some undermanned opponents. In fact, in the entire eight game pre-season schedule, the Clippers avoid all of the real contenders -- Denver is their only pre-season opponent that even made the playoffs last year, and the Nuggets should be down quite a bit after a bad off-season. Strangely, the Clippers don't even play the Lakers this pre-season.
Not that you can really tell that much from the pre-season anyway, and who knows how seriously Doc Rivers will take these games, but the simple fact is that the Clippers could easily go 8-0 leading up to opening night without finding out much of anything.
The Jazz at least are not without talent, though it's still difficult to imagine them doing much damage this season with such a young and unproven roster. Utah has over half of their team payroll tied up in three veterans in the final year of their contracts who don't figure into their long term plans (Andris Biedrins, Richard Jefferson and Marvin Williams); they no doubt have the best U-24 team in the league, but it's an open league without any age restrictions, and it remains to be seen if Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, et all can compete. Utah's two leading scorers and four of their top five from last season left over the summer -- the youth movement is understandable, but is likely to be painful.
Blake Griffin practiced on his sore knee without any restrictions on Friday -- the a diagnosis of a bone bruise means the injury is just about pain management, and he won't do additional damage to it. I can't imagine that he'll play three games in four nights -- really, it's hard to figure that anyone will unless Doc Rivers just wants to see how they react to the workload -- but my guess is that he'll play some. J.J. Redick will miss all of this group of games, though Matt Barnes could be back at some point.
If Griffin does sit out, it will be an opportunity for DeAndre Jordan to show what he can do as the Clippers' featured big man. Jordan has been the talk of training camp (partly a strategic decision by Doc to make him the talk of camp, partly because of his strong play) and he was impressive in the pre-season opener, so it will be good to see what he has as a follow up.
I'll also be watching to see if Byron Mullens has developed any sense of shame regarding his shot selection -- or failing that, hoping that a few more of his three pointers actually go in. And I'll be watching to see if Jamal Crawford is feeling any more aggressive than he did in the pre-season opener against Portland.
For nostalgia purposes, Brian Cook is trying to make the Jazz and could make an appearance. A rebuilding Utah team has absolutely no use for Cook -- frankly, no NBA team has a use for Cook at this point, but Utah even less than most -- but he could show up tonight. Maybe he and Mullens can stage an impromptu three point shooting contest.