When the 2014-2015 NBA schedule was first released, we parsed it every way imaginable to make sense of it. As it happens, the schedule for the Los Angeles Clippers appeared to be somewhat easier in the early months of the season, tougher in the later months.
Which doesn't bode well, given that we're two months into the season and the Clippers are sitting in sixth place in the Western Conference, This was supposed to be the soft part of the schedule!
Indeed, the news is not good, especially when you consider how relatively healthy the team has been. The most surprising thing about the Clippers sixth place positioning heading into 2015 is the fact that the two teams that we EXPECTED to be better -- the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder -- are actually BEHIND the Clippers in seventh and tenth respectively. But the Spurs and Thunder have both suffered multiple significant injuries to key players this season, while the Clippers have lost just two starter-games to injury, and both of those were for Matt Barnes, their least important starter.
The combination of solid health and relatively friendly schedule should have had the Clippers flying high -- instead, every 2014 West playoff team other than the Spurs and Thunder is ahead of them, led by the Division rival Warriors with a league best 24-5 record.
There's no reason to despair of course. NBA teams get hot and cold over the course of a season, and it's much better to be playing great basketball in March and April than in November and December given the choice. The Clippers actually have the same record through 32 games (21-11) that they had last season, and if they close the season strong, no one will care that they played relatively uninspiring ball in the first third of the season.
But the schedule will indeed turn nastier in about a month, so if the Clippers intend to pile up some wins, starting right about NOW would be a very good time. Here are three reasons why:
The schedule is more leisurely
That schedule overview post shows that December was both home friendly (11 of 17 games) and opponent-friendly (10 of 17 against 2014 lottery teams). What it fails to mention is the crazy pace of games during the month. Obviously 17 games in a 31 day month is a lot to begin with, but since December 6th specifically, the Clippers will have played 15 games in 26 days. In fact, December 4th and 5th was the last time the Clippers had consecutive days without a game -- something they'll experience again on January 2nd and 3rd, and four more times in the month of January. Will it make a difference? We can't be certain, but certainly the Clippers looked like a team in need of some rest earlier this week against the Raptors.
The schedule is home friendly
The Clippers have played their last three games at home and have six more to come in the longest home stand of any NBA team this season. After that they have out-and-back road games in Portland, Sacramento and Phoenix -- it will be four weeks before they begin an actual sustained road "trip" of more than one game. The combination of time between games and time at home should allow the Clippers to be fresh the entire month of January -- but then again, the start of the season was very home friendly, and the Clippers only managed to win five of their first nine.
The opposition is pretty soft
Starting tonight and tomorrow with the two worst teams in basketball, the Clippers will face a fairly unimpressive group of opponents over the next month or so. Not terrible mind you, but more lottery teams than playoff teams. The Jan. 31 game in San Antonio, on the second night of a back-to-back, is the only game that really jumps out as really, really difficult. Games in Portland and Phoenix certainly won't be easy, but I'd guess that the Clippers will be favored to win 13 of their next 16 games.
With a win over the Knicks on New Years Eve the Clippers will close December with an 11-6 record -- not great, but not terrible either. The 14 games after that (ignoring that month-ender in San Antonio which is a likely loss) will be crucial. By the end of the month the Clippers will be well into their annual and always brutal Grammy trip, eight games away from home this time around. They really need to stockpile some wins before that trip.
How many games can the Clippers win in January? How many do they need to win to re-establish themselves in the Western Conference pecking order? Ten wins in the month is a minimum number -- but a dozen or so would be nice.