We've known about this unforgiving murderer's row awaiting the Los Angeles Clippers for a while now, but only now that it's full-bore in our faces can we even begin to comprehend the magnitude of the horrors awaiting this team in the next month-and-a-half. The next seven weeks compares unfavorably to a speeding locomotive — one titanic opponent following another in quick succession, and barely a moment's rest in between to collect one's breath, totally spent.
Certainly the season so far has been no cakewalk for the Clippers, as they've already gone through one seven-game road swing touring the East Coast. That alone would qualifies for one of the longest road trips in the NBA this year by any team, and the Clippers aced that exam, finishing with a franchise-record 6-1 mark in those games (with three separate stretches of back-to-backs).
And Christmas certainly would have been a much jollier season if Santa had deigned to leave this team with just a few lumps of coal. Instead, the Clippers were sent on a pre-Yuletide four-in-five that spanned four timezones and crossed the continent, taking lumps instead from the likes of San Antonio and Atlanta on consecutive nights. Their reward for that? Another cross-country flight within 48 hours to take on the league-leading Golden State Warriors on Christmas night, followed by a showdown two nights later against the then-#1 seed in the Eastern Conference, the Toronto Raptors. Even the reindeer didn't have to put up with an itinerary as taxing as that 6-in-9.
But of course those were just warm-ups for an ever greater road trip that manages to overshadow both of those frolics. Now the Clippers spend the last two weeks before the All-Star Break racing from city to city and taking on some of the best the NBA has to offer. Although it might not show up in the stat sheet, this is without question the longest and most difficult road trip faced by any team in the NBA this year.
Looking at the above graphic, you might think that the Clippers are matched or surpassed by two other teams — Brooklyn and San Antonio. However, this is deceiving. While the Nets also play eight games in a row away from home, and the Spurs play nine as part of their annual Rodeo Trip, both of these straddle the All-Star Break, giving the teams several days to head home and recuperate in between matches (and in Brooklyn's case, the few players invited to participate in All-Star festivities don't even have to leave the comfort of their home arena). LA, on the other hand, will trudge along uninterrupted, giving them the distastesful honor of the longest road trip spent away from home.
|New Orleans Pelicans||1/30||0|
|San Antonio Spurs||1/31||-2|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||2/8||0|
Let's take a look at the Clippers' opponents on this road swing. As of Wednesday, the next eight teams they play have a combined record of 196-166 (.541). Subtracting Utah and Brooklyn from the equation, we instead see a cumulative 162-111 (.593). And even this might not accurately reflect the true caliber of opposition either, as both the Cavaliers and the Thunder are much more talented and challenging than their record suggests (OKC due to obvious injury caveats, whereas Cleveland has also dealt with injury and chemistry, although they've maintained an excellent record with LeBron in their lineup, and seem to be clicking as of late, having won their past seven).
The timing of these opponents is also extremely unfavorable for the Clippers. The two easiest opponents — Utah and Brooklyn — are standalone games where the Clippers have time to recuperate and prepare beforehand. The other six teams — at least four or five of them Finals contenders — all come on sets of back-to-backs. After taking on a beatable New Orleans team, the Clippers face San Antonio, who will have been off since Wednesday at this point. Playing in San Antonio is difficult enough when properly rested, but to go in on a SEGABABA and face a Spurs team given three days to gameplan? The only saving grace for the Clippers there would be if Boris Diaw took his time off to indulge and regain his Charlotte curves.
After a stopover in Brooklyn, Los Angeles does get several days to regroup, before plunging into a hellacious 4-in-5. But even with that break they still won't be more rested than their next opponent (in fact, the Clippers do not have a single game on this trip where they'll be more rested than their opponents). Rest oftentimes is a crucial advantage in regular season games, and the fact is that the Clippers are among the most-disadvantaged teams this season in the number of games they play where the opponent is better-rested than they are (Source).
The Clippers might luck out in that they have to fly 'only' 2,000 miles to face this group of opponents, but that silver lining is obviously lost on the team. Last season, we noted that the Clippers faced an unusually high number of road SEGABABAs where they disproportionately played elite teams on the second game of the set, overwhelmingly on national television (specificially TNT).
Fans might have some flashbacks to that over this stretch, as this lineup of elite opponents shockingly coincides with a tremendous amount of coverage on national TV. The San Antonio game will be covered on ESPN, and three games on the 4-in-5 get top billing: Thursday's clash with Cleveland will feature on TNT in the early slot, the Toronto game was recently flexed onto ESPN (#knickstape), and Sunday's showdown in Oklahoma gets major network honors on ABC. Expect a lot of #hotsportstakes from studio casts and talking heads during this time (You're a Good Man, Charles Barkley).
The calendar above (spanning from the last week of January into mid-March) is self-explanatory for the most part — home games in green, road in purple (opponents over .500 are marked by darker shades of those colors), and additional cross-hatching on SEGABABAs. From now until March 15th, the Clippers play 22 games, 13 coming after the All-Star Break.
I mentioned recently that the Clippers had the biggest home-road disparity in the NBA to that point (which still holds true, with 27 home games played already, versus only 18 away). And looking at the schedule, it's clear that we'll be experiencing one hell of a regression to the mean. Over this span, the Clippers play 15 games on the road with only 7 at home (although it's 7-6 in the first few weeks after All-Star Weekend), and the caliber of opposition drops off marginally, if at all, after the break.
Post-ASB the Clippers only play three sub-.500 teams, but of course one of them is Sacramento (a team that's always relished playing the Clips), and the other two, while both Minnesota, also both come on SEGABABAs, pushing a war-weary squad by dint of uptempo play and the boundless spirit and athleticism only found in youth (to be fair, this won't negate the fact that they're possibly the worst team in the league this year).
But the rest of the matchups offer no cupcakes either, no middling teams to cruise against. Again, apart from Oklahoma City (who should be rounding into form by then), every team on the docket is .600+ and a power player to be reckoned with. And apart from a sorely needed three-day break before driving up Highway 1 to the Bay, the Clippers will face another December-esque stretch where they won't get more than a single day of rest between games (which might be important as it comes during buyout season, so any new acquisitions by the team during this team won't have a chance to practice and familiarize themselves).
Even accounting for Minnesota (twice!), the Clippers' SOS over this span is still an astounding .580 (338-245), and if you exclude the Wolves it's a jaw-dropping .655. Overall, from now until March 15th, opposing teams have an average winning percentage of .571 (about a 26-19 record). Yikes doesn't even begin to describe it.
It would be disappointing, but not entirely shocking to see LA win barely half their games over this period (which would leave them at 42-25). Optimistically, it'd be nice of them to back up their showing in the metrics and defeat many of the elite teams they face over this stretch. But nothing is given and nothing guaranteed in February and March. Cross your fingers and hope to survive, because the Clippers are about to enter the gauntlet.