Every NBA season there is a team that jumps out to a hot start. Last season the Warriors won their first five and 21 of their first 23. The year before that the Blazers won 17 of their first 20 and the Pacers won 18. Sometimes it's a sign of big things to come, as was the case with the Warriors who were the best team in the NBA from start to finish last year. Sometimes, as with the Blazers and Pacers, not so much.
The simple fact of the matter is that the NBA schedule itself has a big impact on the teams that get off to hot starts, but the national media narrative machine never seems to figure that out. Twenty games is a big chunk of the season, about a quarter of the games, and it feels significant, regardless of the schedule. So a team that is tearing up their schedule at the 20 game mark is designated a title favorite, deservedly or not.
And this season that team could be the Los Angeles Clippers.
L.A.'s first month or so this season appears, for lack of a better word, cushy. While it might seem more or less average to someone not paying attention, with half of the first 20 games coming against 2015 playoff teams, take a closer look at those "playoff" teams. The Clippers play the Mavericks and the Blazers -- two of the biggest backsliders this off-season -- twice each before the end of November. Toss in two more games against another team that probably got worse this summer in Phoenix, and you begin to see what I'm talking about.
The West is perhaps tougher than ever, especially at the top, where the Clippers will battle five other elite teams. Along with Cleveland in the East, I count six elite opponents this season, whom the Clippers will face a total of 20 times, with half at home and half on the road. But of those toughest games, the Clippers schedule includes only four before December -- the Warriors twice and Memphis and Houston once each, and only one of those games, November 4 in Oakland, is on the road.
The Clippers early schedule is in fact west-centric with 17 of the first 21 coming against Western Conference foes, which would seem like a bad thing since the West is so much stronger as a conference. But those 17 games include five against bottom tier West teams (Denver once and two each against the Kings and the Wolves) and another seven against teams that at best might contend for the eighth seed, but who will likely miss the postseason.
Then there is the travel aspect. Of the Clippers' first 20 games, 14 are at home, 16 are in California, and 18 are in the Pacific time zone. The team does have five back-to-backs among their first 20 games (which is about average), but only one of those features two road games.
This could be a good news/bad news scenario for the team. Doc Rivers has many new faces to integrate, including an almost entirely new second unit. Ideally one would want the team to steamroll through such a soft slate of games, but it's possible that they'll be working through some chemistry issues early. On the other hand, it could be that the team will be able to win these games even while they are figuring things out.
The reality is that the NBA schedule always evens out. A 14/6 home/away mix in the first 20 games just means that the team will have a road heavy schedule later in the season. But if what this version of the Clippers (and in particular players like Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith) needs most is confidence and camaraderie, this schedule is ideal. Don't be surprised if the team is 18-3 after 21 games and sitting atop the (completely meaningless) power rankings league-wide. Two games in November against the Dubs will of course be huge, and they'll need to at least get a split there to seem legitimate, but assuming they can do that, I expect the national media to anoint them the team to watch.
You can already hear the narrative. Imagine if the Clippers are 7-2 or 8-1 heading into their November 19 home meeting with the Warriors on TNT. If they win that one, the talk will focus on the improved bench play, the improved defense, etc. etc. The reality might be that the Clippers have won eight or nine games they were supposed to win, but it won't matter: a narrative is a narrative and it must be fed.
We're a long way from the first game, let alone the 20th, and a lot can happen between now and then. The Clippers had a similar opportunity to begin the season last year and instead struggled in the early going. But the table has been set for them, and they have a chance to take firm control of their season right from the start. We'll have to wait and see if they can take advantage.