Like cold-bloded reptiles on a dewy spring morning, the Clippers the last two seasons took their sweet time to heat up and get moving. Slow, ugly starts have characterized the last two Novembers for the Clippers, putting them in holes that they spent the rest of the season digging out of.
In 2014-15 they began the season 7-5, suffering multiple ugly blowouts to the Warriors, Bulls, and Grizzlies. Last season, a 4-0 start belied shaky and uninspired play, which became glaringly apparent as they proceeded to lose seven of their next nine games.
One might suspect that this is a tendency of Doc Rivers-coached teams, which always finish the season strong — but that’s not the case. With the exception of the 2011-12 lockout season, his Celtics always came out of the gate playing great basketball. Yet the Clippers have struggled to start the season two out of his three seasons in Los Angeles.
Heartbreaking postseason failures may have had a lingering hangover effect, and injuries and lack of cohesion were also partly to blame for the Clips sleepwalking through November last year. This year, they shouldn’t have any of those excuses. As of now, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are on track to be fully healthy by the start of the season, the Clippers have perhaps their deepest roster of the CP3 era, and they enter the season with less roster turnover and more continuity than ever before (more on that last one coming Monday).
Is getting off to a fast start this year imperative? And does the schedule even allow for it?
Here’s the Clippers’ full 19-game October/November schedule, including game times (PST). You can also scroll to the bottom of this post for a pictorial version, color-coded by location and opponent difficulty.
|Thu, Oct 27||Clippers||Blazers||7:30 PM||TNT|
|Sun, Oct 30||Jazz||Clippers||1:30 PM|
|Mon, Oct 31||Suns||Clippers||7:30 PM|
|Wed, Nov 2||Thunder||Clippers||7:30 PM||ESPN|
|Fri, Nov 4||Clippers||Grizzlies||5:00 PM|
|Sat, Nov 5||Clippers||Spurs||5:30 PM||NBATV|
|Mon, Nov 7||Pistons||Clippers||7:30 PM|
|Wed, Nov 9||Blazers||Clippers||7:30 PM|
|Fri, Nov 11||Clippers||Thunder||5:00 PM||NBATV|
|Sat, Nov 12||Clippers||Wolves||5:00 PM|
|Mon, Nov 14||Nets||Clippers||7:30 PM|
|Wed, Nov 16||Grizzlies||Clippers||7:30 PM||ESPN|
|Fri, Nov 18||Clippers||Kings||7:30 PM||ESPN|
|Sat, Nov 19||Bulls||Clippers||7:30 PM||NBATV|
|Mon, Nov 21||Raptors||Clippers||7:30 PM|
|Wed, Nov 23||Clippers||Mavericks||5:30 PM|
|Fri, Nov 25||Clippers||Pistons||4:30 PM|
|Sun, Nov 27||Clippers||Pacers||3:00 PM|
|Tue, Nov 29||Clippers||Nets||4:30 PM|
The pace of the first few weeks is unforgiving. After the opener at Portland, the Clippers don’t get more than a single day off between games between October 30th and December 4th. That’s over a month of almost nonstop action: 21 games in 36 days! As it turns out, that’s not even the most grueling stretch of their season; that honor goes to a stretch of 17 games in 30 nights between December 10th and January 8th (centered around a staggering seven-games-in-10-nights gauntlet to end the calendar year). Ain’t no rest for the wicked — at least, not till 2017.
The quality of opponents matters too, and here the Clippers seem to come out about average. According to Jared Dubin, the Clippers have a .506 strength of schedule (presumably based on last year’s records) in October and November, which puts them at 14th leaguewide. They break about even in rest advantage over that timespan too, despite the frenetic pace of the schedule.
Apart from the SEGABABA (SEcond GAme of a BAck to BAck; a.k.a. the finest acronym found in the English language) in San Antonio, the Clippers don’t face any elite teams in the early going. Toronto is probably the second-toughest opponent in this stretch, but it’s unclear whether their level of play from last season was sustainable or not.
Only Phoenix and Brooklyn (twice) are certified patsies; most of the rest are mid-tier playoff teams who could end up anywhere between the 3rd and 11th seeds. The Clippers have eleven matchups against teams from that cluster, plus a few unknowns on the bubble between playoff team and early lottery exit (Minnesota, Sacramento, and Chicago).
The Clippers will likely slip up a few times in this stretch against inferior opponents, with possibly at least one loss that sends Clips Nation into DEFCON 1-level pandemonium. The month ends with four straight road games, part of a six-game swing, the longest of the year.
Portland Trail Blazers: The Clippers only play the Blazers three times this year: twice in the first two weeks of the season, and again in Los Angeles in mid-December. Hopefully they make all three of those games count. LA doesn’t seem to hold the same animosity for Portland that it did for previous playoff opponents, likely because of how last spring’s series turned on its head in Game 4. Portland’s resident instigator-in-chief, Chris Kaman, not returning probably helps that cause.
At the same time, the Clippers will likely enter this game at full strength, something they pretty much were never able to say last season. They shellacked the Blazers in the first two games of the series at home by 20 points apiece, and that was with a 50% Blake and J.J. Redick limping around on a bruised heel. In the Blazers’ Game 3 victory, those two shot a combined 7-26, clearly affected by their injuries. The Clippers shot a season-low 17% from 3-point range, yet still only lost by eight points.
Portland’s had a weird offseason, bringing back all of their young players at hefty prices and adding Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli. They have a major frontcourt jam and still face some questions defensively, but this may be a stronger team than the one the Clippers faced a year ago. Facing them twice early on might be to LA’s benefit.
Portland opens at home against Utah two nights before hosting the Clippers. In the second game, the Clippers have a clear rest advantage: the Blazers will be on a SEGABABA, playing their sixth game in nine nights (v. Golden State, at Phoenix, at Dallas, at Memphis, v. Phoenix, at Los Angeles).
San Antonio Spurs: An early showdown between the two best teams in the Western Conference, non-superteam division. There’s a small chance that the Spurs and Clippers will be the only teams besides Golden State and Cleveland this season to break 50 wins, depending on whether the cluster of middling playoff teams in both conferences remain inseparable through the year. I already discussed San Antonio’s offseason and shortcomings in detail a few weeks ago in my summertime Western Conference Power Rankings, so I won’t bore you by going over it again here.
San Antonio tends to open the season strong, so even with a revamped frontcourt I wouldn’t count on them having any early-season doldrums in this game. This may be as close as it gets to a schedule loss for the Clippers in November, as they’ll be on a back-to-back after playing in Memphis. The Grizzlies may no longer be the embodiment of Grit’n’Grind (that title will probably pass over to Utah this year), but they’ll still beat the Clippers up and leave them weary.
The good news is that the Spurs will also be on a SEGABABA after facing a demanding opponent, as they’re scheduled to play at the Jazz the previous night. The Clippers will probably get into San Antonio before the Spurs do, for whatever that’s worth.
Detroit Pistons: The Clippers played Detroit twice last year before Christmas, and got taken to the wire in both games. The first meeting was without Chris Paul and J.J. Redick, and it required monster efforts from Jamal Crawford and Blake Griffin to mount a comeback and steal a win. Everyone was available for the second game in Detroit, where the Clippers coughed up a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter before going to the rulebook and exploiting loopholes within loopholes (loopholes that are now mercifully closed) to hack Andre Drummond in the final minute. Their ploys succeeded, and they made the big shots down the stretch, stealing a game they probably didn’t deserve.
The Pistons have only improved since then. Their young core continues to improve and gain experience, they added Tobias Harris at the deadline last year, and revamped a piss-poor bench in the offseason with players like Ish Smith, Jon Leuer, and Boban Marjanovic. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is emerging as one of the best wing defenders, and Drummond and Reggie Jackson have yet to peak as players. Even old friend Reggie Bullock might be emerging in Detroit; he looked promising in limited minutes down the stretch and into the playoffs last year.
Rest won’t be a factor in either game, with both teams having a day off before each matchup.
This Detroit team is good, and they can play the Clippers tough. I’d be shocked if they didn’t win at least one of these two games.
Toronto Raptors: The Clippers swept the season series in 2014 without Chris Paul, but the Raptors have taken the last four decisively. Toronto’s damn good (they’ve been the winningest team in the East over the last three seasons), but I don’t think their recent dominance means they’re conclusively better than the Clippers, or that they match up really well.
The games have just come at really bad times for the Clippers. There’s not much explanation for the first matchup in 2014-15. LA just rolled over and looked outclassed by a better team in the second half, a fairly common occurrence for the Clips the first few months of that season. The second game, though, was on a SEGABABA after a blowout loss the night before in Cleveland (and an ensuing referee controversy). It was in the middle of a 4-game losing streak for the Clippers, and Blake Griffin’s last game before being sidelined with his elbow malady. The Clips went up 20 in the first quarter, and everything went downhill from there.
The timing of the games was similarly weird this past season. The first meeting was at the lowest point of the Clippers’ season, having lost two straight to Golden State (the infamous 23-point comeback) and Portland to drop to 6-6. They went down almost 30 in the first half before Toronto fell apart, almost giving away a surefire victory in the fourth quarter. And the most recent matchup came right after the Clippers found out about Griffin punching Matias Testi at a Toronto restaurant, and they were pummeled as the bench had one of its worst outings of the season.
All this to say that things always happen to the Clippers when the Raptors blow into town (on the bright side, this time they’ll be the ones on a SEGABABA, coming in from Sacramento). Rarely are they good things. It might be best to bubble-wrap Blake for this game.
The SEGABABA Slant
The Clippers have four of their league-leading 18 SEGABABAs in October and November. The good news is that they’re all winnable (and the Clippers have been among the very best teams in the league at winning on the second night of back-to-backs the last two years). Yes, even the one in San Antonio.
SEGABABA I: Phoenix Suns
Both teams will be on SEGABABAs. While the Clippers will be coming off a tough home opener against Utah, the Suns will be flying into LA after likely being annihilated by the Warriors. I’d like the Clippers’ odds against any team in that scenario, but especially against a bottom-feeder like Phoenix.
SEGABABA II: San Antonio Spurs
Covered above, they’ll be flying in from Utah while the Clippers come in from Memphis. This game becomes a toss-up.
SEGABABA III: Minnesota Timberwolves
Minnesota will have had two days off, returning home after a three-game road swing. The Clippers are used to playing the Timberwolves on quick turnarounds, but these Wolves are as talented as they’ve ever been since the last time Kevin Garnett was up north. Los Angeles plays in Oklahoma City the night before, another team that’ll probably be wildly inconsistent from game to game this season. This should be a 2-0 road trip, but an 0-2 result wouldn’t be the most surprising thing to happen.
SEGABABA IV: Chicago Bulls
The Bulls will come in on one day of rest, after flying through Portland and Utah to begin a West Coast swing. The Clippers play in Sacramento the night before, so this is another back-to-back set where neither team will be a known quantity. Again, this should be a win for the Clippers, even at a rest disadvantage — but the Bulls seem to always manage to split the season series.
This will be the year for the Clippers, the year where they finally unseat the November doldrums and spread their wings early and often. They sweep their first four opponents before dropping their first game to the Grizzlies, but make up for it by taking down San Antonio the following night, setting the tone for what will be a one-sided rivalry this season. After outlasting the Pistons and thumping the Blazers again, they suffer loss #2 in OKC as Russell Westbrook goes full Westbrook (in the good way), putting them at 6-2.
The Clippers go on to win in Minnesota on a SEGABABA before having fun with Brooklyn and getting payback on Memphis. They eke out a victory over Sacramento before throwing up a clunker against the Bulls, leaving worried fans in a tizzy. They respond with a solid win over Toronto, breaking the streak, before starting their road trip by paying a visit to Dallas and reminding them what they’re missing out on. A pesky Detroit team finally nabs a win before the Clippers finish the month with victories in Indiana and Brooklyn.
This is an optimistic projection, of course. Realistically, they should do better than the last two years, but the pace of the schedule might catch up to them at some point. Odds are that they won’t stand out too much the first two-and-a-half months of the season, before loading up on the much friendlier back half of their schedule and finishing strong, as they usually do.