After starting last season with a 4-0 record, the Clippers then had a nightmarish 1-11 sequence that changed the course of their season. Now, they were also hit incredibly hard by injuries in that stretch, and that kind of injury misfortune is unlikely to happen again. Still, while casual fans of the NBA might joke about regular season games, especially ones before Christmas, the 2017-2018 season is a stark reminder that all 82 games matter. A poor start, regardless of cause, can doom a team for the remainder of the year.
This is pertinent because the Clippers have a hellish start to their 2018-2019 season. Here are their first 14 games, as they will be played in order (with “vs” marking home games):
Of those 14 games, a truly ridiculous 12 will be played against teams that made the playoffs last year. However, one of the two games against non-playoff teams is versus the Nuggets, who missed the postseason by one game and finished ahead of the Clippers in the standings. There’s therefore only one easy game in that opening stretch, and it’s an away game on the second night of a back to back against the Magic. Worst of all, these aren’t just games any playoff teams, but feature three contests against the Rockets and Warriors, the two best teams in the league, as well as three more against the Thunder and 76ers, both squads that are widely projected to win 50+ games. I’m not sure if any team will have a more difficult 14 game stretch next season.
There are some small benefits to be found here. First, this stretch is slightly more home-heavy than away, featuring eight contests in the familiar confines of Staples Center. Second, there’s only a single back to back here, and the second half of it is against the Magic, by far the worst team on the slate. Even better, there are several breaks that are two days long (Clippers play on Monday and not again until Thursday), which should at least provide them plenty of rest as they run the gauntlet.
Really, the Clippers’ best hope is to survive this stretch with something like a 6-8 record (that’s something to hope for, but the likely outcome is probably a win or two less than that), avoid injuries, and then make up ground in a hurry. After all, the schedule will balance out: while the Clippers have a somewhat tougher than average schedule, it’s not completely unbalanced, and they will therefore have plenty of softer stretches through the rest of the season. As long as they remain relatively injury free, and none of their players have surprisingly poor seasons, they absolutely have a roster that can compete to win 40+ games in the Western Conference.
Still, if the Clippers exit this stretch with a 3-11 record (grim, but not impossible), and fail to make up much ground over the next 10-15 games, they could be ripe for a fire sale as the New Year approaches. The entirety of the Clippers’ season won’t be decided in these 14 games, but there’s no doubt that a poor start could hasten a departure from the Clippers’ “compete for the playoffs” strategy. While the 1-year contracts the Clippers primarily have left on their books are ideal for cap room next summer, they are also perfect for flipping veterans to contending teams as rentals, and the opportunity to get good assets might be too tough for the Clippers to pass up.
The Clippers aren’t going to take back longterm salary for their veterans that will effect their ability to get free agents next summer. Nor will they give up significant assets just to dump a contract (really, the only one that comes to mind is Gallinari’s). But if the Clippers are way out of the playoff picture in early January, and they can move Avery Bradley, Milos Teodosic, Mike Scott, or any of their other veteran players for some kind of positive return, it would make sense for them to do so.
The Clippers want to be good next season. And they firmly believe they can make the playoffs with their current roster. All their moves this summer follow that line of thinking. Unfortunately, even the best laid plans can go awry, and the Clippers’ brutal first few weeks could be one of those unforeseen incidents that has deep-running consequences.
There’s a chance that the Clippers could surprise next year. They have the talent to do so, and are undoubtedly one of the deepest teams in the NBA. But, if they have a hope to make some noise in the Western Conference next season, they need to make it through this opening run intact, and that will be no easy feat. If they aren’t able to do so, the Clippers’ front office will have some tough decisions to make.