LA Clippers: Breaking down the toughest month of 2016-17

Nov 19, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) guards Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) in the first quarter of the game at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 19, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) guards Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) in the first quarter of the game at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports /

The LA Clippers have the potential to win well over 50 games and take the 2nd seed in the Western Conference next season, but February will be the month that tests them most on the way there.

The 2016-17 NBA schedule is here, and as we sit back with no basketball to watch after the conclusion of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, we look ahead to next season. Who wins the 2nd seed in the West? Who will steal the 8th seed in each Conference? There are plenty of questions to consider. But when focusing on the LA Clippers and the pivotal season they have ahead of them (what with Blake Griffin and Chris Paul becoming free agents next year), we might as well go into more detail.

After all, we do have some time to kill.

According to predictions by Jared Dubin based on last season’s records, the Clippers have the 19th toughest schedule in the NBA for 2016-17. From Dubin’s numbers for each month, here’s a quick outline of how the difficulty of their year goes:

As you can see, February is a killer for the Clippers. Coming off what is forecast to be one of their easiest months, the incredibly sharp spike to a month featuring a host of top teams isn’t going to be easy:

February 1 – @ Phoenix Suns

February 2 – vs. Golden Sate Warriors

February 5 – @ Boston Celtics

February 6 – @ Toronto Raptors

February 8 – @ New York Knicks

February 11 – @ Charlotte Hornets

February 13 – @ Utah Jazz

February 15 – vs. Atlanta Hawks

February 23 – @ Golden State Warriors

February 24 – vs. San Antonio Spurs

February 26 – vs. Charlotte Hornets

Now for another illustration of the Clippers’ 2016-17 forecast. The following graph displays how each month looks based on the amount of games against top four teams from their respective conferences and the amount of road games.

To look ahead to next season’s projections rather than last season’s records, ESPN’s Kevin Pelton has created a win estimate for each team based on real plus-minus calculations for each team, which are the numbers I’ve used here.

To clarify, those top four teams (in order) are the Cleveland Cavaliers, Celtics, Raptors and Detroit Pistons for the East, and the Warriors, Spurs, Jazz (I’d place them behind the Clippers at the 4th seed, but still), and the Clippers.

When looking at the level of difficulty for February based on new projections for each team after this summer’s roster changes, the leap to February from January looks even harsher. Heading into the playoffs, though, a sharp decrease in both road games and level of competition can only help the Clippers maintain more rest and momentum.

The Suns aren’t such a worry to begin with in February, but the month doesn’t take long to turn into a championship-caliber grind from that point on. Kevin Durant‘s Warriors are right there as February begins with a back-to-back, although the Clippers at least have the benefit of playing at home.

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After the first Warriors matchup, the Celtics and their new All-Star center Al Horford await three days later, whose elevated floor spacing with the signing of Horford (along with the rest of his versatile skill set) makes life even harder for the Clippers. DeAndre Jordan in particular will be tested against Horford’s ability to comfortably play at the three-point line.

From then on, the Raptors, Hornets and Hawks make up the flurry of top Eastern Conference challenges, while the seriously upgraded Jazz (who added Joe Johnson, George Hill and Boris Diaw this summer), Warriors in Golden State, and Spurs fill the schedule as three of the top four teams in the West.

The Jazz definitely have that kind of potential after addressing key areas of need in terms of depth, bench scoring, perimeter shooting in Hill and Johnson, and versatility and playmaking in Diaw.

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Although it’s easy enough to argue that the Clippers could win against any of these teams on any given night bar the Warriors (I’m not saying the Clips won’t win any of those matchups, but the Dubs are ahead of everyone), a great record won’t be easy to come by in February. Losing a game to the Spurs — despite matching up well with their new weakened frontcourt — or to the Jazz is much easier on the road or at the end of a back-to-back.

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With seven of their 11 games being on the road, not to mention that five-game road stretch including Horford and Boston, Toronto and Utah, it’s possible that sheer level of competition wears down the Clippers somewhat.

Even with the All-Star break in the middle of the month to rest, they return against the Warriors in Golden State and face the Spurs the next night. A week off, enjoyed by everyone, doesn’t make those contests easier.

Bearing in mind the competition and the difficulty of back-to-backs against notable opponents, it’s very possible that the Clippers could finish February with a record around 6-5, possibly 7-4.

Of course, there’s always matters of current performance and injuries to consider at the time. However, facing a few elite teams and notable playoff teams throughout February can’t be underestimated.

The likes of the Jazz and Celtics only got better this summer. The Hornets held onto talent like Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams in free agency. They lost Jeremy Lin and Al Jefferson, which cannot be ignored, but they’re still a worthy opponent. And the Hawks, while lacking much certainty for their long-term future, present a new pick-and-roll challenge with Dennis Schroder and Dwight Howard, not to mention Paul Millsap.

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And even for a Clippers team who don’t rely on home games to get by (29-12 at Staples Center last season), the competition and road time in February only adds more pressure to avoid a slow start like last season.