Any optimism for the Clippers this year had to begin with the opportunity to get off to a better start than they did last season. Not that improving on 1-13 is a particularly lofty goal, but getting off on the right foot would be the priority for the team and its fans.
And now, with the news that the first two weeks of the season have been canceled, that opportunity – that crucial new beginning – will have to wait at least a little longer.
Necessary caveat: Commissioner David Stern has reportedly dismissed the possibility of a condensed, 82-game season, but because we all know not to bank on the rhetoric of either side during this “negotiating” process, some believe that such a scenario could develop. That said, the Clippers are likely to lose time that could have been spent building the roster and games that would have afforded that roster the chance to take form.
As it stands, they will miss seven games. Four — including the first three — at home and three on the road. Of the would’ve-been opponents, only two (Cleveland and Toronto) missed the playoffs last year. If you want to use this rough and extremely premature measure to gauge schedule strength, the rest of their division breaks down like this: the Suns also were to have played five of their first seven against 2011 playoff teams, the Warriors five of eight and both the Lakers and Kings with comparatively forgiving slates against four of eight.
Some time following the 2008 draft, my dad went on record as saying the teams to watch in the coming years would be Oklahoma City, Memphis, and the Clippers. The Thunder had just added Russell Westbrook to play with Kevin Durant, the Grizzlies had landed O.J. Mayo and the Clippers, two years removed from a playoff run, had lucked into Eric Gordon. To this point, he is dead on about two of them, and opening night this season would have marked the beginning of a campaign to make it all three.
If and when the season starts, the Grizzlies figure to be contenders in the Western Conference after an impressive finish last year and the return of Rudy Gay. Game One against at Staples would have been not only a matchup of two of the league’s brightest young teams, but also a test for Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan against a Grizzlies front line that carried the team to 46 regular season wins and seven more against the Spurs and Thunder in the playoffs.
The Blazers, who won all three games against the Clippers last year — and are only the second Western Conference team they would have played in the first two weeks — were on schedule to visit L.A. after an off-day following the opener. A second consecutive Western Conference playoff threat, the way Portland has found ways to win over time tends to stand in contrast to the Clippers.
Up next: Cleveland. Baron. Kyrie. The Cavs were set to come to town representing the past and ill-fated future of the Clips’ point guard position, not to mention a golden opportunity for their first win. Breene was looking forward to this game when the schedule came out in part because it would have meant the season started on time, but unfortunately what would have been an emotionally-charged, three-game homestand to start the season after a lockout ends without what was sure to be the most electric night yet.
After the Cavs game or the next morning, they would jump on a plane to Chicago to play the Bulls, followed by their first back-to-back of the season in Toronto. The Bulls, with whom they split last season, would certainly hope to be at full strength and presented arguably the most difficult challenge of the first two weeks. They led the league in points allowed per 100 possessions in 2010-2011 and could have been a nightmare for a Clippers offense with uncertainty at small forward and roles to sort out in the backcourt and at center.
Toronto, even as the second game of a back-to-back on the road, would have been a must-win at this point in the season. Under few circumstances could you imagine seeing a Clippers loss here — in one of the two distinctly winnable games — and not being very concerned.
Boston is next, the second best defensive team per 100 possessions last season, but a year older. The Bulls would have been a heavy favorite, so this could have been the difference between a winning and losing first roadtrip of the season before heading back home to play the Sixers.
As Jordan Heimer reminds us, it’s that bizarre time every year when Clipper fans are reminded how Elton Brand forever helped the team by bolting for Philly, freeing them of his contract and the extra wins that might have prevented them from getting Blake. In all likelihood, the Clippers will only have one more opportunity to experience this special occasion when Brand enters the final year of his deal in 2012-2013.
What it Means
One thing we know is that if the Clippers do not, indeed, play these first seven games, but somehow, miraculously, they play the remaining 75, they will start with the same record as every other team. They may have more questions than some teams and will need time to find those answers, but they also have more talent than plenty of others, so from that perspective, the first few games will be the same whenever they end up playing them.
The next seven games on the schedule don’t figure to offer a very different outlook, with four playoff teams (at San Antonio and three in a row at home against Chicago, Denver and New Orleans) and Houston, who just missed. As Stern and the owners are counting on, the games will go on whenever they do resume, regardless of the bad news everyone has to endure in the meantime. If you want to look on the bright side, at least everybody has learned that “canceled” is spelled with only one “L.”