LOS ANGELES — As if the LA Clippers haven’t faced enough adversity already.
Kawhi Leonard has missed the entire 2021-22 season while rehabbing his surgically repaired ACL in his right knee. Paul George has missed the past 13 games because of a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. The Clippers have also missed a total of 215 games because of players placed on the injured list or the league’s Health and Safety Protocols.
Now, the Clippers (22-23) begin an eight-game, 13-day trip that starts with Wednesday’s game against the Denver Nuggets (10 ET, ESPN). This marks the Clippers’ longest itinerary since playing nine consecutive road games in 2005. Additionally, this is the longest road trip any team will take in 2021-22. Previously, the Clippers had logged 11 consecutive road games in 2011, but those games took place before and after the All-Star break. And now? The Clippers have uninterrupted stops in the Midwest, the Northeast and the Southeast.
The road stretch:
• Jan. 19: LA Clippers at Denver Nuggets (10 ET, ESPN)
• Jan. 21: Philadelphia 76ers (7 ET, NBA League Pass)
• Jan. 23: New York Knicks (1 ET, NBA League Pass)
• Jan. 25: Washington Wizards (7 ET, NBA League Pass)
• Jan. 26: Orlando Magic (7 ET, NBA League Pass)
• Jan. 28: Miami Heat (8 ET, NBA League Pass)
• Jan. 30: Charlotte Hornets (1 ET, NBA League Pass)
• Jan. 31: Indiana Pacers (1 ET, NBA League Pass)
Star players expected to face
Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Julius Randle, Bradley Beal, Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry, LaMelo Ball
What makes stretch significant
This stretch could significantly determine the Clippers’ future playoff seeding. The Clippers remain within striking distance behind the Dallas Mavericks (25-19), Nuggets (22-20), Minnesota Timberwolves (22-22) and Los Angeles Lakers (22-22) to climb as high as No. 5 and low as No. 8. The Clippers also have a four-game cushion ahead of Portland (18-25) at No. 10, a seed that would have to win two Play-In Tournament games just to land a playoff berth.
What to watch for
Will George even play at all during this trip? On Christmas Day, the Clippers said that George would be reevaluated in three to four weeks. But as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski first reported, the Clippers are extending George’s absence. Even with the Clippers playing eight road games in 13 days, that might not be enough for him to return.
It might not even be enough time for George to practice. The Clippers have two pairs of back-to-back games. It also seems unlikely the Clippers would practice in between their games in Denver and New York. Considering the Clippers have gone 5-8 during Paul’s absence, they could be in for a tough travel experience. They have also suffered questionable losses this season to New Orleans (twice), Sacramento, Oklahoma City and San Antonio (twice).
Still, discount the Clippers at your own peril. Last week, the Clippers overcame a 28-point deficit against the Nuggets and have also collected signature wins against Utah, Phoenix and Charlotte. Clippers coach Tyronn Lue has remained innovative with fielding 17 starting lineups and constantly making in-game adjustments. And the Clippers have kept a grind-it-out mentality with an athletic and dynamic backcourt (Eric Bledsoe, Terance Mann, Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard, Brandon Boston Jr.) and a physical frontcourt (Marcus Morris Sr., Ivica Zubac, Serge Ibaka, Nicolas Batum) that all offer positional versatility and playmaking.
What would make stretch successful
Technically, the Clippers need to go at least 3-5. That’s a relatively low bar considering their aspirations. But it seems implausible that Portland would eclipse the Clippers in the standing considering Damian Lillard’s injury and the team’s overall uneven play. The Clippers just need to stay slightly above .500 both to remain in the playoff picture and to buy time before George returns.
Nonetheless, the Clippers need to operate as if they need to play another few weeks without George and that Leonard won’t return at all this season. That way, the Clippers don’t put too much pressure on George to make up ground while he tries to shed rust and develop a rhythm. The Clippers also need to show they’re capable of playing consistent basketball so that it’s worth the risk for Leonard’s possible return. If it becomes clear the Clippers are just bound for a first-round exit or the Play-In Tournament, it would be in the Clippers’ best interest just to save Leonard for next season.
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NBA Digital Sr. Analyst Mark Medina will be answering questions each week in his NBA Mailbag.