By Rob Mahoney
The initial stretch of the new calendar year is a fairly crucial one, as teams around the league now fully expect to have their ailing rosters in better health, their new additions familiar with team sets and strategies, and a good sense of the roster's pulse headed into the second half of the season. This is a time for coaches and general managers to see what they have made, and if they don't much like the product on the floor, the rosters in question could be due for a chance before February's trade deadline. By this point, most excuses turn flimsy; the body of the regular season is a time for good teams to grind out their place within their respective conference hierarchies, and establish their viability in the months to come.
A bad January in itself won't doom a team, but figures to have a profound impact on the season of those clubs with playoff seeding (or a postseason berth) on the line. Five teams in particular seem to have the deck stacked against them, and face a difficult slate of opponents throughout the rest of the month:
Los Angeles Lakers: Having two superstar-level players alone affords a team some margin for error, but the Lakers -- through defensive struggles, injury and a coaching change just for the hell of it -- have squandered most of the slack that the regular season allows. There's plenty of time for improvement, but even after their recent improvement, L.A. is sitting on a sub-.500 record and an 11th place ranking in the West. The teams on the playoff bubble are clustered tightly enough to smell each other's breath, but that doesn't change the fact that the Lakers will have to leapfrog three solid teams to even get a first-round date with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
And if L.A. was expecting to make up ground in January, they may want to start evaluating some contingencies. The next eight days are particularly tough for the Lakers, including a Sunday game against Denver, a mid-week back-to-back in Houston and San Antonio and another game on ESPN against the Thunder next Friday. Four of those teams register in the top five in the league in net rating (margin of victory adjusted for pace) over the last 15 games, and Houston -- the runt of the bunch -- comes in at 8th. That stretch alone could mar the Lakers' January record before we factor in the two additional back-to-backs, the mid-month game against the Heat, an ensuing game against the Grizzlies in Memphis, and a repeat game the Thunder in an always difficult Sunday matinee. The schedule will keep the Lakers in L.A. plenty, but there will be no rest in the coming gauntlet.
Golden State Warriors: There is arguably no team in the NBA hotter than the Warriors, but to play the Clippers thrice in one month is to come face-to-face with one's basketball mortality. The fact that the Dubs took the first of those January meetings in a blowout likely serves only to irritate Chris Paul, and thus jump-start the Clips in the two undoubtedly more competitive head-to-head games to come.
But beyond that absurd concentration of upstart Pacific Division rivals, the Warriors will need to manage an always-tough swing through Denver, a trip down to San Antonio, and home games against the Grizzlies, Heat, and Thunder in consecutive weeks. There isn't a particular concentration of difficult games on the Warriors' slate, nor is there some decided absence of days off. But the difficult opponents just keep on coming all month long, until things finally quiet down by month's end with three games in four nights against the Raptors, Cavs, and Mavericks.
Phoenix Suns: Woe be the plan-less, listless Phoenix Suns, they who resigned themselves to four years of Michael Beasley, a future tethered to Goran Dragic, and a roster without much promise of upward mobility. Things may wind up working out by 2014 (when Phoenix's cap space finally clears), but in the meantime the Suns' chemistry reads like that of a gang of post-apocalyptic marauders -- scavenging wins as they can and paired only for the sake of convenience. Beasley would be a more notable case if there were some greater orchestration at work that he was derailing, but even the Suns' more promising performances are accomplished in spite of themselves, and almost completely devoid of defensive cohesion. The disorganization is palpable, if only because the assembled roster prohibits even the slightest structural harmony.
All of which is to say that it doesn't take much to unsettle the Suns these days, and January is sure to give them tests aplenty. The biggest: a classic four-games-in-five-nights stretch in which no single contest is unwinnable (@MIL, @BOS, @BKN, @CHI), but the density of the road trip is almost sure to take its toll. Chicago, in particular, is just about the last team you'd want to see at the end of such a stretch; while the Bulls' limitations on offense make them beatable under most contexts, a tired team is likely to be suffocated by Tom Thibodeau's defense and lacking in the focus necessary to take away Chicago's easy shots.
Bookend that four-in-five with home games against Memphis and OKC, and it's easy to imagine the losses piling up early. Fortune comes in a seven-day stretch with games only against the Bucks and Kings, but the Suns finish out January with three of their four games against the Clippers, Spurs, and Lakers. Just a delightful slate from cover to cover for a team that could use a break.
Portland Trail Blazers: The Blazers start their month with four back-to-backs (and 10 games) in the first 16 days, all of which feature at least one playoff team. Credit is due for catching the Knicks napping New Years Day, but the culmination of their current road trip with back-to-back games against Memphis and Minnesota won't be kind to a weary team most recently routed by the Raptors, nor will next week's consecutive games against the Heat and Warriors. Wrapping up the first half of the month is a flight into Denver and back with a game against the Cavaliers on the next night that could well turn into a trap, with Portland looking forward to the needed two-day reprieve that comes after.
And just because the NBA's schedule-maker likes cobbling together month-long obstacle courses, Portland also gets a stray game against the Thunder and a home-and-home with the Clippers at month's end. It's been a pleasant surprise to see the Blazers play the part of a competent team in playoff position, but their return to reality begins with the first of 2013.
Minnesota Timberwolves: As if it weren't bad enough for the Wolves to begin the month with their worst defeat of the season, they now have the pleasure of playing through a stream of playoff-quality opponents (ATL x2, OKC, SA, LAC x2, HOU, BKN) with only a few opportunities to catch the occasional breather (@NO, @DAL on the second night of a back-to-back, and games @WAS and @CHA on consecutive nights later in the month). Were everything going according to plan for the Wolves, this could have provided a nice test for a team on the rise. But a flat release from a tender shooting hand has dragged down Kevin Love's production, while Ricky Rubio's reintegration into the NBA world has been rather deliberate. As it stands, this figures to be a humbling month for a team looking to create some separation from the other teams contending for a bottom seed in the West, and a harrowing run of high-scoring opponents for one of the league's best defense to contend with. Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.