Can this be real? If this were any franchise other than the Los Angeles Clippers, would we even ask the question?
As we wake this morning in defiance of dire interpretations of Mayan prophecy, the Clippers stand as the best team in the NBA. L.A.'s "other" team sits atop the Hollinger Power Rankings, and after the Oklahoma City Thunder fell on Thursday, have seen their chances to win the championship leap all the way to 31.5 percent, by far the highest figure in the league. Even the Mayans couldn't have foreseen such an upheaval of the league's long-standing hierarchy.
The Clippers carry an 11-game winning streak into their home game tonight against the Sacramento Kings, matching a franchise record. The last time the team won 11 straight was from Nov. 3 to Nov. 23, 1974. They were known as the Buffalo Braves then, and played in the Eastern Conference. As a relatively young league, the NBA doesn't breed history buffs the same way baseball does, but anything that rekindles memories of the Buffalo Braves has to make one misty-eyed.
The amazing thing about the Clippers' rise is that it makes you realize just how moribund the franchise has been since, well, pretty much forever. Before the Chris Paul-Blake Griffin era kicked off last year, you truly had to go back to the Buffalo days to identify anything resembling a golden era for an organization that is playing in its 43rd NBA season.
During the mid-70s under Dr. Jack Ramsay, the Braves finished over .500 three straight years and made the East semifinals in each campaign. In 1974-75 -- the year of the first 11-game streak -- Buffalo won a franchise-record 49 games. Last year's 40-26 finish represented the high-water mark for winning percentage for the Braves/Clippers, but thanks to the lockout-truncated campaign, they've still never enjoyed a 50-win season.
One last thing about those Braves: They were led by the only MVP in team history, Bob McAdoo. The parallel to the present is that Paul has a real shot at this year's award, ranking third in WARP through Thursday's games. Right now, Kevin Durant and LeBron James have sizable leads over Paul, who has been closing fast the last couple of weeks. If the value gap is closed, the Clippers finish with the top seed and the voters suffer from their biannual case of LeBron fatigue, the Clippers' floor general may just walk away with the trophy.
If we feel like this is all going to fall apart for the Clippers, it's due to skepticism that has been forged by more than four decades of futility. The Clippers have had talented individuals from time to time in their history, but have never had top-to-bottom talent like that which stuffs this year's roster.
You can't really say the Clippers' success has come out of left field, not after they landed the 5-seed in the West in the spring, then knocked off the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round. Before the season, our projections had L.A. with 52 wins and a repeat as the 5-seed. That's not a bad projection, and it carried with it a 3 percent chance of winning the Finals, odds that have jetted to the 31.5 percent chance you see this morning.
It's a compelling story, but the leap from good to great begs the question: Just how far can the Clippers carry this thing?
No team is ever quite as good as it looks during a long winning streak, and that's certainly the case with the Clippers. Over its last 10 games, L.A. has been hammering teams to the tune of 16 points per game. However, the opponents the Clippers have beaten during that span have a collective winning percentage of .400 for the season. Vinny Del Negro's crew has been getting fat on cupcakes and sitting back during fourth quarters to enjoy the party. But hey, that counts too, and you can't hold it against a team for beating teams it should beat.
Looking at the season as a whole, the Clips have the league's second-best point differential, trailing Oklahoma City by a smidgeon: 8.85 to 8.84. Both teams are more than two points better than any other team in the league. The differential by itself marks the Clippers as title contenders. These are not your father's Buffalo Braves.
Since the ABA-NBA merger, which of course occurred after the Braves/Clippers last won this many consecutive games, just 10 teams have posted a season-long point differential of 8.8 points or better. Seven of those teams went on to win the championship, and two others fell in the finals of their conference. The only exception was the 1993-94 Seattle SuperSonics, which outscored opponents by 9.1 points per game only to lose in the first round to the Denver Nuggets in one of the most shocking playoff upsets in league history.
While the quality of opposition during L.A.'s win streak can be questioned, in the bigger picture it's hard to poke holes in its 19-6 record which, according to its scoring margin, should really be 20-5. The Clippers' 25 opponents have gone an aggregate .511 so far, giving L.A. the ninth-toughest strength of schedule figure.
The Clippers have played 14 games at home, compared to 11 on the road, which isn't an extreme split. They've gone 8-3 in road games, with quality wins against the Lakers, Spurs, Thunder, Nets, Jazz, Hawks and Bulls. Road success like that is the mark of a big-time playoff contender. The Clippers are on pace to win 30 road games this season. Since the merger, only nine teams have won that many and six of those won a championship.
The Clippers currently rank fourth in the league in efficiency on both ends of the floor, a remarkable improvement in balance from a team that ranked 18th on the defensive end in 2011-12. That kind of balance is another mark of a champion. Post-merger, 16 teams have finished in the top four on both ends. Six have won titles, one lost in the Finals, six have lost in the conference finals and two in the second round. Only those aforementioned Sonics lost in the first round.
Really the only black mark against the Clippers, if you want to call it that, is that they are playing so far above expectations. Even that only matters if you put stock into preseason projections as a reasonable baseline for expected performance. (I do.) If a forecast is solid, a team can be expected to move toward it as the season progresses.
That being the case, it's instructive to look at the Clippers' roster at an individual level by comparing SCHOENE's projected winning percentages to the season-to-date numbers.
SCHOENE's Projected Winning Percentages
Player GP MPG Win% Pro% DIF
Eric Bledsoe 25 18.5 .687 .507 .179
Matt Barnes 24 25.3 .595 .501 .093
DeAndre Jordan 25 25.5 .545 .501 .044
Jamal Crawford 25 29.7 .524 .487 .037
Chris Paul 25 32.8 .728 .719 .009
Ronny Turiaf 23 11.9 .428 .437 .008
Caron Butler 24 23.7 .415 .409 -.006
Lamar Odom 25 16.8 .436 .446 -.010
Blake Griffin 25 32.4 .624 .637 -.013
Chauncey Billups 3 19.7 .497 .516 -.020
Willie Green 22 17.9 .361 .385 -.024
Ryan Hollins 20 11.4 .328 .292 -.036
In Matt Barnes and Jamal Crawford, you have a couple of shooters who will probably regress, with the emphasis on "probably." Barnes has a career-best .586 true shooting percentage, but he's been in that ballpark in recent seasons. Crawford's .568 mark is a leap from last season, but it's roughly what he put up while winning sixth man of the year honors for Atlanta in 2009-10. Neither player is likely to maintain his shooting accuracy, but it's not impossible that they do.
Other than that, the biggest overachievers are Eric Bledsoe and DeAndre Jordan, two young players who have simply gotten better faster than we expected. Bledsoe has been a marvel off the Clippers' bench and there is little reason to expect his efficiency to drop barring a major role change. Down the roster, you have a lot of veterans with established track records who are producing more or less what you'd expect.
Billups is a wild card because of his health situation. If he can stay on the court, he plugs up the one hole in the Clippers' lineup. Odom has fallen short of low expectations, but his play has really picked up in recent games. Grant Hill hasn't even taken the court yet this season. If Odom continues his uptick against stronger competition and Hill can contribute 15-20 minutes at something near his late-career level, Los Angeles will remain one of the deepest teams in the league.
The Clippers won't keep beating teams by 16 points per game, but there is every indication that they are in the race for the long haul, and are well-positioned to challenge the Thunder, the San Antonio Spurs and anyone else for supremacy in the Western Conference. Only a revival of Clippers-like luck can seemingly stand in their way, and you don't even want to mention the two names of the players who, if they were hurt, would torpedo Los Angeles' championship aspirations. Why jinx a long-suffering fan base?
Let's face it: It's a new day in L.A. Consider this: If -- and likely when -- the Clippers extend their streak by beating the Kings on Friday, they'll have 20 wins on the season, and we're still four days away from Christmas. The Clippers have been in Los Angeles for 29 years, and they've won fewer than 20 games in eight of those seasons.
The Clippers are good. Really good. Get used to it.