NOTE: The article is Can we trust the CLippers,but the editor won't let me put he word We in a tittle for some reason
Do Doc Rivers & Co. really have the NBA's best team? Numbers say so
Three teams have better records, but last week's Insider update revealed that Vegas handicappers are in agreement with advanced statistics: Right now, there's nobody in the NBA better than the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Clippers, who bring an 11-game winning streak into tonight's ESPN matchup at Denver, now own the league's best point differential at plus-7.4 points per game. Since Chris Paul returned from a shoulder injury Feb. 9, they've blasted opponents by an average of 13.5 points per game, going 13-2 in that span.
Yet skepticism can be forgiven. The Clippers were in the same spot in December 2012, when they won 17 in a row and got me wondering whether they might be the best team in the Western Conference. That winning streak was long forgotten by May, when the Memphis Grizzlies knocked them out in the opening round. So why might this season be different? Let's take a look.
Blowout wins + beating West foes
The Clippers owe their impressive point differential to their habit of punishing lesser foes, as in a 142-94 win over the Los Angeles Lakers earlier this month and a 123-78 win over the Philadelphia 76ers in February. Sunday's win over the Cleveland Cavaliers was their 12th by 20-plus points this season. That's tied with San Antonio for the most in the league per Basketball-Reference.com, and the Clippers' five wins by at least 30 points are tops in the NBA.
While it's tempting -- and not entirely incorrect -- to dismiss those blowouts as running up the score, Neil Paine of 538.com found at Basketball-Reference that taking care of lesser opponents is predictive in the playoffs.
Best vs. Best
Oklahoma City 15-7
L.A. Clippers 12-8
San Antonio 12-9
Golden State 9-12
However, the better indicator of playoff success Paine found was beating good teams by a comfortable margin (nine points or more). There, the Clippers also score well. They're 12-9 against the other seven West teams currently in the playoffs, and only the Oklahoma City Thunder (15-7) have been better in such games. Of those 12 wins, five have come by double figures, with three more by exactly eight points.
The danger in looking at record against elite competition is that a handful of games can have an outsized impact. Witness the Spurs, whose inability to beat top teams was a source of concern early in the season. Now, they look good by this measure. However, it is meaningful to the extent that head-to-head results do help predict the outcome of playoff series. That's good news for the Clippers, provided they avoid the troublesome Grizzlies, one of two teams (San Antonio is the other) that lead them in the season series.
Surging offense + sustainable defense
Since New Year's Day, the Clippers have the NBA's best offense, and nobody's all that close. According to NBA.com/Stats, they've averaged 112.7 points per 100 possessions in 2014, a full two points per 100 possessions better than the second-place Dallas Mavericks. As a result, the Clippers have crept within striking distance of the Miami Heat for the league's best offensive rating over the course of the season.
Paul and Griffin make the Clips' offense great, but their defense has been terrific, too.
Of course, we expected the Clippers to be potent offensively. (My SCHOENE projection system pegged their offense No. 1 in the league.) The real question was whether they could defend at a championship level. While their overall defensive rating (eighth) is nearly the same as last year (ninth), the way they've gotten there is very different.
Under Vinny Del Negro, the Clippers relied heavily on forcing turnovers, something they did better than anyone else in the NBA. Turnovers were a major factor in their December 2012 winning streak, but those miscues dried up late in the season and particularly in the playoffs.
With Rivers at the helm, the Clippers have improved from 12th to sixth in opponent effective field-goal percentage. In particular, they've been stingy beyond the arc, holding opponents to league-low 33.1 percent 3-point shooting. Though 3-point defense tends to fluctuate wildly, it's a Rivers trademark. His Boston teams were in the top five in opponent 3-point percentage each of the last six seasons and atop the NBA twice, suggesting more than just luck of the Irish.
This month, with Darren Collison replacing the injured Jamal Crawford (himself replacing the injured J.J. Redick, whose season could be finished) in the starting lineup, the Clippers have added the turnovers back to the mix. The result has been far and away the league's best in March, fueling the winning streak. They've allowed 92.8 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com/Stats. Nobody else in the league is allowing fewer than 98.8 (the Chicago Bulls). That's coincided with Rivers working post-buyout pickups Glen Davis and Danny Granger into the rotation, improving the Clippers' depth.
Projecting the playoffs
Even if the Clippers really are the best team in the NBA, it might not be enough to win the West. After all, the San Antonio Spurs aren't far behind in the Vegas and SCHOENE rankings, either overall or since the All-Star break. And the Spurs' three-game edge in the standings makes them heavy favorites to claim the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, which would force the Clippers to win at least one series on the road if earlier rounds go to form.
Still, with Oklahoma City slumping, the Clippers are now more likely than not to claim the second seed in the West. They've pulled within a game of the Thunder in the standings and host the remaining meeting between the teams on April 9. A win would give the Clippers the head-to-head tiebreaker.
As either the second or third seed, the Clippers have to be taken seriously as title contenders. Only the Spurs win the title more often in simulations of the remainder of the season using my "true talent" ratings, while the Hollinger Playoff Odds actually make them the favorite to bring home the Larry O'Brien Trophy. With two top-10 players, capable contributors around them and a sound defensive scheme, the Clippers are built like a championship team. And they've got the numbers to back it up.