The Los Angeles Clippers are in quite a peculiar situation when it comes to postseason seeding. The race for the 3-4-5 seeds is as tight as it can be – technically speaking, Denver holds the No. 3 spot, a half-game above the Clippers and a full game above Memphis, but all three teams are even in the loss column and could conceivably end the season tied. Meanwhile, seeds 6-7-8 are only separated by three and a half games, and only three games in the loss column separate the of-late struggling Warriors (below .500 since January 1st) in the No. 6 spot and of-late surging Lakers (19-9 over the last two months) in the No. 8 spot. Houston lies between them at No. 7, even with Golden State in the loss column.
Combine those two tight groups and you end up with a situation where the Clippers could conceivably see any of the other five teams in the first round, and in the case of Denver or Memphis, would have no idea if they have home-court advantage or not. Winning the Pacific division (almost a certainty at this point) guarantees them a top-four seed, but it doesn’t guarantee them home-court advantage if the fifth-seeded team has a superior record.
Ed. note: If the Clippers finish tied with Memphis and/or Denver in the 4-seed, the first tiebreaker for homecourt advantage is division champion, not head-to-head. Thus, as long as the Clippers do not fall behind Memphis or Denver, they should be assured homecourt in the first round. -AH
With that in mind, we set out to identify a best-case scenario opponent and a worst-case scenario opponent, based on the three possible seedings for the Clippers – the No. 3 seed, the No. 4 with home-court advantage, and the No. 4 seed without home-court advantage (for the purposes of the exercise, we’ll assume that the Clippers don’t go on a crazy run coupled with a collapse by either Oklahoma City or San Antonio to secure the Clippers a top-2 seed). Without further ado:
If The Clippers Get the No. 3 Seed
Best-Case Scenario: Golden State Warriors
Clipper fans might scoff at this pick, given that the Warriors are 3-1 against the Clippers this year, including a 21-point drubbing in Oakland right after New Years. However, this pick isn’t so much a suggestion that the Clippers match up especially well with Golden State, it more has to do with avoiding the other two teams in Round 1. Houston we’ll touch on a bit in a second, and the Clippers should want absolutely no part of the Lakers, regardless of how much they’ve struggled this year.
The sheer talent that the Lakers possess in their starting lineup should be a major concern for the Clippers. The two LA teams this season couldn’t be less similar – the Lakers are a top-heavy roster that has been held back by an absolutely dreadful bench (which has been forced into an even more prominent role thanks to various injuries), while the Clippers win games with their excellent depth. When rotations shorten in the playoffs, the advantage that the Clippers’ bench has over the Lakers starts to shrink, because Kobe and Howard and Nash and Gasol will be playing 40 minutes a game. Beyond that, Kobe’s scoring acumen will be a major problem for the Clippers’ porous wing defense.
The Clippers should want to play the Warriors, despite the fact that Golden State’s three-point shooting presents a bit of a tough matchup for them. The Dubs have struggled mightily of late, especially on defense, and I generally don’t buy into regular-season matchups being indicative of postseason results. In 2011, Miami finished the regular season 1-7 against Boston and Chicago before making quick work of each team in the playoffs. Chris Paul’s precision in the pick-and-roll game would be the difference-maker against a weak Golden State defense.
Worst-Case Scenario: Houston Rockets
The Rockets are an absolute nightmare matchup for any team in the West. Even when the pace slows down in the postseason, Houston can still have a lot of success simply because of their offensive model. They take a ton of threes, which makes them an incredibly high-variance team. 35% of their field-goal attempts have come from behind the 3-point arc this season, only the Knicks take more. This variance leads to a potential for the Rockets to catch fire from three and end a series before the opponent has any idea what happened. The 2009 Magic had a stretch like this – starting with Game 7 of the Eastern Semifinals against Boston, Orlando shot 75-173 (43.3%) from downtown over a seven-game stretch, riding it all the way to the NBA Finals, dispatching LeBron and the Cavaliers in the process. Houston has that type of potential as a three-point shooting team.
On top of that, they possess a weapon that the Clippers would have no real answer for – James Harden attacking the basket out of high screen-roll sets. The Clippers perimeter defenders are either too slow (Butler, Barnes), too old (Billups, Hill), too small (Crawford, Bledsoe) or too hopeless (Green) to keep up with Harden, especially if he’s able to turn the corner and get a north-south line to the rim. Even if the Rockets threes aren’t falling, they can turn to Plan B, which is having Harden impersonate a runaway freight train into the paint every time down the floor. DeAndre Jordan might foul out in the first quarter.
If The Clippers Get the No. 4 Seed (With Home-Court Advantage)
Best-Case Scenario: Denver Nuggets
It may seem strange to say that the Clippers would want to play a team currently in the midst of a 15-game winning streak (which, incredibly, is only the third-longest streak in the league this season, behind the Clippers’ 17-game streak earlier this year and the Miami’s current 26-game run), but having home-court advantage in the series would give the Clips a big leg up over Denver. The Nuggets are just 17-19 on the road, compared to Memphis’ 19-14 road mark (and Memphis would be the only other possible team they could face – see below), and there’s reason to believe that Denver’s superb home-court advantage (32-3 at home this year, only matched by Miami) wouldn’t be as valuable in the playoffs. As Neil Paine wrote on ESPN.com earlier this month, there is evidence that suggests that Denver’s home-court advantage is partially explained by scheduling – teams often play in Denver while in the middle of grueling road trips or on the 2nd night of back-to-backs. This obviously wouldn’t be the case in the playoffs, which may make it easier to steal a game in Denver, and thus even easier to win the series.
Worst-Case Scenario: Memphis Grizzlies
As mentioned above, the Grizzlies are the superior road team – it’s more likely for them to steal a game at Staples than it would be for Denver. In fact, the Grizzlies did this in Round 1 last year, winning Game 6 on the Clippers home floor. The Clippers only won the series because they won Games 1 AND 7 on the road in Memphis (one of the more underrated postseason feats in recent memory). I’ll get into the minutiae of the Clippers-Grizzlies matchup below – the key takeaway here is that the Clippers, with home-court advantage, would prefer to play Denver because of how much Denver struggles on the road.
If The Clippers Get the No. 4 Seed (Without Home-Court Advantage)
Best-Case Scenario: Memphis Grizzlies
Given that the previous section was based so much on which team has home-court advantage, it would stand to reason that the preferred opponent would flip along with home-court advantage.
In addition to being the inferior home team of the two, Memphis is probably overall the better matchup for the Clippers, regardless of where the games are being played. Although the Grizzlies’ win over the Clippers back on March 13 might be fresh on the mind, don’t forget that Eric Bledsoe didn’t play in that game, and Bledsoe was a key factor in the Clippers’ series win last spring – just look at the effect he had on Mike Conley when the two shared the floor.
Beyond that – the Clippers are just a better team than they were last season. The Randy Foye/Mo Williams/Nick Young spots have been upgraded to Chauncey Billups, Jamal Crawford, and Matt Barnes, who fit this particular matchup a lot better. Also, while the Grizzlies have played significantly better since dealing Rudy Gay, his absence might actually hurt them against the Clippers – his scoring punch from the three certainly could have exploited a weakness for the Clippers, now there’s nobody there that can do that – their points are going to have to come from inside, an area the Clippers are better equipped to defend.
Worst-Case Scenario: Denver Nuggets
Yes, I said above that there’s a chance that the Nuggets’ home-court advantage is overstated by quirks in the NBA schedule.
That being said, would YOU want to face a team that only has three or four home losses on the season without home court advantage? I didn’t think so.
From a tactical standpoint, the Nuggets pose a lot of problems for the Clippers as well. They have a lot of size on the perimeter, including all-world defensive specialist Andre Iguodala, who they would have no problem unleashing on Chris Paul, knowing that the Clippers don’t have any explosive scorers on the wing to take advantage of a cross-match involving Ty Lawson. Iguodala is the premier pick-and-roll defender in the league, and if he swallows up that action from Chris Paul, the Clippers could be up the creek without a paddle.
On top of that, Denver is one of the few teams that can match the Clippers energy and athleticism in the frontcourt. The Clippers have made teams pay time and again by simply out-working and out-hustling their bigs with Griffin and Jordan – against Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee, and Kosta Koufos, three of the most mobile and active bigs in the league, there may not be an advantage there.