The Clippers are a very good team. Good enough to race for the 3-seed in the Western Conference and a 51-26 record. But good enough to win a title? That is the question that matters most. Let’s look into a couple of key factors that could help discern Los Angeles’ title chances.
This chart shows, by season segment, the Clippers’ Net Rating (Points scored per 100 possessions – points allowed per 100), a better indicator of future success than record, their opponents’ average Net Rating, their record in close games (a good indicator of luck) and Los Angeles’ expected wins (the formula is based on Net Rating and adjusts for opponent strength). For reference: the best Net Rating in the league is 10.9, the 15th is 0.1 and the worst is -11.1. Clutch time is considered situations with under three minutes to play and a margin of five or less.
DISCLAIMER: games that Chris Paul didn’t play in are omitted. Thus, “overall” is not the entire season, just every game Paul played in.
There are a number of easy things to pick out: on a full season level, the Clippers’ December Net Rating would easily be tops in the league, but they also just played teams approximately the quality of the Timberwolves. Had Chris Paul played the entire season, LA would likely be in a race for the first seed. This last month has been quite ugly, and it hasn’t come against top-tier competition either.
More and more, it’s looking like, as Jovan Buha pointed out in a recent Last Call, the Clippers are a bottom-half playoff team with one gigantic outlier month.
What are some of the things that scream “outlier” and “not something to heavily take into account” about December? First there’s the aforementioned poor competition, which included five combined games against the Suns, Bobcats and Kings; teams who are blown out so often they can corrupt differential statistics like Net Rating. There’s the 82.5 Defensive Efficiency from the bench as LA’s second most used lineup with 187 minutes; the best defensive team in the league has 95.7 D rating. The 4-0 record in close games stands out in comparison with an 8-10 record in all other months, and this doesn’t even include the 1-3 sans-Paul disaster. The three-percent crater in eFG%-allowed seems unlikely to happen again. Even smaller changes like those in Opponent-TOV% and Offensive Rebounding Rate add up, and are still jumps from the rest of the season’s larger sample size, no matter how small.
And remember: by the time the playoffs start, that magical December will be almost four months in the rearview mirror while a hideous March will still be clipping at Los Angeles’ heels.
Even if we do — quite fairly, after all, it did still happen — consider that December, it doesn’t seem too crazy for the Clippers to make the Finals. The Net Rating of the Chris Paul participating Clippers is higher than that of five of the last eight teams to make the Finals. Unfortunately for the Clippers, however, all but one of those five put up much higher Net Differential’s than the recent 2.4 dud in the month of March.
After reviewing most of the facts, the possibility of a Finals appearance seems to be slipping further and further away. Despite that, this is undoubtedly the greatest season in the Clips’ history. This team will go deep into the playoffs and Chris Paul is a near lock to re-sign. The possibility always remains, that with the right string of injuries and good fortune, the Clippers could be knocking on the proverbial door by the time June comes around.