The 2013-2014 Los Angeles Clippers were a good basketball team. Really good. Doc Rivers came from Boston to foster the league’s most efficient offense. Blake Griffin eliminated a chunk of doubters in his best season yet. Chris Paul overcame injury to secure another spot on the All-NBA first team. DeAndre Jordan proved to be up for Rivers’ challenge for him to be a paramount defensive presence. Most importantly, the Clippers won a franchise-best 57 games, en route to their second-straight Pacific Division title.
The Clippers actually had the third-best record in the NBA. However, they would have to pull an upset to get to the NBA’s Final Four. While the Clippers overcame the Donald Sterling controversy during the quarterfinals and eliminated the Golden State Warriors in seven games, they could not advance past the Oklahoma City Thunder in the conference semifinals.
The Clippers have thus taken the crown of the NBA’s fifth-best team – the best team that didn’t make it to the conference finals. In fact, they lost to the previous crossroads team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, who were upset by the Memphis Grizzlies in the semifinals after a 60-win 2012-2013 season.
Why is “fifth-best” a crossroads? Well, now that the Thunder’s season has ended in the conference finals at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs, I can take a look back at the 30 teams who had the best records of all non-participants in that season’s conference finals since the NBA playoffs became a 16-team tournament in 1983-1984. I broke the results of the “fifth-best” teams’ into five categories that described that team’s following season: champion (won NBA title), contender (appeared in conference finals but failed to win NBA title), 2nd round (won one playoff series), 1st round (made playoffs, eliminated in first round), and missed playoffs (failed to qualify for postseason).
The results are nearly symmetrical:
- Champion: 4 (92-93 Rockets, 01-02 Spurs, 03-04 Spurs, 05-06 Spurs)
- Contender: 9 (83-84 76ers, 84-85 Bucks, 89-90 Lakers, 94-95 Jazz, 00-01 Kings, 04-05 Mavericks, 08-09 Celtics, 10-11 Spurs, 12-13 Thunder)
- 2nd Round: 6 (86-87 Hawks, 90-91 Celtics, 96-97 Supersonics, 98-99 Jazz, 02-03 Kings, 11-12 Bulls)
- 1st Round: 7 (85-86 76ers, 87-88 Nuggets, 88-89 Cavaliers, 93-94 Supersonics, 99-00 Jazz, 06-07 Mavericks, 07-08 Hornets)
- Missed Playoffs: 4 (91-92 Warriors, 95-96 Spurs, 97-98 Supersonics, 09-10 Cavaliers)
As you can see, 13 out of these 30 teams followed a “fifth-best” season up by making it to at least the conference finals the next year (43 percent). The same percentage followed up a “fifth-best” season by making the playoffs, but failing to win more than one playoff series. And the same number of teams to take a “fifth-best” season and turn it into a title (4/30, 13 percent) are mirrored by the teams that took a “fifth-best” season and failed to make the following postseason entirely.
So where do the Clippers go from here?
It is highly unlikely that the Clippers completely fall out of the top half of the Western Conference. Doc Rivers and the Big 3 are under contract next season, and while Donald Sterling continues to vacillate on the reported sale of the team, most indications seem to suggest the team will ultimately reside with Steve Ballmer. The four teams that found themselves out of the playoffs the next season all lacked depth to compensate for catastrophic events (Chris Mullin injury, David Robinson injury, Vin Baker lockout diet, LeBron’s decision).
It is also highly unlikely that the Clippers morph into a championship team barring another quantum leap from Blake Griffin and/or DeAndre Jordan. After all, the 1993 Rockets (Hakeem Olajuwon) and 2000s Spurs (Tim Duncan) both had MVP-caliber big men capable of scoring 2,000 points and grabbing 1,000 rebounds in the same season.
The Clippers will be going for a still unprecedented trip to the conference finals next season, which has narrowly shown to be the most likely step for a “fifth-best” team. That likely means the Clippers will need to add a key piece. The 83-84 76ers added the fifth pick in the 1984 NBA Draft, Charles Barkley. The 89-90 Lakers added Sam Perkins. The 00-01 Kings added Mike Bibby. Rivers’ 08-09 Celtics had Kevin Garnett available for the following postseason. The 10-11 Spurs added Kawhi Leonard.
As it stands now, the Clippers are still looking up to the Thunder and Spurs in the West, the two teams who have represented the conference in the NBA Finals the last three seasons. In order to move into the NBA’s Final Four, the Clippers will most likely have to beat those teams.
However, the Clippers’ biggest challenge may come from the depth of the West. As division winners, the Clippers will be hunted much more often than they are hunters. The Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns will try and bridge the gap in the Pacific Division, while teams such as the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers will try and take their shots towards moving up in the conference.
In all, this is a very interesting time for the Clippers. Being the “best of the rest” is nice, but it isn’t something a team wants to get used to. After three straight playoff appearances, the Clippers need continuous improvement both internally and from outside, or they’ll risk getting stuck in neutral.