Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
The Clippers have been great through the first third of the season. Have they been the best team in the NBA? It's not difficult to make the case.
NBA Championships are not handed out in December. Being the best team in the NBA at Christmas doesn't mean anything other than that you're the best team in the NBA at Christmas. Still, we're a third of the way through the season which is a significant sample size, and the Clippers have never -- NEVER -- been this high in the standings this far into the season, which warrants some gloating reflection.
Although the Clippers do not have the best winning percentage in the NBA, and therefore would not have home court advantage in the playoffs if the season were to end today, by several significant metrics they are measurably the best team in the NBA.
For one thing, if you want to look to John Hollinger's power rankings (which are updated daily and based on a formula that combined several metrics), the Clippers have been ranked first for a week or so now. And while the Clippers weren't first in any of the human-based power rankings last week, one presumes that they will be number one in most if not all of them next week, barring a major disaster in Phoenix Sunday.
Then there's margin of victory (MOV), aka point differential, which simply takes the average of points scored less points allowed. MOV is historically one of the most consistent predictors of team success, despite it's simplicity. As of now the Clippers have the best margin of victory in the league, one tenth of a point better than the Oklahoma City Thunder, the only team with a better record. Every other team in the league is at least two points worse in MOV.
Given that the Clippers and Thunder are currently first and second in margin of victory and winning percentage, the debate over best in the league has to start with those two teams. In that discussion, it's pretty easy to make the case that the Clippers have been better than the Thunder so far based on one simple factor: strength of schedule. The Thunder's schedule through 26 games has been one of the easiest in the league, both based on the opponents (where they have the fourth easiest schedule in the Western Conference) and on home/road ratio (no team in the league has played more home games). The Clippers' own strength of schedule has come down quite a bit during this soft stretch, but it's still slightly more difficult than average, and while they too have had a relatively home friendly first third of the season, they've nonetheless played more road games than the Thunder.
There are four other teams you have to include in the conversation about best in the league: the Spurs, Grizzlies, Knicks and Heat. With apologies to the 15-9 Hawks and the 18-9 Warriors, there is currently a pretty clean break between the top six teams and the next group. By both winning percentage and margin of victory the top six teams do not change. Moreover, the top six teams all have a margin of victory more than twice that of the next best MOV. As it happens, the sub .500 Lakers have the seventh best MOV in the league, better than either the Hawks or the Warriors. That muddies the water sufficiently to justify limiting the top group to the big six.
Among those six, you could conceivably make a case for San Antonio as the top team based on the schedule. The Spurs have already played 17 road games, second most in the league, compared to just 10 home games. Their differential of road wins (11) to home losses (2) of +9 is tops in the league, and quite a bit better than the Clippers' road win/home loss mark of +5. But looking a little deeper, one sees that the Clippers and Spurs have essentially identical home winning percentages (.818 for the Spurs compared to .800 for the Clippers) while the Clippers have actually been better on the road so far (.727 to .647). Then there's the little fact that in two meetings this season between the teams, one in each city, the Clippers have won both, by a combined 27 points.
And therein lies perhaps the most compelling argument for the Clippers as the best team in the NBA so far. If you look at the records of the six top teams against each other, the Clippers stand out as having played the best against the best. The Clippers have played all of the top teams except the Knicks, and have played the Spurs twice. They are 4-1 in those games, with the lone loss coming in overtime on the road against the Thunder. The Clippers are a good bounce on a Chris Paul floater away from being 5-0 against this group of teams.
Only the Knicks, at 4-1, come close to that level of success against the top teams. In fact, if you dig into all of these teams, the Knicks are the one that might be able to make a case as an alternative to the Clippers as best in the league so far. Aside from a curious inability to beat Houston, New York has been terrific. They have been almost unbeatable at home (again, those pesky Rockets) and have eight road wins against just two home losses in a balanced, if somewhat weak, schedule. Playing in the Eastern Conference makes it tough to compare, but the Knicks have been great so far. It's all working out perfectly for the fine folks at network television, who had the foresight to schedule both meetings between the Clippers and Knicks for Sunday ABC games, one in February and one in March.
The Clippers are obviously playing great right now after notching their 12th consecutive win on Friday, the longest winning streak in the league this season. But it's not just the winning streak, which has come against admittedly inferior competition. When you look at the Clippers body of work, there's really only one conclusion -- they've been the best team in the NBA so far.