Lob City and TV: A win-win scenario

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Does it seem like the Clippers have played their best in nationally televised games this season? You're not imagining it, the numbers bear it out.

Watching the Los Angeles Clippers run and dunk all over the Dallas Mavericks on ESPN Wednesday night, I couldn't help thinking: do the Clippers get especially pumped up for nationally televised games? We get glimpses of an unstoppable juggernaut of high-flying, high energy, pure basketball entertainment periodically, but we also see a Clippers team that looks lost and lethargic from time to time. Could it be that the Clippers made-for-TV brand of basketball is some sort of positive feedback loop? The national TV audience likes high-scoring basketball with lots of steals and dunks and the Clippers like being on TV so they play that way when they are? The Clippers get the win and the networks get a show. It's a win-win scenario. Are you not entertained?

After the Dallas game I went back over the schedule to verify my hunch, and indeed there is a pretty strong correlation between the NBA's national television schedule and the Clippers' best performances of the season.

(A quick aside -- after re-watching the Dallas game, I was amazed at how many fast break opportunities the Clippers squandered. Barnes missed a couple layups, Odom threw one over the backboard, Griffin threw a bad pass to Paul who tried to get it to Jordan who missed, Paul went to Green who came up empty -- the Clippers won by 22 and it could have been much, much more.)

Depending on how you define a national TV game, the Clippers have either had six (Lakers, Spurs, Heat, Thunder and Mavs on ESPN, Blazers on TNT) or nine (Warriors, Wolves and Kings on NBA-TV). My inclination would be to exclude the NBA-TV games for a simple reason -- without a network broadcast crew in the arena, the game would feel no different to the players. NBA-TV is simply taking the local broadcast feed (Ralph and Mike for Clipper home games for instance) and broadcasting it to a national audience. Not that Hubie Brown or Jeff Van Gundy or Marv Albert being in the house should really make that big a difference to professional athletes, but without them around the game just isn't any different than every other game. Having said that, the Clippers have scored a ton on NBA-TV this season, but that number is heavily skewed by the blowout win over the Kings.

As it happens, the Clippers have now played 18 games on the season, so we have a clean split of games whether we include NBA-TV games or not (one third of the Clippers games have been on ESPN or TNT, half have been on some form of national TV). What have we seen in those games? The table below summarizes some of the key differences.

ESPN/TNT

NBA-TV

Local TV only

Won-loss record

5-1

2-1

5-4

Points scored

107.3

109.0

95.1

Points allowed

96.0

96.7

93.6

Margin of victory

11.3

12.3

1.6

The Clippers are 5-1 on the season on ESPN/TNT, with the lone loss coming in overtime in Oklahoma City, hardly embarrassing and still very entertaining. The are 7-2 including NBA-TV games. Contrast that with 5-4 when playing on local TV.

The scoring numbers tell an especially interesting story. In their six ESPN/TNT games they've never scored fewer than 103 points and are averaging over 107 points per game. That average actually goes up a bit when you include the NBA-TV games to almost 108 points.

In the nine games they've played for locals only, the team is averaging just over 95 points per game. So the team has scored almost 13 additional points per game in front of the fans in Montana and Alabama this year.

The margin of victory is even more startling. Big wins over Dallas, San Antonio and Portland have all come on the big networks, in addition to a double digit win over the Lakers, offset by a single overtime loss to the Thunder. The Clippers have outscored their opponents on ESPN/TNT by a total of 68 points, over 11 points per game. That number rises to 105 points, nearly 12 points per game when you include the NBA-TV games.

Conversely, the team's only double digit losses, in Brooklyn and in Atlanta, were away from the network cameras. The cumulative score of the other nine games has therefore been much closer -- in those nine, the Clippers have scored just 14 more points than their opponents, a margin of victory under two points per game. In other words, a national TV audience has represented ten additional points in the final score for the Clippers this season.

In the end this is likely little more than an interesting anomaly. We're dealing with very few games here, and strange things can happen with small sample sizes. There's also the question of confounding variables. Maybe it's not the television audience but the opponents who are motivating the Clippers -- after all, ESPN and TNT are trying to schedule the most compelling games so those TV games tend to be against marquee opponents. Put another way, bad losses to Cleveland and New Orleans weren't on network TV because the networks don't want to show those teams. So did the Clippers play poorly in those games because they weren't on TV, or because they, like the networks, lacked interest in the Cavs and the Hornets/Pelicans? It's basically impossible to disentangle these two factors. It is not however the home crowd that is making the difference in these games: half of their ESPN/TNT games have come on the road.

If it is true that the Clippers play their best in front of network cameras it bodes pretty well for the team. They have 17 more games this season on ESPN, TNT and ABC -- not to mention all the playoff games.

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