Clippers and Thunder and Spurs, Oh My -- The Three Best Teams in the NBA

Kirby Lee-US PRESSWIRE

It's easy to tell who the top three teams in the NBA are right now. Distinguishing between those three is decidedly more difficult.

A few days ago I posted about how ridiculously close the top three teams in the NBA, the Clippers, Thunder and Spurs were by several advanced metrics. Three days later, it may be even more difficult to distinguish between the three teams, if indeed it's even possible.

Now, this is obviously all a moving target, and these numbers all come from prior to the Thunder's win in Toronto today (which frankly will help the winning percentage but not much else given Toronto's overall record on the season and the relatively unimpressive 12 point margin of victory -- OKC's average margin of victory goes up to an even 9 after the Raptors win), but here's what it all looked like when we woke up Sunday morning after the Clippers blew out the Warriors and the Spurs blew out the Sixers.

W

L

Pct

SOS

MOV

SRS

RPI

Hollinger

Thunder

25

7

.781

.506

8.91

8.79

.575

108.286

Clippers

27

8

.771

.516

8.83

9.02

.580

108.833

Spurs

27

9

.750

.521

8.67

9.10

.578

110.608

I've added a few more metrics in this time. Let's go through what all of these are.

Hopefully everyone is pretty comfortable with wins and losses and winning percentage.

SOS is the strength of schedule, and is simply the cumulative winning percentage of a team's opponents. This is not a ranking, but is a key element in trying to measure these three teams against one another. The Thunder may have the best winning percentage of the three, but they have also played the easiest schedule.

MOV is the average margin of victory. That is, total points scored, less total points allowed, divided by the number of games. This metric, though simple, has proven over the years to have a high level of reliability for predicting playoff success. In other words, teams that win games comfortably tend to be the best teams. Go figure.

SRS is taken directly from the basketball-reference site. You can read more about it there, but it's an interesting calculation which takes the team's MOV and adds in the average margin of victory for all of the teams they have played. It is an adjustment for the strength of schedule in the same terms as the MOV, which makes it handy for combining the two. So for instance OKC's MOV increases to 9.00 with the win over the Raptors, but their SRS will not increase as much because Toronto is a poor opponent, and the Thunder will remain third by SRS even after today's win.

RPI is of course taken from college basketball where it is vitally important for accounting for the different schedules teams play. The formula is simple -- half of the RPI is your winning percentage, a quarter is your opponents' collective winning percentage, and the final quarter is your opponents' opponents' collective winning percentage. ESPN maintains a NBA RPI ranking (which they call Relative Power Index probably for copyright reasons) which is where I got these numbers.

Hollinger refers to John Hollinger's power rankings, which take many of these same factors into account to come up with a formulaic metric of a team's overall strength. Hollinger's metric is the only one of these which takes into account the mix of home and away games played.

These are five different metrics for ranking the top teams in the NBA. Here's the most important thing about this exercise -- using all five of these metrics, these are the top three teams in the NBA, and the fourth place team is not particularly close in any of them. Miami, New York, Memphis, Denver -- none of them enter the conversation by any of these metrics. The Clippers, Thunder and Spurs are clearly the best teams in the NBA at this juncture, by any reasonable measurement, and there's a distinct gap between them and the rest of the league.

But depending on which metric you use, you can scramble these results to favor any one of these three. Here's the ranking for each team by each of the five metrics:

Pct

MOV

SRS

RPI

Hollinger

Total

Thunder

1

1

3

3

3

11

Clippers

2

2

2

1

2

9

Spurs

3

3

1

2

1

10

I've also gone ahead and added the various ranks together. Although the Clippers are only first in RPI, they are never worse than second by any measure, and as a result have the lowest total rank -- but really, it could not be much closer.

The Thunder are first in both winning percentage and MOV, which is not particularly surprising since neither of them has any visibility to their weaker schedule. When you take strength of schedule into consideration, they drop to third in all three metrics. But really the point of all this is that it remains really difficult to distinguish between these three teams.

Which will make for an interesting day of Power Rankings tomorrow (most of the major power rankings are released on Monday). With the Clippers coming off of a 2-2 week in which their 17 game winning streak came to an end I'd be surprised if they remain at the top of many rankings. Then again, as winners of 19 of their last 21 games, would it be a stretch to leave them on top? We'll see.

The next few weeks may provide for some separation among these teams. The Thunder's cushy schedule to date (their 20/12 home/road ratio was the most home-friendly in the league heading into today's games) changes in a hurry, as they go on the road for 11 of their next 13 games starting today. And while that stretch started in Toronto and continues with the Wizards tomorrow, it gets decidedly tougher as it goes on, featuring eight teams with winning records, plus a pair of games against the ticking time bomb Lakers.

Speaking of tough schedule stretches, the next three weeks will also tell us a lot about the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors have a very impressive 11-5 record against winning teams so far this season, best in the NBA. However, the vast majority of those wins have come against good teams, not elite teams (plus two wins against the Clippers of course). The Dubs are 0-4 against Memphis, Oklahoma City and the Lakers, and have yet to play the Spurs. They do have road wins against the Clippers and the Heat, but we certainly know that the Clippers took them lightly in the third game of the season, and it's likely that the Heat overlooked them as well. Unfortunately for Golden State, they won't be sneaking up on good teams any more this season.

The Warriors play nine of their next ten games against teams with winning records, including several against top tier competition -- Memphis, Denver, San Antonio, Miami, the Clippers and Oklahoma City all appear on their schedule in this stretch. My guess is that the Clippers' lead in the Pacific will be decidedly more comfortable three weeks from today, and if not, fear the Dubs.

Also keep an eye on the Lakers. We've already discussed the fact that MOV is a reliable indicator of quality teams. One of the overlooked aspects of the Lakers struggles is that they currently have a better MOV than the Warriors (2.34 to 2.27) despite being six games back of the Warriors in the standings. That discrepancy in the standings is most likely a fluke, and the Lakers will probably begin to gain some ground on the Warriors now, at least until Andrew Bogut's return. The Lakers MOV actually places them solidly in the top eight in the West, indicating that they are a legitimate playoff team, despite the losing record. They still look like first round fodder at best, but they're probably a playoff team, so sorry about that.

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