Sixteen games. The NBA regular season last 82 games, and as such any sixteen game sequence represents about a fifth of the season. As it happens, the Clippers have had some pretty interesting sixteen game stretches this season, and how you feel about the team depends greatly on how you look at those stretches, and which ones you want to emphasize.
There was of course the month of December -- a perfect 16-0 month for the team, one of only three 16-0 calendar months in NBA history.
Of you might look at the 16 games from January 12 to February 8, a stretch in which the Clippers were 7-9. Of course, Chris Paul was injured during that entire sequence, missing 12 of those games, so it's not surprising that the Clippers struggled, and it's not necessary to dwell on it assuming Paul is healthy now.
I'm most interested for the time being in looking at the first 16 games of the season and the last 16 games the Clippers have played, to compare and contrast those two quintiles of the season.
In the first 16 games this season, the Clippers were 10-6. That includes two wins at the very start of the 17 game winning streak. In the most recent 16 games this season, the Clippers are 11-5.
During both of those sequences, the team has been relatively healthy. By that I mean, in particular that Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were each healthy and appearing in games. At the beginning of the season Chauncey Billups missed all but two games, and Grant Hill missed them all of course. Meanwhile in recent weeks a series of minor injuries have caused Eric Bledsoe (4 games missed), Jamal Crawford (3) and Caron Butler (2) to miss time. But the Clippers have proven themselves to be deep this season, deep enough to withstand a few injuries to anyone other than their top two players.
At first glance, the Clippers first 16 games and their last 16 games seem pretty similar, 10-6 versus 11-5. Yet the five losses in the recent not-so-sweet 16 has many pundits convinced that the Clippers are not a serious contender in the Western Conference playoffs.
We all know well that the NBA schedule can have a major impact on how a team performs over a series of games. While the Clippers were winning 17 straight, although they did play seven teams currently over .500, the Denver Nuggets were the only opponent anywhere close to the top of the league.
The Clippers opened the season playing against 11 teams currently with winning records in their first 16 games, a decidedly more difficult string of opponents than they saw during the winning streak. Within those, they played five games against teams now viewed as elite, among the top six records in the league. Against teams with winning records, the Clippers were 7-4 in the first fifth of the season. Against elite teams, they were 4-1, the lone loss coming at Oklahoma City in overtime. Because of that impressive record against the best teams, it was easy to overlook lethargic losses to the likes of Cleveland and New Orleans. The Clippers had shown they could beat the best -- so what if they let down against lesser teams?
In their most recent 16 games the Clippers have once again played a challenging schedule, with a dozen coming against winning opponents. The Clippers are 7-5 against teams over .500 in that time, a respectable mark very much in line with their 7-4 mark from the season's fist 16 games.
However, where the Clippers were 4-1 against the elite teams back in October and November, they are 0-5 against those teams in February and March. It may seem counter-intuitive that recent losses to good teams are more troubling than earlier losses to bad teams, but there's definitely a certain logic to it.
For one thing, recent results are simply more relevant. Games in March are more indicative of a team's strength than games in November, unless there's a specific reason why they would not be. Even if you try to argue that the Clippers are just as strong now as they were earlier in the season, there's the question of relative strength to consider. Are Miami, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Memphis and Denver that much better than they were at the start of the season?
Moreover the Clippers early results painted the picture of an inconsistent but ultimately very dangerous team. Losses to Cleveland and New Orleans could be dismissed as non-issues, games which the team took lightly and subsequently lost. But when they faced the best teams, they invariably came out on top. Since the postseason features exclusively top teams and it's unlikely that you'd go into a game flat, the Clippers early season results were encouraging -- a 4-1 record against elite competition portended a very successful postseason.
The last 16 games paint a different picture, one of a team that is very consistent -- and simply not up to the task of beating the best. The Clippers had plenty riding on all of their recent losses, particularly against their Western Conference foes. A win over the Spurs would have positioned them to challenge for first -- they lost. A win over the Thunder would have put them in the driver's seat to finish second -- they lost. Denver and Memphis began breathing down their necks for third place -- and the Clippers lost head-to-head against those teams also. With lots on the line against top teams (that is to say, games that had some characteristics of postseason play) they Clippers have come up short, in most cases far short.
But it's certainly not time to panic. We're still dealing with a fairly small sample size of games, and when you look at season records, the Clippers are by no means getting embarrassed by the top competition. When you look at the records of all five of the top Western Conference teams against the top six teams in the league, the Clippers aren't exactly off the pace:
Spurs -- 6-6
Thunder -- 6-7
Clippers -- 6-8
Grizzlies -- 5-9
Nuggets -- 8-6
Why is it the Clippers and not the 5-9 Grizzlies that are considered the team not quite ready to compete? And before you place a bet on the Nuggets to win the West based on this information, realize that Denver is 7-0 at home against the best of the west, 1-4 on the road.
Likewise, although the Clippers have lost the season series to the Nuggets and the Thunder, it's not as if those series were lopsided. The Clippers happened to play the Nuggets three times this season, with two of the games taking place in Denver where they never lose -- losing that series 2-1 is pretty much what you would expect in that situation, and if the Clippers can manage to secure home court advantage you would expect them to beat the Nuggets in a seven game series. In the case of the Thunder who swept three games against the Clippers, one of those games came while Paul was injured and the other two went down to the wire. As for the Spurs and Grizzlies, the Clippers lead the season series against those teams 2-1.
The real point of all of this is that while recent results have raised legitimate questions, there is plenty of time to right the ship. If we go back to our 16 game discussion and break the season into five convenient pieces, it looks some thing like this:
The Clippers have just begun the final fifth of the season, their last 16 games having started on the right foot with Sunday's win over the Knicks. It's certainly true that February results are a better indicator of a team's strength than December results but March and April are better still. Assuming that the Clippers can hang onto the third seed (and with only two games remaining against elite teams, it would seem a strong possibility), they won't be facing an elite team in the playoffs until May. Do the Clippers close the season 14-2 in their final 16 games? Do they go 8-8? How they've played to this point is less important than how they play going forward.
How they play (or even if they play) in May remains to be seen. But for now the task will be to close the final fifth of the season strong.