Arash Markazi, who covers the Los Angeles Clippers for ESPN LA, isn't always the most popular writer among Clipper fans. Of course it's the nature of writing about any sports team really -- Arash is accused of having a Laker bias by Clipper fans while at the same time accused of having an anti-Lakers bias (no one in the national media is actively accused of having a Clippers bias as far as I can tell) by Laker fans. What's a journo gonna do?
His column following the Clippers loss to Oklahoma City on Sunday isn't likely to make him more popular among the Citizens of Clips Nation. In it, he writes that there is a significant gap between the Clippers and the three top teams in the league, the Heat, Spurs and Thunder, under the headline "Clippers are not an elite team."
But is he wrong?
First of all, it's likely that an editor and not Arash wrote the "not elite" headline. More to the point, we probably need to avoid such freighted words as 'elite'. It's not as if anyone has a workable definition for what is or is not an elite NBA team. Earlier in the season we kept seeing the question "are the Clippers for real?" (as if a 17 game winning streak could somehow be an illusion). Now the question is are they elite. And my answer is, let's not worry about the label.
There is a wealth of data available to indicate the the Clippers are the fourth best team in the NBA so far this season. Whether that qualifies them as elite is obviously subjective. What is not objective is that they have the fourth best winning percentage, the fourth best average margin of victory, the fourth best RPI, the fourth best Hollinger ranking, and are ranked fourth in most major power rankings. The same three teams are always ahead of them in all of those rankings, and a host of very good teams are behind them (usually, as in margin of victory, by quite a bit). The Clippers, based on their body of work through 62 games, are the fourth best team in the NBA.
The other evidence that the Clippers are not in the same echelon as the Heat, Spurs and Thunder is their recent results against those three teams. The Clippers are 2-1 against the Spurs on the season, 1-1 against the Heat and 0-3 against the Thunder, but more disturbing is that all three wins came in the first three weeks of the season, while they are 0-5 against the big three since an overtime loss in Oklahoma City on November 21. It's clear that recent results should carry more weight in these discussions, so there's no way to sugar coat the Clippers struggles against the big boys. In fact, the Clippers are 8-3 since Chris Paul returned from injury -- with all three losses coming to their "elite" foes.
At the same time, I am far from convinced that OKC's 3-0 record against the LAC proves in any way that the Thunder are the superior team. You have to throw out the game in which Paul was injured; of course the Thunder are better than the Paul-less Clippers, just as certainly as the Clippers are better than the Durant-less Thunder. Without that game, you're left with an OKC win in overtime and a second in which the Clippers came back from a 19 point deficit to take the lead with 90 seconds left. Statistically speaking, both of those games are coin tosses that happened to come up OKC both times. It happens.
So when Markazi writes "As good as the Clippers looked at the midway point of this season ... they haven't done anything since then that would make anyone believe they would beat the Heat, Spurs or Thunder in a seven-game playoff series" I would beg to differ. They erased a 19 point deficit against the Thunder in about 15 minutes of basketball. That might make someone believe they can beat the Thunder. Heck, it does make someone (someone like me for instance) believe they can beat the Thunder.
Certainly the recent losses to the Heat and Spurs, losses in which the Clippers were in no way competitive, are disheartening. But that's an awfully small sample size on which to be drawing definitive conclusions.
Meanwhile, although it's true that the Clippers are clearly behind the big three in all the significant measures on the season, that changes when you account for Paul's injury. Take out the 12 games he missed in which they went 6-6 and they have a better winning percentage than the Thunder, a better margin of victory than the Heat, and re-enter the discussion on many other fronts as well. And while it's certainly true that injuries are part of the game, when we speculate on the Clippers chances in the playoffs surely that is based on a team that includes Paul. Without Paul the Clippers won't get out of the first round; their chances of playoff success are completely predicated on a healthy CP3, so it's relevant to use data with a healthy CP3. (Speaking of which, if you eliminate games in which Paul played but was clearly less than 100%, such as the recent loss to Miami, you can move the needle even further.)
There are still other indicators that the Clippers can indeed rub elbows with the other so-called "elites". They have a better road record than either Oklahoma City or Miami. They have a better record against winning teams than the Thunder.
Nonetheless, it's completely valid to conclude based on the season so far that the Clippers are the fourth best team in the NBA, behind the Heat, Thunder and Spurs. And by the way, there's obviously no shame in that. The Heat are coming off a title, the Thunder are the defending Western Conference champs and the Spurs tied for the best record in the NBA last season. The Clippers have made incredible strides over last season to distance themselves from the rest of the pack and to inch ever closer to that top group. If Markazi or others want to define the top three as the only elite teams in the NBA that's cool.
As we've pointed out before, the cruel math of the NBA playoffs dictates that at least one of the top three teams in the West will be eliminated before the Western Conference finals. That's the same round of the playoffs in which the Clippers were eliminated last season, and a repeat of a Spurs-Thunder conference final will be seen by some as a failure of this season's Clippers team, but that's far too simplistic. If the Clippers lose to one of those teams in the second round, then the task will be to try to improve enough to get past them next season.
Games in February and March are certainly more important than games in November and December (when the Clippers went 16-0). However, there are still six weeks left in the season, and these will be more important still. And then none of that matters once the playoffs start, since those April/May/June games will be the only ones that matters.
At the end of the season, there's only one truly elite team, the one that wins the NBA title. I don't expect that team to be the Clippers, but they certainly have a chance, and to dismiss that chance based on three recent losses is a mistake.