The Clippers and the Thunder by the numbers

Stephen Dunn

The Clippers have closed the gap on the Thunder in several key team metrics to the point where the team's have eerily similar statistical profiles.

For a little less than 24 hours this weekend, the Los Angeles Clippers had the best average margin of victory in the Western Conference, a little better than the Oklahoma City Thunder. A 32 point win over the Pelicans on Saturday night moved the Clippers to a 6.48 average on the season compared to 6.32 for OKC at the time, but a 17 point Thunder win over Charlotte on Sunday moved them back ahead of the Clippers -- by 0.02 points per game.

Almost three-fourths of the way through the NBA season (the Clippers have played 61 games, the Thunder 59) the numbers for the LAC and the OKCT are eerily similar.

MOV

SRS

ORtg

DRtg

NetRtg

Clippers

6.48 (3)

6.93 (3)

109.0 (2)

102.0 (8)

7.0 (4)

Thunder

6.50 (2)

6.96 (2)

107.6 (6)

100.2 (4)

7.4 (3)

SRS comes from basketball-reference -- it adds a team's margin of victory (MOV) to their strength of schedule for one number. League ranks are in parentheses. Bear in mind that the Pacers and the Heat, playing in the Eastern Conference, have an inherent schedule-based advantage in many of these metrics. The Thunder and Clippers rank first and second in the West in MOV, SRS and NetRtg and are the only two teams in the top 4 of the West in both offensive and defensive ratings.

It's worth noting that there are different ways to calculate offensive and defensive efficiency (it's still points per 100 possessions, but not everyone agrees on the precise definition of a possession). Basketball-reference has the net efficiency for the Clippers and the Thunder both at 6.8, which makes sense since each team has a near identical margin of victory on the season and they play at a similar pace.

And the similarities don't end there. Both teams have dealt with significant injuries on the season, and both continue to deal with injuries now, yet both have thrived despite missing major contributors.

Russell Westbrook has missed 29 games this season; Chris Paul has missed 19. Both are All NBA point guards, with Paul placing on the first team last season and Westbrook placing on the second team. (They are very different players, but the biggest difference in terms of impact to their teams is that Paul is the Clippers best player by a thin margin over Blake Griffin while Westbrook is only the second best player for the Thunder, far behind Kevin Durant.)

In addition to Paul, the Clippers have been dealing with injuries to J.J. Redick (31 games missed and counting) and Matt Barnes (19 games missed). The Thunder have until recently avoided injuries aside from Westbrook , but now have two starters (Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins) sidelined for several weeks. The Clippers are currently playing without Redick and Jamal Crawford.

It's no secret that I had my doubts about the Thunder heading into the season. I thought they'd miss the contributions of Kevin Martin and would need a proven third scorer. Instead they have played without their second scorer for half the season and still sit atop the Western Conference -- which says a little something about how transcendent their first scorer is. I was wrong about the Thunder, but that doesn't mean they're a shoo-in to win the West.

At least one metric has the Clippers ahead of the Thunder. The Clippers are currently number one in the entire league, and by a pretty wide margin, in the Hollinger rankings at ESPN.com. The Thunder are currently fourth, behind both the Clippers and the Houston Rockets in the West. There are a few reasons for this.

For one thing, Hollinger's formula completely ignores won-loss record. Statistically, margin of victory is a better indicator of team strength, so that's what Hollinger uses. The formula also puts a higher emphasis on recent performance, specifically the last 25% of a team's games (which means the last 15 games as of today). The Clippers margin of victory in their most recent 15 games is 8.88; the Thunder's is 3.75. Meanwhile, the Clippers have compiled that league best margin in recent games against a very difficult recent schedule -- their strength of schedule over the past 15 games is .536, second most difficult in the league. In fact, the Clippers have played against six of the top seven teams in the league (excluding themselves) in their last 15 games.

It's the performance of the Clippers over those last 15 games that has them sitting squarely atop Hollinger's rankings. However, those numbers are quite skewed by massive wins over the Sixers (45 points) and the Pelicans (32 points). This is pretty clearly a flaw in the formula, especially when dealing with smaller sample sizes. It makes perfect sense to give a higher weighting to recent performances, but the impact of a few outliers can have a disproportionate affect on a sample of 15 games. The 77 point margin in those two wins accounts for well over half of the Clippers total margin in their last 15.

Having said that, it's also worth noting that the Clippers have played seven of their last 15 games without Paul and 10 without Redick. Not to mention that they've now added Danny Granger and Glen Davis, who certainly make the team better still. Hollinger's math, even if it is slightly flawed, already has the Clippers as the best team in the NBA. What happens if they are ever at full strength?

Where this all gets really nuts is in Hollinger's playoff odds on ESPN.com. Bear in mind that this is all a feedback loop -- the playoff odds are driven by the rankings, so if the Clippers are the highest ranked team, it stands to reason they'll have good playoff chances as well. However, it is in the playoff odds that the degree to which Hollinger's numbers currently love the Clippers really hits home.

The playoffs are of course arranged by conference, giving the two elite teams in the East (MIami and Indiana) a massive advantage over the teams in the West, since the Heat and Pacers will have relatively weak opponents until the conference finals. Even so, Hollinger's computer model gives the Clippers almost as good a chance of reaching the Finals (27.9%) as it gives Indiana (29.1%). It gives the Clippers the second best chance of winning it all (19%) just slightly behind Miami (19.6%) and well ahead of the Pacers (12.7%). Most interesting of all, Hollinger's playoff odds model gives the Clippers more than double the chance of winning a title as the closest Western Conference team, the Thunder (9.4%).

I don't believe that for a minute, by the way. Those wins over Philadelphia and New Orleans were certainly fun, but they've got Hollinger's computer a little too googly eyed right now where the Clips are concerned. Wins over the Thunder and Rockets (by eight points each) are the real story of the recent Clippers, and are cause for optimism, but I would not say they make the Clippers the favorite to emerge from the brutal West. (It's worth noting that as much as Hollinger's model likes the Clippers, it still only gives them about a 1 in 4 chance of reaching the NBA Finals -- that's much better than the next best team, but it's still a long shot, simply because there are so many good teams in the West.)

Plenty of other Western Conference teams beyond the Clippers and the Thunder, most notably the Spurs, will have a say in this before it's over. But as of this moment, the Clippers have completely closed the statistical gap on the Thunder, placing them essentially in a deadheat with OKC from an advanced stats perspective. Their recent performance and the fact that they figure to be stronger in the coming weeks than they have been all season certainly make for a positive outlook for the team.

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