Can the Clippers climb higher than third in the West?

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Clippers are playing well and the schedule is favorable, positioning them for third in the West. But do they have a realistic hope of climbing any higher than the third seed by the postseason?

As we enter then final quartile of the NBA season, with only six weeks remaining, the race for playoff positioning will be ever more important. The Los Angeles Clippers currently find themselves in a virtual tie for third place in the Western Conference, percentage points behind the Portland Trail Blazers and the Houston Rockets. However, there's good reason to believe that the Clippers, provided they continue to play well, will be able to gain some separation from each of those rivals for the three seed. We'll delve into that in more depth another time, but the simple fact is that the Clippers remaining schedule is much friendlier than that for either the Blazer or the Rockets. In fact, the next two weeks could see a lot of movement in the race for third, as the Blazers and Rockets face a gauntlet of top teams while the Clippers play eight of their next ten against teams with losing records.

So let's stipulate that third in the West is totally achievable and we know how the Clippers can go about achieving it. What about second? Or even first?

Coming out of the All Star break, second seemed very much within reach. The first game out of the break was against the second place San Antonio, and a win would have brought the Clippers to within a game of the Spurs. Sadly, the Clippers lost that game, and that loss looms very large now. The Spurs are 6-1 since that LA win coming out of the break, and they have a fully healthy roster for the first time in months. Not only that, but the win in LA gave San Antonio the season series against the Clippers, meaning that they own the first tie breaker; and while the Clippers are three games behind the Spurs in the standings, they are four games back in the loss column, which becomes the real metric as we enter the home stretch. So the Clippers aren't the three games back of the Spurs as we see in the standings; they're not just four games back of the Spurs as we see in the loss column; in fact, the Clippers are essentially five games behind San Antonio, since a tie won't be good enough and they really need to pass the Spurs. For the Clippers to pass the Spurs, San Antonio will have to lose five more games than the Clippers over the final six weeks of the season. Even if the Clippers win out, San Antonio would have to go 17-5 to be overtaken. Odds are the Spurs will indeed lose five or more of their remaining games (their current winning percentage would suggest a record of 16-6 over their remaining 22); but then again, the Clippers aren't going to go finish on a 25 game winning streak either.

As it happens, it may actually be the Oklahoma City Thunder who will be easier to catch. The standings say that the Clippers are a game and a half further back of the Thunder, but in fact the gap is the same five loss difference. Why? Because the Clippers currently own the season series with the Thunder and therefore hold the same tie breaker that the Spurs hold over them. So the Clippers need to make up the five games by which they trail OKC in the loss column and no more. This is provided of course that the Clippers hand OKC a defeat when the teams play in LA on April 9th, which is another reason that OKC may ultimately be easier to chase down -- at least in the case of the Thunder, the Clippers can do some of the work themselves rather than relying entirely on other teams.

Still, neither seems realistic -- to overcome a five game deficit against good teams with only 20 games remaining (21 for the Thunder, 22 for the Spurs).

Let's take a very optimistic scenario for the Clippers and imagine that they go 18-2 over their final 20 games and reach the magical 60 win plateau. It's not completely out of the realm of possibility given the remaining schedule, but obviously it's optimistic. In that scenario, the Spurs and/or Thunder would have to lose seven games -- 14-7 in their final 21 for the Thunder, 15-7 for the Spurs -- for the Clippers to slip into second or maybe even first.

The schedule helps a bit in the quest. The Clippers have just five road games remaining against teams with winning records -- the Spurs have seven and the Thunder have eight. Meanwhile, if you zoom in on the elite teams of the NBA, the Clippers have no more games against the likes of Indiana or Miami or the Spurs -- just that one home game against the Thunder. The Spurs and Thunder on the other hand each have three elite opponents on their remaining schedule.

Clippers

Spurs

Thunder

@

Lakers

Miami

@

Phoenix

Atlanta

Orlando

@

Lakers

Phoenix

@

Chicago

Houston

Golden State

Portland

Lakers

@

Utah

Lakers

Dallas

Cleveland

Utah

@

Chicago

@

Denver

@

Lakers

@

Cleveland

Detroit

@

Sacramento

@

Toronto

Milwaukee

@

Golden State

Denver

@

New Orleans

Philadelphia

@

Dallas

@

Dallas

Denver

Sacramento

@

Houston

@

Denver

Utah

@

Minnesota

New Orleans

San Antonio

@

Phoenix

@

Indiana

@

Houston

Dallas

Golden State

@

Phoenix

Lakers

@

Oklahoma City

@

Sacramento

Oklahoma City

Memphis

@

Clippers

Sacramento

@

Minnesota

New Orleans

Denver

@

Dallas

@

Indiana

@

Portland

Phoenix

@

New Orleans

@

Houston

Detroit

Los Angeles Lakers

Road games = 9

Road games = 10

Road games = 12

Vs. +.500 = 9

Vs. +.500 = 12

Vs. +.500 = 11

Vs. +.500 on road = 5

Vs. +.500 on road = 7

Vs. +.500 on road = 8

Vs. elite = 1

Vs. elite = 3

Vs. elite = 3

I bring all of this up because pretty much everything has to break well for the Clippers for the rest of the season, and that begins tonight. The Spurs are hosting the Heat and the Thunder are on the road in Phoenix. If you were looking at the remaining schedule for these teams and imagining seven losses, these would certainly be on the list. A win for either West leader makes the odds of the Clippers catching that team that much longer.

There's one more scenario worth mentioning. In the event of a three way tie, the tie breaker becomes cumulative record among the three teams. If the Clippers beat the Thunder in their final meeting and the Spurs beat the Thunder as well, then the Clippers would win that tie breaker and finish first in the conference. It's obviously a very long shot, but it would mean the Clippers would only have to catch the Spurs, not pass them, provided the three teams finished together. Specifically in our 18-2 finish scenario, the Spurs could finish 16-6 provided that the Thunder finished 14-7 and the Clippers would win the West if all that happened. So there's that.

The Clippers have very little hope of catching either the Spurs or the Thunder. Neither rival is likely to suffer a major collapse in the season's final six weeks, and short of that it's just not realistic to make up five games. But I'm telling you there's a chance. Bottom line for tonight? Go Heat and Go Suns!

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