Are the Clippers the best team in the NBA?

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The playoffs are all that matter ultimately, but the Clippers are currently dominating the various metrics used to rank NBA teams.

There is no correct answer to the question "Who is the best team in the NBA?" Not until June at any rate, as there can only be one NBA champion and that is the team that wins all of their playoff series. Nor is regular season dominance a guarantee of post season success. This may not be Major League Baseball where great regular season teams (with five solid starting pitchers and good middle relievers) and great post season teams (with at least two dominant starting pitchers and a dominant closer) can look very different; basketball is basketball, and contrary to the conventional wisdom, the playoffs are NOT totally different. However, benches do get shorter, defenses do try harder, and coaches do get to game plan more aggressively when the postseason rolls around.

Having said that, by many empirical metrics, the Los Angeles Clippers are currently the best team in the NBA.

Now, before anyone accuses me of cherry-picking metrics, let me point out that I've been posting a weekly "Power Rankings Watch" for about 12 weeks. In those posts I've always included several metrics, even when those metrics ranked the Clippers as the sixth or seventh best team in the NBA. I didn't go scouring the web today for obscure metrics that happen to rank the Clippers highly.

The Indiana Pacers, who got out to such a hot start this season, have been ranked first in most any metric you care to mention for the entire season -- until they lost their third straight game in Houston last night, their most lopsided loss of the season.

In the wake of that defeat, the Clippers are now number one in the NBA in most significant metrics, and no lower than third in any:

MOV

SRS

Hollinger

NetEff

Net Rating

RPI

LAC - 7.16

LAC - 7.56

LAC - 108.783

LAC - 7.4

LAC - 7.7

SAS - .571

OKC - 6.73

OKC - 7.06

HOU - 107.162

IND - 7.2

OKC - 7.7

OKC - .569

IND - 6.71

SAS - 7.01

SAS - 106.601

OKC - 7.0

MIA - 7.1

LAC - .556

SAS - 6.52

IND - 5.97

MIA - 106.522

SAS - 6.8

SAS - 7.1

HOU - .556

MIA - 5.73

HOU - 5.51

OKC - 106.099

MIA - 6.1

IND - 7.1

POR - .554

MOV = Margin of victory, SRS = Simple Rating System, NetEff from Basketball-Reference, Net Rating from NBA.com, RPI = Relative Percent Index

(Note that Net Efficiency and Net Rating are ostensibly the same number, the difference between the number of points a team scores per 100 possessions and the number of points they allow per 100 possessions. However, owing to slight differences in the calculation where possessions are concerned, basketball-reference and NBA.com come up with slightly different numbers. It does seem strange that the Clippers can be four-tenths better than OKC in raw margin and play at roughly the same pace as the Thunder, yet be tied in Net Rating, but there it is. RPI takes into consideration strength of schedule which is why it ranks Western Conference teams more highly.)

This is all despite the fact that the Clippers have only the sixth best winning percentage in the league at present.

There's a fairly straightforward explanation for this: the Clippers league-leading margin of victory tends to drive all of the other metrics which look favorably upon the team. We've already discussed the double whammy of margin of victory and recent results that has had the Hollinger Rankings in love with the Clippers for a few weeks now. Basically, other than RPI, the metrics above all start with points scored and points allowed, and no one outscores their opponent like the Clippers; hence, they look like the best team in the league to these statistical models.

I am the first to admit that a handful of super-blowouts (not just normal blowouts, which every good team frequently enjoys) have skewed these results too far in the Clippers favor. So far this season, 19 NBA games have been decided by 32 or more points -- the Clippers were on the good side of five of those games, including the two most lop-sided games of the year, a 45 point win over the 76ers and Thursday's 48 point win over the Lakers. I'll stipulate that a 40 point win is more indicative of team strength than a 20 point win -- but it probably shouldn't be worth two 20 point wins, which is what purely points based models would tell us.

(The Clippers' two 40 point wins happen to have come in the last 10 games, which is a big part of the reason that the Hollinger Ranking is so enamored of them. Big margins in recent games really gets Hollinger's computer hot and bothered.)

This sudden statistical dominance will come as a surprise to many analysts, who will move the Clippers up in their power rankings on Monday: but it shouldn't. The simple fact is that the team struggled defensively in the first six weeks of the season learning Doc Rivers schemes, and then have dealt with injuries ever since. The Clippers still aren't at full strength -- but they've been close enough to begin to achieve their potential. The recent signings of Danny Granger and especially Glen Davis have now plugged roster holes that were evident all season, and the Clippers -- on paper at least -- look truly formidable at this point.

I'll dump one more statistic on you. Since January first, the Clippers have the second best win-loss record in the league at 22-8, just behind Houston's 22-6 record. But look more closely and you'll notice two things. First of all, the Clippers Net Rating in 2014 is a staggering 10.4, more than three points better than any other team for the same period. More telling, in the 30 games of 2014, the Clippers have lost 38 starter games to injury, 18 of those being First Team All NBA point guard Chris Paul. In the same time period, the Rockets have lost 17 starter games, most of them to Patrick Beverly, a slightly less important player than Paul.

Miami is the two time defending NBA champion and have shown an ability to "flip the switch" when they need to, so discounting them based on regular season results would be beyond unwise. San Antonio came within seconds of another title last season, and continue to defy father time with their results, not to mention that they've dealt with even more injuries than have the Clippers. A healthy Spurs team is to be feared and respected in the playoffs. Oklahoma City has struggled recently to reintegrate All Star Russell Westbrook, but that is a temporary problem, and only a fool would believe that Westbrook makes them a worse team. The Pacers have gone through a lull at an inopportune time, but they could just as quickly once again become the defensive juggernaut they were most of the season. And the Rockets have clearly been on a roll lately. These are all great teams, though only one of them will emerge from the playoffs as the champion.

And right now, you'd have to say that the Clippers have as good a case as anyone for being that team.

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