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The Magnificent Seven

I don't want to get too far ahead of myself here.  The Clippers have looked AWFUL against the good teams, that much is certain.  But, look at the Nov/Dec schedule versus the Jan/Feb schedule.

There are seven teams in the Western Conference that are arguably the best seven teams in the NBA thus far this season.  It's not just that they are hogging all but one of the 8 playoff spots - all seven can make a case based on their performance so far that they have a legitimate shot at the NBA title.  There's no question that any one of them would be favored to win the East.  I call these teams (the Mavs, Spurs, Suns, Jazz, Lakers, Rockets and Nuggets) the Magnificent Seven (M7).  I guess if they were from the Eastern Conference I'd have to call them the Seven Samurai.

Of the M7, only Denver is currently below .600 in winning percentage, having lost 3 of their last 5 without their suspended leading scorers.  And of course no one has seen the Nuggets with Carmelo and Iverson together, but Stan Kronke is betting about $30M that they can win a title.  Likewise the Lakers and Rockets are currently dealing with major injuries, but continue to win enough games to frighten the rest of the league at the prospect of a fully healthy squad.  As for the Mavs, Suns, Spurs and Jazz - they've all got winning percentages above .700, each compiling gaudy win streaks along the way: Suns 15 straight, Mavs 10 straight, Jazz 14 of 15, Spurs 9 of 10 TWICE.

In the first two months of the season, the Clippers have played the M7 15 times.  That's half of their first 30 games.  They were a pathetic 4-11 in those 15 games, with 3 wins coming in the first week of the season and the fourth against Houston playing without TMac and Yao.  In short, they have not been good against the good teams.  Not at all.

But, that also means they've done well in their other 15 games.  Their record against the rest of the league so far is 10-5.  

I'm a big believer in the RPI in college basketball, but tend to ignore it in the NBA since the schedule eventually evens out, and RPI doesn't end up mattering anyway.  However, the Clippers strength of schedule so far is the second toughest in the league, and their RPI puts them in the thick of the fight for the 7th and 8th playoff spots.  (Note that the RPI also validates the M7 - the top 6 teams are from the Western Conference, with Denver falling to 18, but of course we haven't really seen scary Denver yet.)

In the coming two months, comprising 27 games, they face the M7 exactly once (Phoenix, Feb 20).   Funny how the schedule tends to even out.  Of course they do have to play what passes for decent Eastern Conference teams (2 against Cleveland, at Detroit, at Washington, at Miami, at Orlando and home against Chicago), but I'd take those over the Western monsters any day.

They also have 3 games against the Warriors during Jan/Feb.  They haven't played the Warriors yet this year, and swept them last year but have won 7 of their last 8 meetings with the Warriors.  Golden State currently holds the 8th playoff spot in the West, so beating them head-to-head is crucial.

Of course, 15 of the 27 games are on the road, where the Clippers are currently 2-10.  But with 7 of those 10 losses against the M7, you can argue that those were not very winnable games.  The point is, there's an opportunity in these two months to feel a lot better about ourselves.  Let's face facts - a 4-2 trip here at the beginning of January is entirely within reason, and the team would come back home on Jan. 13 at .500 overall, and more importantly with 6 road wins to even out those 6 home losses.

And now the bad news - 10 of the final 23 games are against the M7.  Funny how the schedule tends to even out.  That's life in the Western Conference.  No matter what happens, once of these teams is waiting in the first round, if the Clippers do make the playoffs.  If Jan/Feb goes well, Mar/Apr will be the time to find out if the Clippers are simply the 8th best team in a very good conference, destined for a first round drubbing, or if they can actually compete a little.  If they can manage some wins, and in particular some road wins, against the M7 in the spring, then there will be some reason to hope going into the playoffs.

But, I may be getting a little ahead of myself.