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The Crawl to the Finish

The Clippers are 6-20 against teams over .500 - 23-15 against teams under.  They are 8-23 on the road.  They are 16-23 in the Western Conference.  These are bad numbers, every one of them.  Taken cumulatively, it means that the Clippers have been a poor NBA team this season.  But they are still in the playoff race, and we know that the talent is there to make a run.

In seven games in March, the Clippers are 1-6.  The one win was a home game against a team with a losing record - the Clippers are 16-3 in those games this season.  For the rest of the month, the next 8 games, every game... every single one... is either on the road or against a team over .500 or both.  That means, based on the Clippers performance in such games this season, they should not be favored in another game this month.  Given their winning percentages, they would be fortunate to win 3 of the 9.  That would give them a March record of 4-12.  

And yet, they might still not be out of it.  April consists of 9 games, 7 of which are against Western Conference rivals struggling as much as or more than the Clippers.  By beating the likes of the 6th place Lakers (two games), the 7th place Nuggets,, the 11th place Hornets (two games) and the 12th place Kings (two games), the Clippers could close the season on a 7-2 run and hurt their rivals simultaneously.  The other two games (at Dallas and at Phoenix) look hopeless on paper, but the Clippers might have gotten a scheduling break for the Suns game.  It just happens to be the last game of the season for Phoenix - if they're locked into the 2 seed by then, which seems entirely possible, even likely, with at least a 3 game gap on either side of them currently, they aren't going to play Steve Nash much, if they play him at all.

Looking at the group of teams currently sitting in 6th through 12th place in the West, it's just a mess.  The Lakers and Nuggets are 3.5 games ahead of the Warriors and Clippers, but both teams have plenty of reason for concern.  The Nuggets have by far the hardest remaining schedule of the seven teams.  The Lakers have the easiest schedule, but they have been playing the worst, losers of 7 straight and 13 of 16.  Only one team in the seven is playing well right now, but the one that plays well between now and the end of the season will make the playoffs, so there is plenty of motivation for everyone.

The table below looks at all seven teams.

Pos Road H/A +.500 +.600 Rivals Bottom8 Mo'
Nuggets 3.5 14-14 6/13 9 7 5 3 3–2
Lakers 3.5 13-21 10/7 3 3 9 5 0–7
Warriors 0 7–26 8/8 8 7 4 4 4–1
Clippers 0 8–23 8/10 6 4 7 4 0–5
Wolves -0.5 9–22 9/10 6 5 6 4 2–3
Hornets -1 9–23 9/9 6 5 5 4 0–6
Kings -1 10–22 9/9 6 6 8 2 1–4

Pos is their current position in the standings, relative to the 8th and final playoff spot.  Road is their road record this season.  H/A is the ratio of home games to road games remaining.  +.500 is the number of games against teams over .500 remaining.  (For the purposes of this exercise, the Lakers and Nuggets, both barely over .500, are counted in the Rivals column and NOT in the +.500 column.)  +.600 are remaining games against the top teams in the league.  Rivals are remaining games against the other teams on this list.  Bottom8 are the remaining games against the 8 worst teams in the NBA, the 8 teams that are probably out of playoff contention at this point.  Mo' is there current momentum, specifically their record in the last 5 games, or longer if they have a streak going.

Let's look at each team in more detail.

Denver - The Nuggets play 13 of their remaining 19 games away from Denver.  This would seem to be a huge disadvantage, but the Nuggets also have by far the best road record of this group at 14-14.  (This happens to be one of the more bizarre stats of this NBA season.  The Nuggets, playing at a high pace at altitude, should have the biggest home court advantage in basketball from a strictly environmental standpoint.  And yet their home record is barely above .500.)  The Nuggets also have seven games remaining against the top teams in the NBA and only three against the teams out of contention for the playoffs.  In other words, there are very few easy games left for Denver and a bunch of really, really tough ones.  They've got talent, and they've won three straight so maybe they're starting to play better, but it's entirely possible that they could go south quickly.

LA Lakers - The Lakers are the biggest mess right now, and that's saying something.  They've lost 7 straight and 13 of their last 16.  And 'losers of seven straight' doesn't really tell the story - the last 4 were by an average of 25.  BUT, there are some positive signs.  The Denver game last night was the first time that Lamar Odom and Luke Walton started and finished a game together since Dec. 10th.   Plus, the Lakers remaining schedule is the easiest in the group by any measure.  They have more home games, fewer games against the top teams and more against the teams that are out of it.  With 9 of their final 17 games against the other teams in this group, their performance in those games will determine how they finish the season.

Golden State - The Warriors are the one and only team in this group that is indisputably playing well right now.  Since Baron Davis returned from his knee injury, they are 4-1, with quality wins at Detroit, against Denver and the Clippers, and then the marquee win, snapping Dallas' 17 game win streak.   That's hot .  The only game they lost in that stretch was when Davis sat out.  They are 4-0 this season when Baron Davis, Jason Richardson and Al Harrington start together.  With 7 games left against the top teams in the NBA, they don't have an easy schedule.  But everything else is going for them right now.  Everything except history.  They haven't made the playoffs in 12 seasons - will they find a way to miss them again this year?

LA Clippers - The Clippers' 5 game losing streak is a problem, but sometimes a 5 game losing streak is not as bad as it looks.  Unlike the Lakers, who have been blown out by some mediocre teams, the Clippers have been playing some of the hottest teams in the league, and actually competed in San Antonio and in Houston in their last two.  They have some winnable road games coming up against Charlotte, New Jersey and Milwaukee and a favorable April schedule.  Basically if they can survive March and still be in the race, they have a very good chance of making it to the playoffs.  Most importantly, with 7 games against rival teams, they have a lot of chances to help (or hurt) themselves.  On the negative side, after a season complaining about injuries that frankly weren't that bad, they are now the one team on this list that is hurt and not getting better.  With Shaun Livingston gone, if Sam Cassell can't play and play well, they have no hope.

Minnesota - Sometimes a 5 game losing streak is not as bad as it seems, and sometimes 2 wins in your last 7 games is worse than it seems.  Minnesota only wins since Feb. 25 have been against the Lakers (on a 7 games losing streak) and the Pacers (on an 11 game losing streak).  The T-Wolves don't appear to be any better or worse than they have been all season.  They have a great player who doesn't have enough help.  That's who they are.  It's just hard to imagine that they're the team that's going to get hot.  Probably because they seem to have the least to play for - a few seasons ago they were in the conference finals - they're just not motivated to squeak into the playoffs.  If they were smart, they'd lose just enough games to make sure they hang onto their first round pick in this draft (as you know, the Clippers get that pick if it is 11th or lower - if the season were to end today and their position were not changed by the lottery, that pick would be 11).

New Orleans / Oklahoma City - The Hornets are a tough one.  They suffered through a 4-19 stretch early in the season when both their point guards, their power forward, their small forward and the guy who rebounds basketballs during shooting drills were all hurt.  They are 24-17 on the rest of the season.  They were my pick to qualify as of the All Star break.  But with their squad as healthy as it's been all season and with Tyson Chandler looking like a younger Ben Wallace (now that's ironic), they are a disappointing and dismal 0-6 in March.  Yikes.  Earlier this week, they got some mixed injury news - Peja Stojakovic, out most of the season, has been cleared for contact drills and could be back for the stretch run, but on the same day, Chris Paul was diagnosed with a stress reaction in his foot which will require surgery in the off season.  He's not planning on missing any time, but it must be bothering him.  If you're the Hornets, you'd like to have both those guys, but Paul is the key.  

Sacramento - The Kings have lost their last four, after winning the four before that.  They have a superstar who was recently arrested and chemistry problems when he is allowed to play.  They have a very difficult remaining schedule, with only two games against teams out of the playoff race and six games against the top teams.  More than anything, like Minnesota, they strike me as a team that has been too good in their recent history to be motivated to push hard for an 8th seed.  They can't play next season with Bibby and Artest, so they are looking to make major changes in the off-season, win or lose.  They might as well get it over with.  Lose now, blow it up, start over.

So how will this play out?  It's close enough that ANY team that gets hot can make the playoffs, and any team that bombs will be out.  You have to figure the Nuggets, Lakers and Warriors have the inside tracks for the last three playoff spots: the Nuggets and Lakers simply by virtue of their head start, and the Warriors because they LOOK to be the best team of the bunch right now.  On the other end, the Wolves and Kings have the least to play for, and therefore seem the least likely to make a push.  The Clippers have the talent, the motivation and certainly the opportunity to make a run, but only if Sam Cassell can return and play well.