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Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

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Our friend Kevin at ClipperBlog has a fascinating tidbit posted currently.  As of Thursday, the Clippers five man unit of Chris Kaman, Marcus Camby, Rasual Butler, Eric Gordon and Baron Davis had the fifth best overall rating (offensive points per 100 possessions less defensive points per 100 possessions) of any unit in basketball that had played more than 100 minutes together.  It sounds impressive enough just saying it - it becomes even more impressive when you see the other units in the comparison.  Completely loaded five man teams from Dallas, Atlanta, the Lakers and Orlando round out the rest of the category.  And as it happens, that Orlando unit dropped after their performance last night against the Suns, so the Clippers fivesome is now fourth overall, third in adjusted plus/minus.

So what are we to make of this information?  Should that unit that started together some before Eric Gordon's injury still be the starting five?  Should the Clippers re-unite the band?

Of course, this idea is counter-intuitive on several levels.  For one, how can the Clippers, with a losing record, have one of the top five man units in the league?  The other teams we're talking about here are among the top eight records in the league, while the Clippers are no where near that company.  Furthermore, we know from observation that Rasual Butler has been terrible.  The idea that the Clippers are magically better with him on the floor just doesn't make logical sense.

So what's going on?  Do the numbers lie?

Yes, pretty much.  For one thing, you have to remember that we are talking about pretty small sample sizes here.  The Clippers have played over 1000 minutes as a team this season.  Kevin sets the threshold at 100 minutes, and this particular unit has played 109 minutes together, conveniently making the cut.  Of course, that's less than 11% of the available minutes for the team.

And the bulk of those minutes came during games 5, 6 and 7 of the season, after Butler was inserted into the starting lineup for the slumping Al Thornton, and before Eric Gordon got hurt.  Who were the opponents in games 5, 6 and 7?  That would be Minnesota, Golden State and Memphis, three of the worst defensive teams in the NBA.  In the Golden State game alone, the team's lone blow out victory of the season, the starting unit played 24 minutes together and were a plus 24.  So speaking of small sample sizes - that one game accounts for almost a quarter of their court time and over half of their plus/minus differential.  There's a question of causality here - did the Clippers blow out the Warriors because this unbeatable unit started the game, or does this unit look statistically unbeatable because they blew out the Warriors? 

Since Gordon's return, the usual substitution pattern has been to bring Butler in at the two - and basically this unit hasn't gotten much time together since those three early games.  I feel pretty sure that the numbers would even out if that unit did get more minutes together.

At the same time, the Kaman, Camby, Thornton, Gordon, Davis unit also has a very respectable +12.79 rating in more minutes, against much better competition like the Lakers, Suns, Jazz , Mavericks and Magic

And what of the Kaman, Camby, Thornton, Butler, Davis unit that started while Eric Gordon was injured?  The bad news is that because of Gordon's prolonged absence, that unit has logged over 200 minutes on the season, by far the most of any five man unit for the team.  The worse news is that it has a rating of minus 7. 

So what does this tell us?  It tells us that the Clippers are better with Eric Gordon in the starting lineup.  In fact, not just better, but ridiculously, night and day better.  It also tells us that the Clippers bench has not really held it's own, consistently giving up leads that the Gordon-led starters build.

And as it happens, these are all things we already knew.