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The Clippers' Problem With Tanking

Last year and the year before, I was actively thinking about ping pong balls by March, and coveting as many as possible.  (Long before March, really.)  You may have noticed that I'm not really doing that this season.  There are a few primary reasons.

First, I just don't see a lot of payoff in it.  Citizen SilverClip posted some information in a recent comment that seems to indicate a world of potential for improved lottery odds:

10. Clippers 25-40
9.   76ers       23-41
8.   NY            22-42
7.   Detroit     22-42
6.   Wash      21-40
5.   Kings       22-43
4.   Indiana    21-43

It's there for the taking, right?  A mere 3.5 games separate the Clippers from the 4th worst record in the league!  What an opportunity!  Unfortunately, he left out a crucial bit of information.  Each and every one of those teams stinks as bad as the Clippers.  The Clippers have been plenty bad in the Kim Hughes era.  In their 16 games under Hughes, they've won only 4, a .25 winning percentage.  That should be worth a whole bunch of ping pong balls, right?  Well, not so much.  When Hughes took over the team, the Clippers had the 10th worst record in the NBA - and they currently have the 10th worst record in the NBA.  I suppose the counter argument is that if they had lost all 16 of those games, they'd be fourth from the bottom already.  They'd also be on a 20 game losing streak, and those are not as much fun as you think. 

Check out the record in the last 10 games for the six teams the Clippers are 'chasing':  Sacramento is the only one to have won as many as 4 of their last 10.  Philadelphia and Washington have each won 2.  The others have won 3, just like the Clippers.  This is not a casual, play DeAndre Jordan some extra minutes to ensure the loss tanking task.  This is much, much bigger than that, and even if you did it, with only 17 more games left now, you might move from tenth to eighth.  What's the point?

On the other hand, the Clippers actually have a much bigger incentive to win than teams in this situation typically do.  As we enter the summer of LeBron, the Clippers would like to think that they have a chance, however slim, at a marquee free agent.  As compared to the other bidders, the Clippers in theory could offer two things - the LA market, and a good core of players.  The market is the market, and is the main reason the Clippers even exist probably.  But if you're going to try to make the case that the Clippers are significantly more talented than New York or New Jersey then it doesn't look good to be going on double digit losing streaks.  Those things tend to leave a lasting impression as you're going into a summer as a free agent.

In fact, I've come to think that this is one reason (along with the cash) that the Clippers took Portland's offer for Camby.  Knowing that Telfair and Thornton were as good as gone, they grabbed a point guard and small forward to help them win some games in the final two months.  As it happens, Outlaw hasn't been all that helpful so far, but in theory he was supposed to help. 

Finally, as citizen Michael White pointed out in the comments and I've mentioned before as well, the Clippers 'plan' (such as it is) is built more around major free agent signings this summer than it is around a lottery pick.  Given that the Clippers cap space is barely sufficient to make the necessary max offer even without a guaranteed rookie contract, it appears that the current plan A would involve trading the pick, regardless of where it is.  It goes without saying that a higher pick would be better than a lower pick - but we're just not as attached to this draft pick because of the corresponding impact on cap space.  

You could actually make a pretty solid argument that the Clippers' slim odds of winning the lottery with the 10th worst record (11 in 1000, 1.1%) are better than the odds that LeBron James will sign with them as a free agent.  But as we've discussed before, you take that chance, no matter what the odds are.

So I tend to believe that you can feel perfectly free to root for wins in these finial 17 games.  It's unlikely they could lose enough to alter their position significantly given the other teams involved, while every win makes LA a tiny bit more attractive as a new home for a free agent.  Of course, if you're rooting for them to win, you also need to be prepared to be disappointed.