With 17 regular season games remaining for the Los Angeles Clippers, the team is virtually guaranteed to make the playoffs and to win their first ever Pacific Division title. What is very much still up in the air is who their first round playoff opponent might be.
As a division winner, the Clippers are by rule guaranteed a top four seed in the playoffs. However, since home court advantage goes to the team with the better record regardless of seed, the seed is actually meaningless in the four-five matchup in the first round. From a probability standpoint the Clippers will certainly finish with no worse than the fifth best record in the West -- but if they do somehow drop below both Memphis and Denver, they will open the playoffs on the road, even with their fourth seed.
That's still unlikely to happen, just as it's unlikely that the Clippers will catch either Oklahoma City or San Antonio. The most likely outcome to the season for the Clippers is that they will have the third seed. That could change of course, but even knowing that, there's a long list of potential first round opponents.
The potential Western Conference playoff teams are bunched in several tiers at present. The Spurs and Thunder are battling for the one and two seeds, with the Clippers in position to pounce should either stumble, but that's unlikely. The website playoffstatus.com currently gives the Clippers a 12% chance of catching one of their foes, and just a 2% chance of leaping to the top of the Western Conference.
The second tier currently holds the Clippers, Grizzlies and Nuggets fighting for the third, fourth and fifth seeds in the West. With apologies to Indiana, these teams are probably among the six best in the entire NBA, yet amazingly one of them will start the playoffs on the road. Wow. Two games currently separate these three teams.
The third tier consists of four teams, the Warriors, Rockets, Lakers and Jazz, all separated by 2.5 games. The Warriors currently hold the sixth seed, but with a negative point differential this season and a record since January 1 of 15-19, John Hollinger's playoff odds calculator actually finds it more likely that the Rockets will finish sixth in the West. The Lakers and Jazz currently have identical 33-31 records, but the Lakers have been the much hotter team of late and are more likely to edge out Utah for the final playoff spot.
There is I suppose a fourth tier of two teams, the Blazers and the Mavericks, each with a 29-33 record, each nurturing faint playoff hopes. Playoffstatus gives Dallas about a 6% chance of reaching the post season, and gives the Blazers a 5% chance. Hollinger is a little more optimistic, at 8.9% for Dallas and 5.5% for Portland. But regardless, it doesn't look good in tier four.
If the Clippers drop to four or five, they will almost certainly face either the Grizzlies or the Nuggets, their neighbors in tier two, in the first round. If they hold on to the third spot (or even if they rise some for that matter), there's a better than 99% chance that they will face one of the four teams in tier three.
That means the Clippers could realistically face any one of six teams in the first round. The most likely first round opponent is probably Houston but the odds of that are well below 50-50 and other than Utah rising to the sixth seed (they have not been playing well and have a very difficult remaining schedule) pretty much any other scenario is pretty reasonable, so it's really anyone's guess who the opponent might be.
So let's look at the potential opponents:
Season series -- Clippers lead 2-0 (two games remaining)
Why they're scary -- The Rockets play a fast pace and take a ton of three pointers -- an Achilles heel for the Clippers all season. The Clippers have handled them easily in two games this season, but in one of those the Rockets were missing All-Star James Harden.
Why the Clippers would win -- The Rockets really and truly have no answer for Blake Griffin -- especially since trading away Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris at the trade deadline. Griffin would dominate against Donatas Motiejunas and Houston's other bigs and the Rockets would have no choice but to simply outscore the Clippers in a series of shoot outs. They could get hot and win a game or two -- but it's very unlikely they could win a series.
Season series -- Golden State won 3-1
Why they're scary -- Well, they're one of only two NBA teams to beat the Clippers three times this season, so there's that. And like the Rockets the Warriors shoot a ton of threes and shoot them well. In one of their wins over the Clippers this season the Warriors were 12-22 from deep; in another they were 12-23. Stephen Curry seems to love playing the Clippers, and when he's on he gives Golden State a chance in any game.
Why the Clippers would win -- The 3-1 season series is probably misleading. The Clippers didn't take the Warriors seriously in the first meeting, played lethargically and lost. The Warriors were crazy hot in the second loss, and Chris Paul played hurt (and very poorly in the third loss). Meanwhile, the one Clippers win was one of their most lopsided victories of the season. Like Houston, Golden State would have a puncher's chance with their ability to make perimeter shots, but while that is a great equalizer in any single game, it's unlikely to carry a team in a long series.
Season series -- Clippers lead 3-0 (one game remaining)
Why they're scary -- Are you kidding? The Lakers may be the scariest potential first round opponent of them all for the Clippers. Not because of their talent. There's plenty of that, but even as the Lakers have started winning, they've still been playing a fairly mediocre brand of basketball. The difference in their record is almost entirely to do with them winning close games and has little to do with them looking great or anything like that. But the one thing that could scuttle the best Clippers season in history would be a playoff loss to the Lakers. Add in the pressure of facing the bullying big brother in the first round and the fact that this could amount to a seven game series where every game is on the road and the Clippers could be in trouble against even this Lakers team. Then there's the fact that Kobe Bryant has lit up the Clippers this season and is playing even better now.
Why the Clippers would win anyway -- The Clippers should still beat the Lakers because they're far and away the better team. The Lakers have been terrible on defense this season, particularly in transition, and the Clippers thrive off easy transition baskets. The Lakers are old and slow and earth-bound, and the athletic Clippers have run and jumped past them in each and every game this season. It could be great, a chance to grab the torch from the Lakers rather than waiting for them to pass it. But frankly, I'd rather not see them because I don't think it's worth the risk.
Season series -- Clippers won 4-0
Why they're scary -- Well, honestly, they're not very scary. They have a formidable front line that goes four deep with quality bigs. And they have a solid home court advantage, playing at altitude in Salt Lake City in front of rabid fans. But they don't really match up against the Clippers very well.
Why the Clippers would win anyway -- The Jazz don't get a lot from their guards and the Clippers' backcourt would absolutely dominate a potential series. No one on Utah would be able to slow down Chris Paul and this series would be over quickly.
Season series -- Clippers lead 2-0
Why they're scary -- Grizzly bears are always scary, they just are. The Grizzlies are clearly one of the best defensive teams in the league, and as the old saying goes, defense wins in the playoffs. They're defense would keep them in games, and they'd look to ride a hot hand, perhaps that of Zach Randolph, the put enough points on the board to win. the Grizzlies feel they can grind out wins with anyone. If Memphis were to end up with home court advantage in this one, watch out.
Why the Clippers would win anyway -- The Grizzlies quite simply don't get enough scoring from their backcourt. Mike Conley is a nice enough player he's never been a great scorer, and Tony Allen is a great defender who can't shoot a lick. Jerryd Bayless is their third guard, which should not be true of any playoff team. The "defense wins in the playoffs" thing is a cliche -- the fact is, you can't win, playoffs or otherwise, without a good offense as well, and the Grizzlies will struggle to score enough. If you take care of the ball and keep them out of transition, they'll become very dependent on Randolph and Gasol to create all their offense, and it probably won't be enough. There's a reason the Clippers are 6-3 against the Grizzlies in their last nine meetings including last year's playoffs.
Season series -- Nuggets won 2-1
Why they're scary -- The Nuggets play at a breakneck pace and present a unique challenge. They lead the league in fast break points and points in the paint, running, cutting, penetrating and offensive rebounding their way to a slew of layups and dunks. They have the best home record in the Western Conference. using the combination of their Rocky Mountain altitude and the pace of the games to run their opponents into submission in Denver. One of the deepest teams in the league, any one of six or eight players could be the difference for them any given night.
Why the Clippers would win anyway -- The Nuggets are, to me, the scariest team on this list, and while I think the Clippers would indeed win a series with them, it would not be easy. Furthermore, if somehow Denver winds up with the home court advantage in this series, you might have to call them the favorites. However, there are three things that work against them in the post season. First, the altitude is less of a factor. When the Clippers playing in Denver last week, they arrived at 4 AM the day of the game. There are no back-to-backs in the playoffs and the opponent has a chance to acclimate to the altitude better. Second, the Nuggets style of play is so different than any other team in the league that during the regular season they benefit from their uniqueness. In the playoffs, given days to prepare for Denver instead of hours, opponents are less likely to get caught unawares. Finally, the Nuggets don't have a star, and we've seen over the years that star players are even more important in the playoffs than in the regular season. It's easier to gameplan to stop a style of play than it is to gameplan to stop a transcendent talent. When games come down to a handful of possessions, teams that have a star to turn to have an advantage.
There you have it. Six potential opponents. Against four of them the Clippers are a perfect 11-0 on the season; 2-5 against the other two. It won't be easy against any of them -- no playoff series ever is. But there are some you'd probably prefer to play than others.
Which potential first round opponent would you LEAST like to face in the postseason?