The Los Angeles Clippers have been a paradox this season. Their record is a more than respectable 23-12. Statistically they're even better than that, with the fourth best point differential, and more significantly, the fourth best efficiency differential in the entire league.
Yet in the standings the Clippers sit mired in sixth place in the Western Conference, staring at the thankless and nearly impossible task of playing three series against West opponents while giving away the home court advantage in the postseason. Meanwhile in every major power ranking, pundits place the Clippers somewhere around ninth in the NBA or worse. And despite the impressive differential numbers alluded to above, it's actually pretty difficult to argue with those rankings.
And consider this: if you presume that San Antonio (notoriously slow-starting and currently dealing with myriad injuries) and Oklahoma City (who now have both Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant healthy) are in fact better than what we've seen from the LAC so far, then the Clippers, who were statistically the third best team in the NBA last season, may be no better than eighth best in the Western Conference this season.
The single biggest problem, and the reason that it's fairly easy to dismiss the impressive differential numbers, is that the Clippers have been terrible against good teams this season. Every team plays more or less the same schedule, and every team performs better against bad teams than they do against good teams. By and large, point differential numbers take all of that into account and tend to remain a good predictor of future success. However, the Clippers' near complete lack of success against quality opposition is too significant to ignore. Because let's face it, there won't be any bad teams in the post season.
The Clippers are a resounding 16-2 against teams with losing records this season. That's a good thing as the team has for the most part taken care of business against the teams they are supposed to beat. The flip side however is that they are a mere 7-10 against teams with winning records. OK, 7-10 is not good, but it's not terrible, right? When you eliminate the "tweener" teams like Phoenix (20-16) and New Orleans (17-17) and Milwaukee (18-17) the Clippers are just 3-9 against the NBA's top teams, of which there are plenty.
It gets worse. None of those three wins felt particularly resounding, at least not to me. The most recent and on paper most impressive win came on Christmas night against the league-leading Golden State Warriors. Unfortunately that game was a complete eyesore and felt much more like a Warriors loss than a Clippers win. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson combined to make just three of 15 three pointers in that game, and it felt very much like they were missing shots as opposed to being forced into misses by great defense. The Clippers defense deserves some credit certainly -- but it was hardly the game I would want to hold up as the example that proves the Clippers are contenders. They shot 39% from the field that day and missed 16 straight shots at one point. Come on.
The other two wins against "contenders" came back in November, against a Houston team playing without Dwight Howard and against Portland by four points. And that's it. That's the full collection of wins over teams at .600 or better.
Early in the season we dismissed the absence of a signature win on the very fact that it was early. "They haven't found their groove yet." Little did we know that we'd be pining for those November days when at least they could beat Portland at home.
Six games into a nine game homestand, the longest homestand in franchise history and the longest of any NBA team this season, the Clippers are 4-2 -- with three of the four wins coming against teams with a combined winning percentage of .209. The fourth win was the Christmas win over the Warriors.
The losses on the other hand were beyond troubling. Playing two of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, the Raptors and the Hawks, the Clippers were simply outclassed in the second half. Toronto outscored them 61-49 in the second half to break open a game that had been tied at the half, while Atlanta turned a two point halftime deficit into a nine point win with a 63-52 second half. Isn't the West supposed to be the dominant conference? Shouldn't the home team pull away in the second half?
In fact the Clippers' performance against the top of the Eastern Conference is the ugliest statistic of all. The East features four teams with winning percentages over .600. The Clippers are 0-5 against those four teams, with three of the losses coming at home. In only one of the five games were the Clippers even particularly competitive.
The team's issues are not a secret. The bench has not been good (look no further than three points on 1-11 shooting from Jordan Farmar and Spencer Hawes against the Hawks for the main reason the Clippers lost that one), small forward remains a problem and the defense has been exceedingly mediocre. The season is long and at some point the Clippers will begin to play better -- or at least I hope they will. But it's January and the midpoint of the season is about two weeks away, so the sample size seems pretty representative at this point.
There are three games left on this homestand, including one against the 26-10 Mavericks Saturday afternoon. It's the next opportunity to notch a win against a quality opponent. Can they do it?