With just four weeks remaining in the regular season, the Los Angeles Clippers find themselves in an interesting situation. Yesterday they were seventh in the Western Conference -- today they are fifth. But those 5-6-7 spots could really go any way, with the Clippers, Mavericks and Spurs all sitting on 25 losses.
We've already established that the Clippers have a very favorable schedule over the final four weeks, with just one road game against a team currently in the postseason among their final 14. But to climb higher than fifth in the west the Clippers will have to make up three games in the loss column against the Rockets, or four against the Blazers or the Grizzlies, and that's a tall order. Even with the Clippers' favorable schedule, they'd need one or more of those teams to struggle -- at least a little -- down the stretch to make up the ground. A week ago I predicted that the Clippers would climb to the three seed -- but losses to Dallas and Houston since then make that less likely.
Still, there is that soft schedule. If the team can get on a roll, they could close the season on a 13-2 run or something like that. Also, the silver lining of the team's bizarre futility against the Eastern Conference this season is that they will likely win the second tie breaker (conference record) against most of their West rivals. (The Clippers are currently 28-14 against the West -- among teams not called the Warriors, only Memphis has a better conference record, which would presumably get worse if indeed the Clippers were able to catch the Grizzlies in the standings.) With favorable season series records (tied with Houston, up 2-1 on Portland so that they can finish no worse than tied) the Clippers probably won't have to pass the teams their chasing, just catch them. Winning the remaining head-to-head games (April 1 at Portland and home against Memphis on April 11) against their rivals is obviously a prerequisite for catching those teams. (NOTE: As Citizen Adithya points out in the comments, I ignored the fact that Division Champions get the first tie-breaker -- which complicates things some. It doesn't much affect the idea of catching a single team in the standings -- but it makes it harder to catch two teams and vault into the three seed.)
What would it mean to catch them? If LA can indeed limit their losses down the stretch to two, they'd need the Rockets to go 10-5, or the Blazers to go 11-6, or the Grizzlies to go 8-6. Any one of those is possible (Memphis for instance is 6-7 in their last 13) but clearly the teams ahead of them need to cooperate if the Clippers are going to make up ground.
And then there's the question of seeding. Statistically speaking, the Warriors are far and away the best team in a very good conference. If you're playing the odds, and especially for the Clippers who've never been past the second round, you'd like to avoid Golden State until the conference finals if at all possible. Which means that a six or seven seed -- sacrificing home court advantage in the first round in exchange for matchups against the third and second seeds (in some order and assuming form holds) -- would be preferable to a five seed, and might even be preferable to a four seed.
Which means it's almost three seed or bust for the team -- and getting up to the three seed would involve overtaking not one but two of the teams currently ahead of them. Not impossible, but very, very unlikely at this point.
How unlikely? As of today, the website playoffstatus.com gives the Clippers a pretty good chance of getting to the four seed (24%); but almost no chance (less than 1%) of getting to three. At first glance this may seem counterintuitive -- why should they have a one in four chance of catching a team they trail by three games in the loss column, but less than a one in one hundred chance of catching another team they trail by four games? The answer of course is that the first requires that one of three teams ahead of them falters, while the second requires that more than one does. In simple probability terms, if there's a 9% chance of event A, and an 8% chance of even B, and a 7% chance of event C, you take the sum of those percentages if you only need one of them to happen (9% + 8% + 7% = 24%). But if you need two of them to happen, you take the product of the probabilities -- 9% times 8% is .72%, i.e. less than one in one hundred. In case you're wondering, playoffstatus.com does take into account strength of remaining schedule, as they simulate the results of the remaining games to calculate odds, which is why the Clippers are more than three times more likely to rise to the four in the conference than are the Mavs (24% versus 7%) even though the two teams have identical records as of today.
Doc Rivers will have two goals down the stretch, and neither involves seeding -- (a) he wants the team to be healthy and (b) he wants them to be playing well. The team's best chance of post season success lies in peaking at the right time, not in securing home court advantage in an eventual Game 7. If it comes down to the final week of the season and the three seed is out of reach, don't be surprised if Rivers decides to rest his stars. It's difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Clippers would be in danger of falling all the way to eighth (back to playoffstatus.com, they currently place those odds at less than 1% ) and if the seven seed is about as good as the four seed, then why not let Chris Paul save his energy for the postseason? Heck, it probably won't shake out this way, but the Clippers might prefer to lose a game or two in the final week if it would mean a six seed instead of a five seed.
Blake Griffin is back, and that's good. Yes, the Clippers lost a tough one to Houston in his first game back, but Griffin was clearly rusty in that one and I wouldn't read too much into that loss. I would have preferred a more consistent performance against the Hornets as well of course, but don't forget that between injuries to Matt Barnes and Jamal Crawford and the unplanned departure of Jordan Hamilton (whose ankle injury left the Clippers little choice but to let him go at this time) the Clippers wing rotation was makeshift to say the least. A return to full health for Barnes and Crawford isn't quite as vital as was Griffin's return -- but given the team's thin bench, it's pretty important.
By my math, the Clippers could be favored in all but one of their remaining 14 games. They'll definitely be underdogs at Portland; at Phoenix and at home against the Warriors are probably toss ups right now. If the first order of business is to get on a roll heading into the postseason, the schedule is certainly cooperating. We'll see if the rest of the conference cooperates as well.