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Have the Clippers been getting better, getting lucky, or both?

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The team has won nine games in a row, and it looks as if the Los Angeles Clippers are finally turning the corner. But are they really turning the corner? Have they instead stumbled into some fortunate luck, or has it been both?

Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Despite losing their leading scorer, and one of the best players in the league, for an extended period of time, the Los Angeles Clippers have rattled off nine straight wins – eight without him – and generally look like they’re starting to figure things out on the grand scale. They’ve settled on a bench rotation ever since head coach Doc Rivers hastily decided to bench Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson, two of the team’s three high-profile offseason additions, and the bench does appear to at least be playing somewhat better. However, is all of this a sign of the team actually improving, or have they been fortunate in winning all these games in a row? I guess it’s time to look and find out.

As it currently stands, the Clippers rank fifth in Offensive Efficiency (105.6) and tenth in Defensive Efficiency (100.9). Their +4.7 Net Rating puts them fifth overall, trailing only the San Antonio Spurs (+14.6), Golden State Warriors (+14.0), Oklahoma City Thunder (+8.5), and Cleveland Cavaliers (+6.5). The team is 23-4 when leading after three quarters, but all four losses have come to three of those teams that were just listed – twice against the Warriors, and once each against the Spurs and Thunder. Simply put, when faced with playing a truly great team, the Clippers have been able to play well for large stretches, but they’ve ultimately been unable to close the game out with a victory.

The hallmark of a great team is, well, beating other great teams. To date, the Clippers have failed to do so. And that was even when Blake Griffin was playing and being productive. Now, without him, the team has gone on a run that has put them at 25-13 for the third straight season. Everything looks as if it’s sorting itself out. Since Christmas, which is when the streak started, the team ranks third in Offensive Efficiency (111.2), fourth in Defensive Efficiency (98.1), and second in Net Rating (+13.0). As shocking as it is sounds, the Clippers without Griffin have been a better team since Christmas than the Warriors have been. But context is needed. The Warriors, much like the Clippers, have played games while missing some key pieces to their team – namely, they were without Stephen Curry and Festus Ezeli for a few of those games, including the blowout loss to the Dallas Mavericks.

Throughout the winning streak, the Clippers have won nine games in a row against zero teams that are presently .500 or better. Every single win the team has racked up during this stretch has come against bad competition, and against teams that were missing several important players, as well. Besides the streak’s opening win against the hilariously putrid Los Angeles Lakers, the other teams that the Clippers have beaten are: the Utah Jazz, Washington Wizards, Charlotte Hornets (twice), New Orleans Pelicans (twice), Philadelphia 76ers, and Portland Trail Blazers. The best current winning percentage out of that group is a tie between Charlotte and Utah, with each sporting a .459 mark. These are some bad teams; teams the Clippers should beat even with Blake Griffin sidelined.

The hallmark of a great team is, well, beating other great teams.

On top of that, these teams have been without good players when the Clippers have beaten them. When Los Angeles defeated Utah, the Jazz were without both Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors. That’s one of the best frontcourts in basketball. Neither played. Against Washington, the Wizards were missing Bradley Beal, Nene, and a host of other players. Those aren’t insignificant losses. When they played the Hornets, Jeremy Lin, Al Jefferson, and Spencer Hawes – as well as Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, but he’s been injured for the entire season – were unavailable for Charlotte. Against the Trail Blazers in Portland, there was a mistake made by the Portland coaching staff that made C.J. McCollum ineligible to play. That’s hardly the Clippers’ fault, but still a fortunate stroke of luck there. In the second Charlotte meeting, Al Jefferson and Nicolas Batum were out. In the second New Orleans matchup, All-NBA player Anthony Davis was sidelined. In the stretch of nine wins, there were only three times the team played an opponent without their competition missing a highly important player: against the Lakers (second worst record), against the 76ers (worst record), and the first matchup with the Pelicans (fourth worst record). That’s it.

Now, it’s hardly Los Angeles’ fault that all those players missed games. It’s not as if they gathered around in a circle to perform some demonic spell to bewitch teams into having injuries that would give the Clippers a better chance at victory while missing one of their own star players. At least, you’d think they wouldn’t. That would be a funny sight, though. You’re not going to hand back wins, no matter if you’re playing against a depleted team, a healthy team, a bad team, or a great team. Wins are wins. At the end of the day, they show up in the most important column all the same. A win over the Spurs looks just like a win over the 76ers, at least as far as the win column is concerned. However, there was recent talk that the team has seen a boon to their defense during this stretch, as well as over the last 20 or so games. While the numbers say that’s true – the Clippers are fourth in Defensive Efficiency (98.8) since November 27th, which is over a 23-game stretch – it also helps to look at the context of those numbers.

Since November 27th, the Clippers have played just a grand total of four teams that currently rank in the top ten in Offensive Efficiency. Those four teams were the Spurs, Thunder, Trail Blazers, and Houston Rockets. The Clippers lost all three games to the Spurs, Thunder, and Rockets in succession, and had an average Defensive Efficiency of 109.2. Their best mark in those three games on the defensive side of the ball was 103.3 against the Rockets. They played Portland twice, but the first meeting saw Damian Lillard play just 17 minutes due to the flu, and the second meeting was without McCollum. When the two teams played on November 20th, and both were intact, the Blazers had a 104.6 Offensive Efficiency against the Clippers. Great offensive teams are still able to take advantage of them, even if the numbers have said the defense has improved. On the flip side, the Clippers have played eight of their 23 games against current bottom ten offenses – and 12 of the 23 against teams that rank in the bottom ten since November 27th. That’s enough to skew any numbers into looking great. During the nine game winning streak, three of the nine games have come against teams that sit in that bottom ten as of this moment – and six of the nine have come against teams that rank in the bottom ten since November 27th. It’s not a shock that the team’s defense is playing better due to them playing worse offensive teams than they’re used to playing.

In the end, everything does balance out. Especially on the defensive side of the ball. However, we still don’t know just what to make of the team’s defense. Sure, they rank as a top five defense since November 27th, and they sit third since Luc Mbah a Moute got put into the starting lineup on November 29th, but is their good fortune on that end simply because of him getting the nod or because they’re playing some bad teams? It’s honestly hard to know. When they played really good offensive teams that were healthy, those teams whipped them on that side of the ball. The Clippers played one of the toughest schedules to start the season, but now they sit 24th in strength of schedule. Just below them are teams like Oklahoma City, Golden State, Cleveland, and San Antonio. So, it’s not as if they’re alone down there. The issue is that we still don’t know just what the Clippers are defensively, even without Blake Griffin. Defensively, the jury is still out. They have some tough defensive matchups coming up, as the Miami Heat (11th), Sacramento Kings (12th), Houston Rockets (9th), Cleveland Cavaliers (4th), Toronto Raptors (7th), and Atlanta Hawks (6th) all rank in the upper echelon of Offensive Efficiency, and all will be teams the Clippers play before ending January. Those games should be able to tell you a lot about where the team sits defensively.

In the end, everything does balance out.

Offensively, it’s even a bigger question mark. During the nine game winning streak, the team ranks third in Offensive Efficiency (111.2), but they rank fifth (105.6) over the entire season. Is it simply a hot streak without their best scorer or do they actually play better without him? Some people will point to Paul Pierce being a better floor spacer because of his outside shooting, but he’s come back down to earth after a hot five game stretch. If the team is relying on a 38-year old with creaky knees and a flat shot to help their offense continue to hum, they might be in for a world of pain. Over that five game stretch, which started in Utah when he came off the bench to start the second half and score a season-high 20 points, Pierce shot 15-of-26 (57.7 percent) from beyond the arc. Everyone shouted that he was back, and then he promptly went 1-of-12 from deep over the last two games. Maybe he’s not as back as people thought. It could just be the ebbs and flows of an old player during a season.

One of the issues the Clippers had throughout the season was that their bench was lacking offensive punch, but since Pablo Prigioni took over the main ball-handling duties on December 21st, which happened because of an injury to Austin Rivers, the bench has put up a 103.5 Offensive Efficiency over that span. Their NetRtg is still -0.4, though. At least it’s not as bad as the -4.2 it was prior to that. The bench’s Offensive Efficiency jumped 8.2 points since Prigioni took over, but their Defensive Efficiency jumped up by 4.4 points, as well. The first one is great, the second one is not good. That also coincides with Doc Rivers trying new bench things out, like not playing Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson at all unless it’s a monumental blowout. There’s still a lot to question there, namely since we never got to see Smith and Cole Aldrich play a single second of basketball together this season and, quite frankly, they should have been given the chance to play together. People can point to Smith and Stephenson not playing as reasons for the team turning it around, but that’s far too simplistic of a worldview to even been plausible. The team’s 8-0 without Blake Griffin. They’re not better without Blake Griffin, though.

The team does seem to enjoy playing together, and winning does cure a lot of ailments. When they were 7-8 and playing hopeless basketball, it was right to question just what the ceiling of this team was and whether or not the leadership in charge was the correct one. At 25-13, you still have the right to question what the ceiling of this team is and whether or not the people in charge are doing the right things. Winning streaks are great, even ones against bad competition that pump up your numbers. We’re still unsure of what this team is. A lot of that has to do with Griffin being out, but a lot of that also has to do with the fact that we simply never knew what this team was going into the season. As we creep towards the halfway point of the season, which will hit us after play on January 18th, it’s possible that we might never know what this team is capable of until we actually see it in the playoffs.

You can stumble into wins, just like you can stumble into losses.

There are still a lot of moving parts out there. As great as guys like Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, and DeAndre Jordan are playing at this moment in time, there’s still no telling what will happen to this team when they face elite competition. They’ve been highly competitive in all those matchups, as noted earlier, but have failed to close them out. Being competitive is nice, but you have to finish those games off. They’re beating who they should beat, as they’re 20-3 against teams that are under .500. The issue lies in their 5-10 record against teams that are .500 or better. When Griffin returns, we might have an idea of what to expect going forward. As for now, it appears as if the Clippers have both been getting better and been getting lucky during this hot stretch. Is that luck generated because they’ve been getting better, or has them getting better been fueled by the luck? We might never know. In a lot of instances, it’s both. You can stumble into wins, just like you can stumble into losses. The Clippers are all too familiar with the latter against great competition this season. We shall see what unfolds in the future.