Editor’s Note: Going forward, Adithya will be taking over Clip Chat (previously run by the departed Larson Ishii, then Taylor Smith) with new installments out every Friday. We’ll continue to regularly feature other Clips Nation writers, but look for guest appearances by some other bloggers and writers from around the internet.
Adithya: This recent six-game slump has put the Clippers back into the no-man's land of the West, a few paces behind the top contenders but ahead of its flawed and inconsistent middle class. This is the same spot they occupied much of last year, the 4-5 dead zone that puts them on a collision course with Golden State in the second round, what will probably be a meeting of an unstoppable force and a very movable object.
We thought the Clippers would be avoiding this almost-certain early exit with their stellar start, but unfortunately they've fallen back into the morass. Is the 3 seed already out of reach, or is there still hope for the Clips?
Lucas: There's a few reasons why I don't think the 3-seed is out of reach for the Clippers, but all of them can be boiled down to this: we're only half way through the NBA season. That leaves a lot of room for randomness. Literally, anything can happen. Just a few weeks ago, the Clippers seemed to have a pretty safe lead over Houston, but a lackluster stretch followed by some injuries have turned the tables. Who's to say that Houston doesn't drop 5 games in the next month? They kicked off an 18-games-in-29-night stretch last night against OKC; the Clippers have just 13 games in that same span. If James Harden has a minor injury and misses 5 games, Houston will probably follow the script that the Clippers have written without CP3. And the Rockets rely heavily on Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, two guys with troubling injury histories. If they start to miss games, the Rockets become much more vulnerable.
None of this is wishing for injuries. Houston's a super good, super fun team this year and it would be pretty lame if one of the most exciting teams in the league lost their stars to serious injuries. But over the course of the season, it's almost unavoidable that key players will have to miss occasional games as they get bumped and bruised. With half of the year to go, it's still entirely possible that the Clippers get healthy and stay that way, and other teams catch up in the "games lost to injury" category.
Aside from that, the margin is still slim--5 losses looks daunting but it can be overcome. The Clippers host the Rockets twice after the All-Star break--if they win both match-ups, L.A. will have cut the margin to 3 and taken the tiebreaker. After that, it only takes a very small bump in the road--like a minor injury, or a rough patch of schedule, or a lackluster road trip--to bring the teams into a deadlock.
Adithya: It's possible, but that leaves the Clippers with a razor-thin margin for error and probably requires them to play better than .750 ball the rest of the way (possible, but knowing this team I won't hold my breath).
The alternative would be to sandbag and actively tank into the 6/7 range, an option that seemed a lot more plausible a few days ago. But it turns out the Jazz-Grizzlies-Thunder middle tier can't be relied upon to carry their weight and win games at a competitive pace; in spite of that six-game losing streak the Clippers are still 1.5 games ahead of the 5th seed right now.
Diving further into the crevasse doesn't seem like a feasible path right now, though things could change if injury issues continue to plague this team. Buy it's unlikely that it's the sort of strategy Doc would pursue, anyways.
The next three weeks will be telling for the Clippers, with a slew of easy games and lots of extra rest days after that frantic start to the year. How well can they do over this stretch before a series of rematches with the Warriors? Is this their chance to rip off a big win streak?
Lucas: A big part of that, I think, hinges on Chris Paul's health. The Clippers are 2-5 in the games Paul has missed in recent weeks, and even though they've had a good couple of games with wins against Phoenix and Memphis, it's hard to be too optimistic about any game where Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are both out.
If Chris plays, I don't think it's unreasonable to shoot for the 3-seed--in fact, it's probably the only reasonable option. The Clippers are a better team than Oklahoma City, Utah, and Memphis, and it would probably require too much tanking to sink all the way down to 6. It seems like they either have to pass Houston, or end up in Oakland in the second round--the latter would be a somewhat unthinkable failure only forgivable through an equally unthinkable playoffs upset against the Warriors.
The expectations for this team were clear--clearer than ever before. In the past, they were always supposed to be in the 3/4 race with OKC and they normally finished there. For a newly-built team in Houston to come in and finish ahead of them would be confidence-wrecking long-term. This core needs to make the Western Conference Finals and in order to do that, they'll need to nab the 3 seed.
With Chris Paul on the court, I think it's possible. The Clippers have a bunch of winnable games down the stretch of the season and Houston probably isn't as good as they seem right now--they're riding a 17-2 hot streak in their last 19 games, which is great but could be just as fragile as the Clippers' 14-2 start in their first 16 games. LAC has proven they can beat 28 NBA teams. They can handle their business if they get healthy, and if Houston stops winning their games at a 90% rate, the Clippers could potentially catch up.
I think this stretch is important--the Clippers can rattle off a winning streak ahead of two upcoming match-ups with the Warriors (late January and early February), they can make up ground on Houston who has a dense patch coming up. Then after their final meeting with Golden State (late February) I could see them winning something like 22 or 23 of their last 25 games, which is where they'll have to hand Houston those two losses in STAPLES to earn the tiebreaker and make up any remaining deficit in the loss column.
Adithya: Either way, there's no easy path forward for the Clippers right now. The last two wins have thankfully bought them a little extra time to bring CP3 along to full health, and it sounds like he's nearing a return soon. As much as the Clippers need him at 100% come playoff time, that trade-off also puts a larger burden on the rest of the team, especially players like J.J. Redick and DeAndre Jordan who are playing heavy minutes through bumps and bruises of their own.
The Clippers only play two teams with winning records in the next nine games — the Thunder (who'll be on a SEGABABA when they come to Staples on MLK Day) and the Hawks (who may have traded away Millsap and Sefolosha by then) — so going anywhere less than 8-1 in this stretch would probably be disappointing. Losing more than two would be disastrous.
I'll wrap this up by looking at the team the Clippers received a lot of comparisons to back in November, the 2011 Mavericks. The parallels have only grown closer with the recent struggles; Dallas went through a six-game losing streak of their own around this time, hurt by injuries to Dirk Nowitzki and Caron Butler. After a strong start, they were 27-15 at one point and fell to the 5th seed before getting healthy and ripping off an 18-1 stretch, buoying them to a 57-25 finish and a third-place finish in the West. As dire as things looked as recently as last week for L.A., their playoff destiny is still very much within their own control.