Playoff seeding matters.
Sure, certain tortured fan bases with a soft spot for counterfactual histories may overstate just how much it matters. In retrospect, my argument that you can draw a direct causal link between Houston edging the Clippers for the 2-seed in the 2015 playoffs to Brexit and the rise of the Islamic State may suffer from certain rhetorical shortcomings.
The tired adage that eventually you’re going to have to beat somebody really good in the playoffs, while sounding like something Charles Barkley writes in all-caps in an email subject-line, has some truth to it. Especially in the Western Conference, where for the 47th straight year the road to the Conference Finals looks immensely more congested than the Eastern Conference Cavalier Expressway (although the Celtics are increasingly looking like a big fucking speed bump).
But who you play, and when you play them, has enormous consequences for how long an NBA postseason lasts. Clipper fans of a certain age will fondly recall Mike Dunleavy Sr.’s most brilliant coaching stratagem, when he deliberately tanked the end of the 2006 season to ensure the Clippers a 6-seed and a cozy first-round date with the Denver Nuggets (then led by a rookie Carmelo Anthony). Although in retrospect Dunleavy’s uncanny knack for losing may have been a warning sign, the tactic paid off—the Clippers cruised to a first-round victory, and ended up making their longest postseason run to date.
While somewhat slow on the uptake, to its credit the NBA has taken steps to ensure that the incentives for regular season wins and good playoff seeding are aligned and Dunleavy-style chicanery is avoided as much as possible. But as anyone who watched the Zombie Grizzlies in all their glory last year knows, matchups and injuries invariably change an individual team’s calculus on what seed they prefer.
With all due respect to Herm Edwards, you don’t play to win the game. You play to advance as far as you possibly can in the postseason. And that means optimizing your playoff positioning accordingly.
For the Clippers, that optimal position is NOT the 4 or 5 seed. It’s the 6 or 7 seed (preferably the 6). And yes, that’s mostly because we should want to avoid a second-round matchup with the Dubs. But that’s not the only reason.
The Context—Is It Too Early To Talk About This?
As of the writing of this post, the Clippers are 34-21, in sole possession of fourth place in the Western Conference. They trail the 2-seed Spurs by 8 games and the 3-seed Rockets by 5 games. They are ahead of the 5-seed Jazz by a half game, the 6-seed Grizzlies by a full game, and the 7-seed Thunder by 3.5 games.
Some of you may argue that it’s far too early to start talking about maneuvering for seeding. That’s fair, considering the landscape of the league can still change with trades and injuries in the weeks to come.
But the season is two-thirds done. Math says much of the current standings is likely to remain the same come April (more on that later). And Doc’s decisions on a variety of near-term issues, from when to rest players to how to handle Chris’s return to personnel moves— will be informed by two questions:
How bad does he want homecourt in the first round? And should he even care about that in the first place?
Here are five reasons he should prefer a view from the six.
Reason #1: We are old and injured and cranky, and should prioritize health over home-court advantage. Especially because of our schedule.
The Clippers have 27 games left in the regular season. The good news? Sixteen of those will be at home.
The bad news? Evidently Ballmer forgot to send the league scheduling office a Christmas tip. The Clippers have six back-to-backs remaining, five of which involve travel. One of those back-to-backs involves the Dubs and Spurs. And there’s a five-game-seven-night stretch mid-March.
By comparison the Rockets only have 3 back-to-backs the rest of the season.
Chris Paul will be returning sometime in March, and although his injury shouldn’t be one exacerbated by fatigue, the point-god is 31 and will need time to acclimate back to a grueling schedule. While Blake appears to look like Blake again, he is nevertheless coming off arthroscopic knee surgery. And JJ is over 30 and keeps getting punched in the face.
But it’s not just Blake and Chris and JJ. In the absence of both Griffin and Paul, the Clippers have relied more on veterans like Jamal Crawford, Mo Speights, and Ray Felton than they originally anticipated. None of those players are young, and preserving their minutes and health is also important to the success of the team in the postseason.
In each of these back-to-backs, Doc will face an implicit trade-off: rest his players, or push for wins. (Yes, resting his starters will mean playing some of his reserves more, but he can go deeper on the bench if he needs to). Considering the age of the team and it’s health history in the postseason, it makes sense for Doc to go the full Popovich. Especially because...
Reason #2: Barring an injury to James Harden or Kawhi Leonard, it is very unlikely the Clippers will get the 3 seed. And the 4 seed is going to be hard.
In an ideal world, the Clippers would get to a 3-seed, where they could secure home-court advantage in the first round and avoid the Dubs in the second. How realistic is that?
As of the writing of this article, the Clippers are 34-21. Let’s assume an incredibly rosy scenario for the rest of the season—one in which the Clippers play .700 ball the rest of the year and Ballmer gives out Mercedes to everyone at Staples at halftime. That’s insanely optimistic, considering Chris Paul’s earliest return date is March 1, there’s five more games in February, and all of those back-to-backs. But if that happens, they’ll end the season 53-29, give or take.
The Rockets would have to go .500 the rest of the season for the Clippers to catch them for the 3-seed. That’s not impossible, and Houston has shown signs of weakness lately. But that’s a major dip for a team now playing .700 ball with the third-best point differential in the league. Combined with the unlikelihood of the Clippers playing so well so quickly, the math seems unlikely. (That scenario also assumes Utah or another team won’t compete for the 3 seed).
And the likelihood of a Spurs collapse—well....
The Clippers are currently in sole possession of the four-seed. But remember, the Jazz have only recently gotten mostly healthy. And while we’ve beaten them handily twice, their physical style of play and molasses-inspired tempo won’t make them an easy out in the playoffs.
Both Memphis and Oklahoma City are much closer to the Jazz than the Clippers are to the Rockets. It’s a four-team race for the four-seed, not a two-team race. Which means it’s going to be a tougher hill for the Clippers to ascend. Practically, that means Chris and Blake and JJ play all of those back-to-backs, and that Doc keeps his foot on the accelerator for as long as it takes.
Reason #3: I firmly believe the probability of beating the 3-seed and then the Spurs, even without homecourt, is higher than the probability of beating the 5-seed and the Warriors.
Fundamentally, if you believe the Clippers should drop to the six or seven-seed, you believe the statement above.
The Clippers are 1-10 against the Warriors in the Steve Kerr era. The team has arguably the greatest collection of offensive talent ever assembled. They are the prohibitive favorite to win the Western Conference. I hate them.
The Clippers have matched up well with the Spurs since the dawn of the Chris Paul era. And I don’t think any Clipper fan really fears the Rockets (if they are the 3-seed) that much more than the Jazz. Moreover, the Dubs will likely steamroll whatever sub-.500 team that ends up as the 8-seed, meaning the chance of them being physically worn down by that series is minimal.
Reason #4: Every round not playing the Warriors means more wear on Steph (and others) and more chances of weird shit
Look, I’m of the opinion for the Clippers to beat the Warriors, you basically need a ton of crap to go your way. The Cavs have Lebron James, and they needed a worn-down Curry, an injured Iguodala and Bogut, and a Draymond suspension to win. The Clippers will need something similar.
The probability of injuries and other weird crap increases the longer you can avoid playing the Dubs. At the very least, the physicality of a prolonged Jazz-Dubs or Grizzlies-Dubs series has the chance to wear down the Warriors before a date with the Clippers than than a Dubs-Nuggets series.
Reason #5: Getting to the Western Conference Finals matters.
“If you’re going to win a title, you’ve got to play the Warriors sooner or later. What does it matter when?”
Well, mostly reason number four. The best shot of a Clipper championship still lies in avoiding the Dubs as long as possible. And that means sinking to the 6 or 7 seed.
But for a certain segment of the Clipper fan base, getting to the Western Conference finals would represent a significant step forward for the franchise. With this current group of players, whether you think we’re cursed or choke under pressure, the postseason horror of the past few seasons has been unbearable not only because of how aberrently unlucky it’s felt, but because of the broader feeling that the team has underperformed its potential.
Getting to the Western Conference Finals would at least partly rid that stigma. I don’t worry so much about how that affects Chris’ legacy. Nobody talks about how Dominique Wilkins never made it to to the Eastern Conference finals, and he’s still revered. And Chris is a better player.
But a trip to the WCF would be meaningful for the current crop of player.s Reaching it would mean the team at least played to its potential in the postseason.