The Clippers clinched a berth in the 2019 NBA Playoffs last week. While seeding remains up in the air, we can safely assume they won’t face San Antonio or Oklahoma City, both of whom are behind the Clippers with 3-4 games remaining. In any worst case scenario neither the Spurs nor Thunder would jump as high as third or fourth to set up a matchup with LA.
Still, there are five other possible opponents for the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs. With that in mind, I tried to figure out the best to worst matchups based on three factors (not all of which are basketball related). I ranked each of the five possible opponents, unscientifically, 1 through 5, in the areas of easiest to most difficult matchup; series watchability; and Clippers historical significance.
First, here are the rankings for each category. I’ll follow that up with some explanation and the “best” matchup listed first, and the “worst” matchup listed last.
(Note: the top ranked team in each category earned 5 points, the next ranked team earned 4 points, and so on. The team with the most total “points” is the so-called best overall matchup).
EASIEST OPPONENT: Yes, I know what Patrick Beverley would say. However, these are the teams the Clippers would likely match up with best in terms of advancing in the postseason.
1. Portland Trail Blazers (5 points)
2. Utah Jazz (4 points)
3. Denver Nuggets (3 points)
4. Houston Rockets (2 points)
5. Golden State Warriors (1 point)
SERIES WATCHABILITY: From an entertainment standpoint, which potential opponents have the most star power, have the feistiest history with the Clippers, would provide dramatics and theatrics, competitive games, and overall the best viewing experience.
1. Rockets (5 points)
2. Nuggets (4 points)
3. Trail Blazers (3 points)
4. Warriors (2 points)
5. Jazz (1 point)
HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE: Which teams have history against the Clippers and/or would be significant in either NBA history or Clippers history.
1. Warriors (5 points)
2. Rockets (4 points)
3. Trail Blazers (3 points)
4. Jazz (2 points)
5. Nuggets (1 point)
So, let’s break out the calculators…
The best matchup is a tie between Portland and Houston, who both earned 11 points. However, we are using an obscure tie-breaker called “I want the Clippers to win the series”, and that goes to Portland.
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS (11 Points)
With Jusuf Nurkic’s gruesome leg injury last week and the uncertainty of CJ McCollum’s knee, the Blazers have become the high seed most likely to be bounced in round one. Still, they are zeroing in on a 50-win season and have suddenly earned a generous contribution from their bench. Damian Lillard is a star, and certainly gives the Blazers a watchability factor which is coupled by a fun atmosphere at Moda Center. The Clippers lost three of the four games in the season series. Still, the Clippers won in Portland in November, and that was with the Blazers roster at full strength. As far as history, a victory in the postseason series would avenge a Clippers loss in 2015-16 to the Blazers when they went up 2-0 and lost the series in six games after losing Blake Griffin and Chris Paul to injury. Missing Nurkic and McCollum being hampered would leave no Clippers fans feeling sympathy for Portland.
HOUSTON ROCKETS (11 points)
History and watchability are both strengths of this potential matchup. However, judging from Wednesday’s 30-point deficit, the competitive element of this series could be questionable. The Rockets have three former Clippers in the top eight of their rotation. Chris Paul’s return to L.A. for a playoff series for the first time since commanding the team to its most successful stretch in history would be a show in itself, and would likely create a bevy of postseason memory montages from his six seasons with the Clippers. Of course, for as many game winners against Memphis and San Antonio that were shown they could just as easily show all-time meltdowns against Oklahoma City and Houston, his five fourth-quarter fouls and petulant ejection in Game 6 at Memphis or even the Game 7 loss at home against Utah in Paul’s final season. If the Clippers and Rockets matched up, which at this point seems most likely, it would be dramatic, intense, and create fun narratives (Beverley hounding Paul; Shai Gilgeous-Alexander facing the ultimate test as an heir apparent; and Lou Williams having space to operate against a Houston defense that is not what it was a year ago—Wednesday night aside).
DENVER NUGGETS (8 points)
Using the same “tiebreaker” as listed above, Nuggets land third on the list. The season in some ways would come full circle, considering the Clippers met Denver in the opener in October. The series would be up and down and offer an opportunity to thwart a Denver team in the midst of its second best season (record wise) in team history. Still, recent history indicates the Nuggets might waltz past the Clippers in a series with relative ease. There’s also little local historical significance. The Clippers and Nuggets are not rivals, and while they’ve met in the postseason before (a swift series victory for the Clippers in 2006), there is not much acrimony to draw from.
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (8 points)
The Clippers would enter the postseason as one of the two or three biggest underdogs as an eighth seed in NBA history. The narrative of five stars versus none would be beat to death, and the Clippers would be staring down the barrel of a sweep. Still, the last team to beat the Stephen Curry led Warriors in the Western Conference playoffs was the Clippers (a seven-game classic in 2014). They would be game for the matchup and the historic significance of a win in the series this year would be Mount Rushmore level. It’s more likely, though, that the young players for the Clippers would get a four-game taste of the playoffs and Jerry West would have a couple of weeks of exclusive recruiting access to Kevin Durant.
UTAH JAZZ (7 points)
I think that this is a very winnable opponent for the Clippers. In fact, despite their records, the Clippers are arguably a more complete team than the Jazz. But even with an opportunity to avenge the 2016-17 loss to the Jazz, there is something so unappealing about another series in Utah. The likelihood of this happening is looking low at this point considering the Blazers are primed to finish at least fourth, and the Jazz and Clippers would have to jump them for this to become reality.