Why the Los Angeles Clippers Should Be Taken Seriously as NBA Title Contenders
Over at our NBA power rankings page, we have the Golden State Warriors as the top ranked team in the league and the favorites to win the NBA Finals.
If you’ve paid attention to the NBA for more than 11 seconds this season, then this is not news to you.
Without looking, though, you might have a harder time guessing who we have as the league’s next best team.
It’s not the Hawks, who are second behind Golden State in wins. It is neither the defending champions, the Spurs, nor the LeBron James-led Cavaliers.
The next best team in terms of both our efficiency rankings and championship odds are the Los Angeles Clippers.
Though the Clippers would be the 5 seed in the Western Conference if the season ended today, we give them a 12.3% chance to win the championship, second only to Golden State’s 36.7% title odds.
Why aren’t we taking them more seriously?
Better than their Record
The Clippers have the NBA’s fifth-best record at 52-26, but if you were someone who just judges a team’s quality by its wins and losses, you probably wouldn’t be reading numberFire.
With apologies to Bill Parcells, there are a few factors which indicate the Clippers are better than what (their already good) record says they are.
The Clippers are second in the league in nERD score, our signature efficiency ranking, meaning they would be expected to win 72.3% of their games. In actuality, they have won 66.7% of the time this season, so let’s look into the reasons behind this discrepancy.
Relative to other sports, strength of schedule in the NBA may not be as impactful, but the Clippers’ schedule has still been comparatively difficult. Los Angeles has played the eighth-most difficult schedule in the league, with an average opponent 0.30 points better than average (per Basketball-Reference).
The four teams ahead of them in terms of winning percentage have all faced easier schedules, and while Houston and Memphis have still faced more-difficult-than-average opponents (ranking 9th and 11th in schedule strength, respectively), Golden State ranks 16th, and Atlanta is second from the bottom.
The Clippers’ point differential in spite of a challenging schedule also speaks to their team strength. Their 6.53-point average margin of victory is second in the NBA, as is their Net Rating of 6.92.
As you have probably guessed, comparatively tough luck in close games is the reason why the league’s second-best point differential hasn’t translated to the league’s second-best record.
The Clippers are 11-12 in games decided by five points or fewer, good for a .478 winning percentage, which is 15th in the league. Since winning close games is generally not a skill, we would expect the Clippers to be around .500 in such games, which they are.
So while the Clippers have in fact underachieved by just a bit here, close games have not exactly been catastrophic for them. However, their competitors for the league’s best record have overachieved dramatically in this regard. Golden State (.857), Houston (.773), and Memphis (.765) are the top three teams in the league in terms of winning percentage in close games, while Atlanta (.643) is seventh.
Also, many of the Clippers’ wins have been big, while few of the their losses have. They have won 32 games by double digits (second behind, you guessed it, Golden State), while only Portland and San Antonio have lost fewer games by 10 or more.
League’s Best Offense
The league’s most efficient offense has been the driving force for the Clippers this year, as they are averaging a league-high 112.5 points per 100 possessions.
Only Golden State narrowly edges the Clippers’ 53.5% effective field goal percentage, and only Charlotte has a lower turnover rate than Los Angeles’ 11.6%.
They also are sixth in the league in free throws attempted per field goals attempted (.302), leaving offensive rebounding as the only one of the Four Factors where the Clippers are lacking. They have only grabbed 22.7% of available offensive rebounds, which ranks 28th in the league.
The driving force behind their high shooting efficiency from the field has been a high volume of successful three pointers. The Clippers are third in both the frequency of shots taken behind the arc (32.2% of all attempts) and shooting percentage from there (37.9%), according to Basketball-Reference.
JJ Redick (43.5% three-point percentage), Chris Paul (39.6%), and Matt Barnes (37.5%) lead the way here, as all are attempting at least four shots per game from behind the arc (Jamal Crawford is second to Redick in three-point attempts per game with 5.8 but is shooting only 33.3% from three).
As for their two-point shots, the Clippers don’t attack the rim very often (ranking 29th and 30th in terms of percentage of field goals at the rim and between 3 to 10 feet from it) but do shoot well when they get in close. Their 68.2% field goal percentage within three feet leads the league, and they shoot 40.4% in the 3 to 10 foot range, which is sixth.
The rest of the offense is comprised of long jumpers, as the Clippers are seventh in the league in percentage of shots that are two-pointers from more than 16 feet. The low payoff and low success rate on these attempts (the league average shooting percentage is 39.5% on these shots) make them the worst shots in basketball, but the Clippers’ 43.5% shooting percentage here is second in the league.
Blake Griffin, who attempts a team-high 37.7% of his shots on these long twos, is shooting 40.8% from this range. Redick is shooting 50.6%, Paul is at 49.0%, and Crawford is at 45.7%.
Good ball movement has also been key, as 55.9% of their field goals have been assisted, which is tied for the fifth-highest rate in the league.
Paul has led the way, as his 10.2 assists per game lead the league, and his 47.4% assist percentage is second. He is also averaging 19.1 points per game, with a true shooting percentage of 59.5%.
The point guard is fourth in the league in our player nERD rankings, with a score of 18.4, which means a theoretical team of average players would win 18 more games with Paul as a starter.
In terms of pure efficiency, though, the Clippers’ leader is not Paul or Griffin (the team’s leading scorer averaging 21.9 points per game), but DeAndre Jordan.
The 6’11” center leads the league in raw field goal percentage (70.7%) and effective field goal percentage (70.8%), and is second in the league in offensive rebound rate (16.0%) and Offensive Rating (125). While he is shooting 39.5% from the free throw line, he is still fourth in the league in true shooting percentage (63.4%).
The majority of his shots come via dunk, and he is not very involved in the offense (he only has a 13.5% usage rate). He also does not create his own shot (87.7% of his shots are not preceded by a dribble, per NBA.com/stats).
Still his efficiency is undeniable, as is the fact the Clippers are much better with Jordan on the floor (they average 117.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the court and 103.0 with him on the bench, per NBAWowy.com).
Combined with his defense (more on that later), Jordan is fifth in the league in nERD and is worth 13.5 wins above average.
Average Defense (and an Above-Average Center)
Overall, the Clippers defense is nothing more than an average unit, ranking 16th in points allowed per 100 possessions at 105.6.
In terms of the Four Factors, their only main weakness is a propensity for fouling, as they are tied for last in free throw attempts allowed per field goal allowed (.314).
They are tied for 14th in effective field goal percentage against (49.4%) and tied for 16th in turnover rate (13.2%).
In terms of their shot profile, the Clippers do well to prevent opponents from getting to the rim (fifth-lowest frequency of opponents’ shots from within three-feet), but only three teams allow a higher three-point attempt rate.
Defensive rebounding is by far their biggest strength, as the Clippers rank eighth in the league with a 76.0% defensive rebounding rate.
Jordan and his league-leading 32.4% defensive rebounding rate is the main reason why, and in addition to his rebounding, Jordan’s has the league’s fourth-highest block rate (5.3%) and seventh-best individual Defensive Rating (99).
Overall, the Clippers defense is not a particularly special unit, but thanks in part to Jordan, it is more than passable given the team’s ultra-efficient offense.
Overlooked Title Contenders
Bovada currently has the Clippers as the eighth most likely team to win it all at +2000, implying a 4.8% chance they take home the championship.
This is vastly underselling their chances, as we see them as almost three times more likely to lift the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Improving from their current slot as a 5 seed would certainly help the public opinion on the team, but even as things stand, there are plenty of reasons to like the Clippers this spring.