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NBA Saturday: Are the Clippers Championship Contenders?

Through 33 games, are the Clippers championship contenders?

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The Los Angeles Clippers entered the 2014-15 NBA season with championship aspirations. They have two of the 10 best players in the league, an athletic rim protector, a championship coach, and a new, enthusiastic owner (who happens to have very deep pockets). Many of the obstacles of years past have been removed, but the Clippers have failed to meet early season expectations. Some of the early criticism has been overblown, but there is reason to question whether the Clippers are championships contenders at this point in the season.

Consider that last season, through January 3 (2014), the Clippers were 21-12 (fourth in the Western Conference), they scored 106.5 points per 100 possessions (sixth), surrendered 100.6 points per 100 possessions (eighth) and had a net rating of 5.9 (sixth). This year’s team, through January 3 (not counting their game against the Philadelphia 76ers later today), is 22-11 (sixth in the Western Conference), scores 109.6 per 100 possessions (third), surrenders 103.7 points per 100 possessions (15th), and has a net rating of six (fifth).

Looking at these numbers, we see that the Clippers have not fallen off of last year’s regular season pace, they are better offensively, their net rating is slightly better, but their defense is just league average whereas last season it was top 10.

With a better record, better offense, better net rating and worse defense, this year’s team is considered a disappointment unlike last year. This can be explained partially by the fact that this year’s Western Conference is even better than last year’s. The Golden State Warriors, Portland Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets are all ahead of the Clippers, whereas last year the only teams ahead of Los Angeles were the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Trail Blazers (through January 3). It is incredible that the Clippers are in sixth place with the Thunder and Spurs behind them, but that is the Western Conference this season. With teams adding players like Josh Smith, Corey Brewer and Rajon Rondo, it is an arms race in the West. If a team isn’t taking tangible steps forward, the perception is that the team is falling behind.

Last season’s Clippers went on to win 57 games, which earned them the third seed in the Western Conference. Many analysts and fans considered them to be a championship-caliber team entering the playoffs. However, the Clippers eventually fell to the Thunder in the second round for a variety of reasons. But the Clippers were highly competitive and in the championship mix.

So now that we know that this year’s team is – except for its defense – statistically and record-wise in the same ballpark as last year’s, should we consider this team to be a championship contender? To help determine this, let’s look to some of the key numbers from the last 10 championship teams:

2013-14: San Antonio Spurs: Off: 108.2 (6), Def: 100.1 (4), Net: 8.1 (1)
2012-13: Miami HEAT: Off: 110.3 (1), Def: 100.5 (7), Net: 9.9 (2)
2011-12: Miami HEAT: Off: 104.3 (6), Def: 97.1 (4), Net: 7.2 (3)*
2010-11: Dallas Mavericks: Off: 107.6 (8), Def: 102.3 (7), Net: 5.3 (7)
2009-10: Los Angeles Lakers: Off: 105.9 (11), Def: 101.1 (5), Net: 4.9 (6)
2008-09: Los Angeles Lakers: Off: 109.8 (3), Def: 101.9 (5), Net: 7.9 (4)
2007-08: Boston Celtics: Off: 107.6 (11), Def: 96.2 (1), Net: 11.5 (1)
2006-07: San Antonio Spurs: 106.7 (3), Def: 97.4 (2), Net: 9.2 (1)
2005-06: Miami HEAT: Off: 106.4 (6), Def: 101.7 (9), Net: 4.7 (5)
2004-05: San Antonio Spurs: Off: 105.2 (9), Def: 96.9 (1), Net: 8.3 (1)
2003-04: Detroit Pistons: Off: 99.1 (19), Def: 92.5 (2), Net: 6.6 (3)
*Note: This was the lockout shortened season where the regular season was only 66 games long rather than the usual 82.

As we can see from these numbers, every championship team over the past decade has been a top 10 defensive team. The 2003-04 Pistons, 2007-08 Celtics and 2009-10 Lakers were not top 10 offensive teams in the regular season, but each had top five defenses to compensate. The worst rated defensive team over the last decade to win a championship was the 2005-06 HEAT, which finished ninth in defensive rating.

This, among a few other key issues, is why the Clippers, as of today, are not championship contenders. Their offense is great and still has room to improve, but the defense simply isn’t good enough. The Clippers’ net rating is a good sign that their offense is making up for their defensive shortcomings on most nights, but it is still short of the 7.7 average net rating for championship teams over the last 10 seasons.

Another key issue for the Clippers is their second unit. Basketball Insiders’ analyst Nate Duncan recently wrote about the Clippers’ lack of production from backup point guard Jordan Farmar. Much has been said about the Clippers’ lack of a knock-down shooter and lockdown wing-defender at small forward. However, Matt Barnes has picked up his play recently and is now shooting 38.3 percent from three-point range on 3.9 attempts per game while playing respectable defense. The Clippers could sure use another long wing-defender, but their issues on defense go beyond one-on-one match-ups, such as allowing opponents to shoot 35 percent from beyond-the-arc, 39.5 percent from 20-24 feet and not scoring as many points off of turnovers as they did last season (from 19.5 last season down to 15.4 this season).

This season, Farmar has a real plus-minus rating of -2.70 and a PER rating of 9.13 (well below league average). When Chris Paul is off the court, the Clippers are being outscored by 7.1 points and when Farmar is on the court, the Clippers are being outscored by 5.8 points. Compare this to last season where the Clippers were outscoring opponents by 5.7 points with backup point guard Darren Collison on the floor and still outscoring opponents by two points without Paul on the court. This is especially painful for the Clippers as Collison is thriving with the Sacramento Kings with a 2.97 real plus-minus rating (30th-best in the league) and an 18.48 PER rating.*

*To be fair to the Clippers, Collison was given a contract by the Kings that the Clippers could not compete with, so it is hard to hold them accountable for losing him last offseason.

Farmar isn’t the only concern. Reserve players Glen Davis, Spencer Hawes, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Reggie Bullock and Hedo Turkoglu all have negative net ratings when they are on the court (a stark contrast from last season when many of the key reserves had net positive ratings). The only key reserve with a positive net rating while on the court this season is Jamal Crawford at 2.7. Rivers has tried to address this in recent games by leaving at least one (but usually two) starters in the game to mix with the backups. This has worked decently, but there is no alternative to playing Farmar at point guard (Jared Cunningham is not a viable alternative) and unless Farmar finds his groove with the Clippers soon, this could be an Achilles heel for Los Angeles come playoff time.

The good news for the Clippers is that their starting unit is elite. Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan (who have played 586 minutes together thus far) are outscoring their opponents by 15.3 points per 100 possessions. The bad news, as mentioned above, is that the Clippers’ overall team defense is not playing at a championship level and it is not clear how they improve into the top 10 at this point. Also, there is a massive drop-off once the reserves check in and the fact that the Clippers are near the apron means they have limited avenues to upgrade their depth. The Clippers’ best hope is that some worthwhile players will be bought out later this season (one candidate is Andrei Kirilenko, who even at this stage in his career would be their best perimeter defender) who they can sign to a veteran’s minimum contract. L.A. has been an attractive destination for bought out players recently.

The season is still young. There is time for new additions like Farmar and Hawes to find their grooves and help remedy an ailing second-unit, and for the Clippers to refine their defensive schemes that earned them the eighth best defensive rating in the league last season. But it is not clear at this point if that will happen any time soon. As we have seen over the last decade, an elite defense can make up for a non-elite offense (see 2004-05 Detroit Pistons and 2007-08 Boston Celtics), but an elite offense generally cannot compensate for a league average defense.

The Clippers can be a championship-caliber team, but as of right now, they are not playing well enough to be considered contenders.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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