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NBA Saturday: Are We Underrating the Clippers?

Are the Los Angeles Clippers being underrated? Jesse Blancarte points out that the numbers say yes.

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As we enter the second half of the NBA season, it is all but clear that the Golden State Warriors and Atlanta Hawks are currently a cut above the rest of the league. After Golden State and Atlanta, it is a toss-up as to who is the best among the rest. Based on who you ask, the next best teams could be the Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trail Blazers or Washington Wizards, among others.

A quick look at the weekly power rankings from different news outlets shows a wide range of opinions on this matter. What is fairly consistent, however, is that the Los Angeles Clippers are, in general, not considered to be one of league’s top five teams. Here is a quick breakdown of where the Clippers stand in the most current power rankings:

Basketball Insiders (Moke Hamilton): 9
ESPN (Stein): 7
CBS Sports: 12
Yahoo Sports: 7
NBA.com (David Aldridge): 8
NBA.com (John Schuhmann): 7
SI.com: 10
NBC Sports: 5
USA Today: 8
Bleacher Report: 9
SB Nation: 11

As you can see, only one outlet ranks the Clippers as a top five team, while the others have Los Angeles ranked in the 7-12 range. Of course, power rankings are a running evaluation of each team as the season progresses rather than a comprehensive breakdown of which teams are the best overall, or most likely to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy in June, but these rankings show us what the collective perception is of each team.

It is understandable why most rankings have the Clippers outside of the top five. Spencer Hawes has been underwhelming in his first season with the Clippers and Jordan Farmar was waived after struggling to fit in with the team. They traded away former first-round pick Reggie Bullock, Chris Douglas-Roberts and a second round draft pick just to acquire Austin Rivers, while failing to bolster their depth at small forward. Their bench consistently allows teams to narrow the significant leads the starters usually create and they have lost games to teams they should put away rather easily. But most importantly, the Clippers’ defense has been shaky at best all season and is currently ranked 16th, per nba.com/stats.

Nevertheless, despite having a league-average defense and playing inconsistently, the Clippers are by most statistical measures a top five team. According to ESPN’s Hollinger power ranking, which accounts for variables such as strength of schedule and average margin of victory, the Clippers are the third best team overall (107.184 rating). Basketball-Reference’s SRS Rating, which also takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule, currently ranks the Clippers as the second best team (+6.96). Nyloncalculus.com has the Clippers at number three this week with a 7.1 Rank Score. ESPN’s RPI ranks the Clippers fifth (.545), just behind the Houston Rockets, and third in expected win percentage (.754). In addition, even with a league average defense, the Clippers now have an efficiency differential of 7.7 points per 100 possessions, per nyloncalculus.com, which is good for second place, just ahead of the Hawks (7.6).

Another thing to consider is how good the Clippers starters have been this season. In 41 games played together, Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan have outscored their opponents by 18.2 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com/stats. In comparison, the Atlanta Hawks’ starting lineup, in 34 games played together, has outscored its opponents by 10.9 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com/stats. This is significant for Los Angeles considering that in the playoffs, teams typically shorten their rotations and play their starters more minutes than in the regular season. The Clippers will need to have stabilized their bench production by the time the postseason rolls around, but having one of the elite starting units in the league will be a huge plus for Los Angeles.

The problem for the Clippers right now is that the second unit has routinely allowed teams to close the gaps that the starters create. To address this, the Clippers traded for Austin Rivers, who has gotten off to a shaky start in his tenure with the team. Also, with three roster spots potentially available, the Clippers have the flexibility to add a few more impact veterans down the road. In recent seasons, the Clippers have been a popular destination for veterans who were bought out of their contracts by their respective teams, such as Glen Davis, Danny Granger and Hedo Turkoglu.

Our own Alex Kennedy reports that, according to multiple sources, despite interest from other teams, Nate Robinson’s preferred choice is to sign on with the Clippers. As Kennedy points out, Robinson has previously played for Doc Rivers and there is an obvious need for a backup point guard, which partially explains Robinson’s preference toward signing with Los Angeles.

Another potential addition for the Clippers is veteran forward Tayshaun Prince, who many believe will eventually be bought out by the Celtics. Prince would add length, veteran experience and depth at the forward position, where the Clippers have been looking for help all season (the Clippers actively pursued Jeff Green, but did not have the necessary assets to acquire him). Prince may not be the same player he was earlier in his career, but he would still be an upgrade off the bench for the Clippers.

If both Robinson and Prince eventually sign on, the Clippers could have a postseason rotation that primarily includes Paul, Redick, Barnes, Griffin, Jordan, Robinson, Jamal Crawford, Prince and Hawes. Of course there would be a learning curve for Robinson and Prince, but on paper this is a very solid nine-man rotation.

So the good news for the Clippers is that they are probably better than most people think they are at this point and still have a lot of room to improve. The bad news is that, by these same measures, the Warriors are the best team in the league, and it’s not even close.

Again, it is understandable why so many fans and analysts believe the Clippers are not a true contender this season. In fact, unless the Clippers become a top-10 level defensive team by the end of the regular season, they will have little chance, based on recent history, of winning a championship this season. This team has been difficult to peg all season as they look dominant on some nights and very mediocre on others. However, the prevailing perception that there are roughly six-to-11 teams that are currently better than the Clippers is, based on the analytic measures mentioned above, incorrect. Considering this, it may be time for us reevaluate how we view this team.

Klay Thompson Makes History

On Friday night, Klay Thompson set an NBA record by scoring 37 points in a single quarter against the Sacramento Kings. The previous record for most points scored in a quarter was held by Carmelo Anthony, who in 2008 scored 33 points in a quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Thompson went 13-of-13 from the field, including nine three-pointers. The 13 made field goals ties the record for most fields goals made in a quarter and the nine three-pointers is a new record. Thompson finished with 11 made three-pointers, which is one shy of the record held by Kobe Bryant and Donyell Marshall. Also, Thompson shot 73 percent on his three-point attempts, which is the highest percentage in history for a player that took at 15 three-point attempts in a game. Thompson finished the game with 52 total points, two rebounds, five assists, four steals and two blocks.

In the third quarter, Thompson scored in just about every way possible. He nailed three-pointers in transition and coming off of screens, mid-range jumpers off the dribble, an alley-oop dunk, a drive to the rim and two free throws, all of which incredibly occurred in a span of less than ten minutes . Here is Thompson’s shot chart for the game, courtesy of NBA.com/stats:

Klay Thompson Shot Chart 1-23-15

The NBA recently released the NBA All-Star voting results, which lists Kobe Bryant as the starting shooting guard for the Western Conference. Because of his recent shoulder injury, which will likely require surgery and sideline him for the rest of the season, there is an open spot in the starting lineup. Last night, Thompson made his case for that starting spot, though he has stiff competition with James Harden. Thompson may not get the starting nod, but last night’s performance, his overall improvements this season and the Warriors’ record, should be enough to keep Thompson from being one of this year’s Western Conference snubs.  Anthony Tolliver of the Detroit Pistons seems to be in agreement.

With the win over the Kings, the Warriors improve to a league best 35-6.

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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