Mirage in a Menagerie

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The long and winding N.B.A. season creates more than its fair share of mirages. With so many games and an infinite number of ways in which to split and separate data, there always exists the potential to mistake some fleeting streak for a meaningful assertion. A majority of games will fall somewhere near the mean; there are only so many “statement games” and “turning points” to go around, which makes the mass of the regular season schedule an exercise in affirmation. They’ll surge and fall back, but for the most part, N.B.A. teams hover around the same anchoring marks they established earlier in the season.

With that in mind, it now appears that – perhaps out of desire to find Blake Griffin a suitable throne – some may have rushed to their conclusion that the Clippers were immediately on the up-and-up. Los Angeles is a talented team and has a bright future, but let’s not forget: young teams that suddenly vault their way into the playoffs are the exception, not the rule.

Griffin’s Clippers went 9-4 to finish out the month of January, which is quite a bit better than their .364 season win percentage. Plus, despite scoring dynamo Eric Gordon being sidelined for the final four games of that stretch, the Clippers still won a pair of home games to close out their January schedule. Griffin amazes nightly, but his team’s performance last month was about as remarkable as any of his highlight-reel slams. That the underdeveloped and undermanned Clips managed such a record over a 13-game stretch (which included wins over the Heat, Lakers, Nuggets, and Pacers) is nothing short of astonishing.

Los Angeles then played four consecutive games against Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, and Orlando, and promptly fell back down to Earth. That much is to be expected; all of those teams are substantially better than the Clippers, which means that four consecutive losses merely represent the most probable outcome.

What’s a bit more disconcerting is the next stretch of games. After a solid win against the Knicks, the Clippers rattled off a series of embarrassing losses, each demoralizing in their own way. First, the Clips had the decency to be the Cavaliers’ first win in 27 games. Two days later, they could barely score against the Raptors, who have the second-worst defense in the entire league. L.A. managed just 97.9 points per 100 possessions in that game; for comparison’s sake, the Bucks are the league’s worst offensive team, and average 98.2 points per 100 possessions.

Most recently, the Clips extended their trip through the gutter by notching a 24-point loss to the Bucks on Monday night. That stagnant Milwaukee offense, which so conveniently served as a benchmark for ineptitude? It managed 114.6 points per 100 possessions against Los Angeles.

The Clippers played well for a time, and that performance received deserved notoriety. Now things have swung to the other extreme, and though Eric Gordon’s absence admittedly serves as a significant caveat to any honest assessment of Los Angeles’ current performance, there’s no use trying to explain away those three heinous losses. One dropped game to the Cavs would be an understandable slip, and two straight losses a bad weekend. But to lose three in a row in such humbling fashion speaks to the considerable limitations of this team. The elastic regular season was bound to swing the other way, as L.A.’s previous triumphs were anything but sustainable.

Peaks, valleys, and all, this isn’t a team that’s ready to make the jump into playoff contention, even with Gordon fully healthy. The Clippers still have a ways to go before reaching solvency. The scoring – outside of Gordon and Griffin – will have to come from somewhere, and do so reliably. The defense will need to improve in every possible dimension. Right now, individual elements are in place, but there’s no collective foundation.

Consider it this way: that 9-4 stretch which so briefly ignited the Clippers’ long-shot playoff hopes showed what this team is capable of as currently constructed, rather than show the anchor from which the team’s performance could be stabilized. Their actual baseline isn’t quite so high. Take a look at the team’s performance over the course of the season by efficiency differential:

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The red line represents the Clippers’ season average in efficiency differential, a pretty crummy -4.1 points per 100 possessions. Were the Clippers markedly better than that average over those 13 glorious games (as noted by the blue highlighted portion of the graph)? Of course. However, this sample is most accurately assessed as a counterbalance for the Clips’ early season struggles (seen in the red highlighted portion) rather than some season-saving improvement. Los Angeles wasn’t gaining momentum during their hot streak, merely evening out the scales.

As is usually the case, the real measure of the Clippers’ performance lies somewhere in the middle; that -4.1 efficiency differential might be a bit depressed by the team’s recent struggles (which can be linked, though not wholly attributed, to Gordon’s absence), but it’s a fairly accurate indicator of how the Clippers have performed this season on the whole.

N.B.A. teams are erratic. Even the most consistent clubs jump in efficiency from game to game and week to week, and though the Clippers seem to have these isolated runs of success and failure, they’re merely making their way through an arduous N.B.A. season just like every other team in the league.

Seth Carstens