On the Road to the NBA Playoffs, the Clippers Have Set Themselves Up for Success
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images. Pictured: Fans attend the Los Angeles Clippers game at Staples Center.
Last August, which feels like a Star-Wars-esque "long, long time ago," the Los Angeles Clippers entered the NBA bubble at +333 to win the NBA title. Fast forward nine months and the Clippers enter this season's playoffs at +500 or longer at most books.
Title conversations are dominated by the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, the Eastern Conference darlings the Brooklyn Nets, and the East's No. 1 seed, the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Clippers were, at one point, title favorites for much of last season. Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are still around and healthier than they have been. They have the same pace-adjusted point differential (+6.1) as last season.
At this point, it's pretty clear that the Clippers have the best value of any of the major contenders.
The Clippers put themselves in a great position to make a Western Conference run.
Last year, I was skeptical of the Clippers because I felt that while they were the team with the best chance to knock off the Lakers, they were vulnerable to other matchups.
This year, the Clippers put on a masterclass in tanking to finish with the fourth seed, face the Mavericks, and ensure they can't face the Lakers until the Western Conference Finals as long as the Lakers won the play-in game vs. Golden State, which the Lakers did Wednesday night.
The Nuggets were a particularly difficult matchup last season. Nikola Jokic is the league's best center, the Clippers' worst position, depth-wise. For all the talk about the Clippers' point guard issues, they have Patrick Beverley for defense, Reggie Jackson for offense, and Rajon Rondo for tough, playoff basketball. Ivica Zubac is a solid, good even, starting center in the NBA, but he doesn't have an identity you can rely on and is overwhelmed by Jokic (like most centers as Jokic is the MVP, but it's about degrees).
The Nuggets aren't in the Clippers' bracket, however. Their path is the Mavericks, the winner of the Jazz vs. Warriors/Grizzlies, and then the Western Conference Finals, likely against the Lakers or, less likely, the Suns or Trail Blazers. (The Nuggets would have to beat the Blazers, who the series odds have shifted towards, and then the Lakers or Suns all without Jamal Murray. That's too steep a hill to climb.)
That's a much easier path than last year, though.
Oddly enough, the Clippers went 2-4 against the Mavericks and Jazz. Regular season outcomes, however, rarely tell the story you need in order to determine the right side. Because despite the Mavericks going 2-1 and the Jazz going 2-1 vs. LA, both teams will be dogs in series price vs. the Clippers, should LA advance.
Dallas is a bizarre matchup on multiple fronts. Last year, the Mavericks gave the Clippers an unexpected first-round push to six games. Luka Doncic was magnificent, and the starters held their own, losing only slightly to Leonard and George lineups. But the benches were destroyed by LA’s staggered units.
This matchup seems different, at least on paper. The Clippers have added some firepower, the Mavericks are slightly worse offensively and have at least the capacity to defend better, though they’ve still wound up with a bad defense overall.
The big key with the Mavs is that they were great, compared to league average, against elite teams. Dallas finished with the fourth-best point differential vs. teams that were top-10 in both offense and defense, and had the second-best defense in the NBA against such teams, in large part because of their success vs. the Clippers.
But even removing the 50-point beatdown from the first week of the season, the Mavericks still claim the fifth-best defensive rating vs. teams top-10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, meaning that they were excellent in big games, and disappointingly mediocre vs. everyone else. The Mavericks present a challenge on multiple fronts, but the Clippers’ firepower should be enough to get them past LA.
Most notable: The Clippers have had a lot of success defending Doncic in pick-and-roll situations. In last year’s playoff series, they held Doncic to 1.1 points per possession using their drop coverage.
The Jazz are a much tougher team, but maybe an easier matchup. Utah doesn’t like to switch, and it’s uncomfortable offensively when switched against. A series against the Jazz would come down to good shooters fending off the Clippers’ collection of long, athletic wings and the Clippers trying to beat the Jazz’ defensive strength. The fact that the Clippers’ stars are as comfortable as they are from mid-range on pull-ups is important.
That series, provided the Jazz get past the winner of Friday night’s play-in game between the Warriors and Grizzlies, would match the No. 1 team in made 3-pointers vs. the No. 3 team in the same category.
Ultimately, the Clippers have the types of players who give the Jazz issues, can match Rudy Gobert’s size with Zubac, get over screens to bother Donovan Mitchell (who is coming off an injury), and have more star power. It should be a very close series, but again, the Clippers will be favored and this doesn’t project as a Nuggets-like matchup disadvantage.
Then, there’s the Western Conference Finals.
It could be the Suns, which is a good matchup for the Clippers because of their ability to counter the Suns’ perimeter attack. The Suns’ ability to pressure the ball would make it a good series, but LA would have a decisive upper hand.
If it’s the Trail Blazers, that’s a cakewalk, Portland’s not in the same league defensively even with how well they’ve played in recent weeks.
But it’s probably the Lakers.
The Battle for L.A.
The Lakers would be favored in the series, but this is the one series where the Lakers won’t be heavy favorites. There’s an opportunity to bet the Clippers at +260 or better to win the Western Conference and then bet the Lakers as a short favorite in the conference finals to hedge.
Bear in mind that the Clippers have shown they can beat the Lakers, time and time again. They have big shot makers and are the only team with multiple wings to throw at LeBron James. Anthony Davis is going to be a problem, but he's a problem for everyone, and the Clippers have more shooters and scorers than the Lakers.
If you want to bet the Clippers to win the title, you have to look at the East. Joel Embiid is the kind of frontcourt force who can break the Clippers’ structure the way Jokic did, though he’s clearly not the same passer.
The Nets matchup would be even, with the Nets having three stars and defensive versatility and the Clippers having two, but better defensive work from their stars. The Bucks might be the toughest matchup given their combination of shooting, defense, and size.
The Clippers are likely to be dogs only against the Lakers and Nets the rest of the way, should they advance to the NBA Finals.
This should be the big takeaway: the Clippers are longer odds than last year, with a better team. Instead of Montrezl Harrell, the Clippers have Serge Ibaka. Lou Williams has been replaced by a bigger role from Reggie Jackson and Rajon Rondo, with Terrence Mann filling in some key minutes off the bench.
Nicolas Batum adds another long wing defender and shooter.
There isn't a matchup like Denver that should scare Clippers bettors. If you think no one saw the Nuggets being a bad matchup last year, well, read this.
The Clippers manipulated the standings to get the best possible road to the Finals, despite having to go through the West's No. 1 seed. Whether it's to win the West or the title, you can get better value on the Clippers now than you would at any other point this postseason.
A Word of Caution
I've just laid out all the reasons why the Clippers' path to the Finals is so good and why their odds are plus-value.
Now I'll warn you of the real danger with them, and it was a big reason why the Clippers fell miserably short last season in blowing a 3-1 lead. It's not Harrell. It's not coaching.
That's a narrative buzzword, but it's also the thing that drags you out of tough situations. You have to be able to rally and rely on one another, to not panic and play together when a team puts you up against it, in a series or in a game.
The Clippers do not have that. Leonard is not a leader.
He's a phenomenal player, maybe a top-five player in the league, but his brand of quietness makes for good jokes and memes while hiding a lack of any instance where he's been the voice his team needed.
Meanwhile, George wants to be that voice, tries to be that voice, understands the need for that voice, but it doesn't carry. The Clippers are hoping Rajon Rondo, a 35-year-old backup point guard, can be the difference there. That he was even brought in to solve that problem shows how big of a deficit exists there.
The Clippers may not need it; they may simply roll through, or just be good enough at the basketball side to not have to focus and harness emotional energy.
But emotional intelligence is an important factor in any organization, and its importance on NBA teams playing at the highest level with the biggest stakes should not be overlooked.