Thursday, March 1, 2012

Can the Clippers and Spurs emerge as legitimate Western Conference contenders?

Are the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers real contenders for the Western Conference crown? This is the question that stands before you today. Tomorrow, I examine any other potential contenders out West beyond the Clippers and Spurs.

"The" San Antonio Spurs

There are lots of questions starting with Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan. How much do they have left in the tank? Will Ginobili's and Duncan's bodies hold up through an even more intense playoff schedule than usual? Can some of the significant lesser known players (well unless you're a hoops junkie) on the Spurs roster--Danny Greene, Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Gary Neal--be significant contributors during a playoff run? Will Tony Parker be able to hold his end of the bargain as the first and second option a lot of nights through the playoff run? Can Richard Jerfferson continue his sterling play during the regular season and carry it over into the postseason?


First, it's worth noting that San Antonio has 10 players receiving 20 or more minutes (including Ginobili) in it's rotation. The stats below are from Basketball-References league page.

As far as the 4 Factors go (eFG%, TOV%, ORB% and FT/FGA), San Antonio is top 5 in both eFG% and TOV%. These metrics just so happen to be the 2 most significant factors for a quality offense. Not surprisingly, you would then note that San Antonio is currently 6th in ORtg (points per 100 possessions) at `106.9 points per 100 possessions on 91.5 actual possession per game (this is league average).

On the other hand, San Antonio defensively ranks in the bottom 10 defensively in eFG%, TOV%, but 2nd in DRB%, and is the best in the league at not fouling. Consequently the Spurs DRtg at 103.2 points per 100 possessions is league average  for which the league average (for both ORtg and DRtg) is literally 103.2 points per 100 possessions. The Spurs SRS (point differential combined with strength of schedule) is 4.75 points per game good for 6th in the NBA. (Yes, that includes that whopping 40 point loss to Portland last week.)

Of the top 10 players in minutes on the Spurs, 8 of them (not including Gary Neal or Richard Jefferson interestingly enough) are league average or better in PER according to Hoopdata. The Spurs have 6 players or better with a TS% that is league average or higher. (Kawhi Leonard is slightly below league average.)

Kawhi Leonard's hands are definitely not below average however. Kawhi's mitts are so big they have their own zip code, congressman and moon orbiting them.


7 players have a positive ORtg to DRtg on the Spurs which is never a bad thing. According to Basketball Value, the Spurs top 6 units (which not surprisingly feature Tony Parker in all 6) in minutes played are all positive units.

In order to make the Western Conference Finals, I think Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili will all have to turn the clock back one more time to take one more shot. Additionally, 2 or 3 of Tiago Splitter, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Gary Neal, Richard Jefferson, DeJuan Blair and Matt Bonner will have to play sparkingly well for the Spurs to perhaps make the 2nd round. Right now, if the standings stay the same (they won't), the Spurs will stay in the 2nd seed and face the Memphis Grizzlies in the 1st round. Again. If Zach Randolph plays as well as he did in the last post-season for Memphis, and if Marc Gasol continues his legitimate sparking All-Star play when Randolph returns in a few weeks, Memphis could be San Antonio's kryptonite.

One potential notification of the Spurs playoff chances would be the indication of how the Spurs play down the stretch of this season. Remember, the Spurs won a NBA high 61 games in the regular season in 2010-11 yet faded down the stretch a bit before their disappointing 1st round loss to Memphis. The Spurs play Oklahoma City once more (the series is already 1-1),   the Clippers (they are 2-0 with another meeting in 8 days), Memphis once more (the Spurs are 2-0 but the Spurs were also 2-2 in the 2010-11 season series with Memphis for what  it's worth) with Zach Randolph likely playing in that matchup, and against Dallas are 1-1 with 2 more matchup's to go. The Spurs also have a favorable home to road schedule with 18 home games to 13 road contests.

The Lob Angeles Clippers 

The Clippers are a bit easier to figure. We know what the Clippers are. The Clipp Joint is star laden with at least 1 superstar and the leagues most popular young player who possibly could get to superstardom one day. Beyond Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are where the questions remain with the Clippers.



Starting with DeAndre Jordan, how will the young man respond to playoff pressure? Jordan has never experienced that kind of scrutiny or intensity before, and it remains to be seen how effective Jordan can be once the games tighten up and the referee's start calling the games very differently. While I'm sure DeAndre Jordan will be able to figure it out, Jordan will have to be at his best for the Clippers to make it to even the 2nd round. The West is that tough.

Can Mo Williams, Caron Butler, Kenyon Martin do the trick come playoff time? All have had moments in the sun in the recent past, but not lately. This may be the single biggest factor that vaults the Clippers into legitimate playoff contender or a flashy pretender. Will Chauncey Billups injury cripple the Clippers in their quest for Southland dominance?

If the Clippers can get the aforementioned 3 players going, the Clippers have a great shot at making theWestern Conference Finals as well.

The Clippers have 5 players (Paul, Griffin, Jordan, Williams and Billups) with above average league PER's. 7 guys sport league TS% or better. 4 guys have a positive ORtg to DRtg (Paul, Griffin, Jordan and Billups) differential. As far as the top 6 units go, the Clippers have Paul and Griffin on them. Jordan and Butler are on 5 of the top 6 units.

As a team, the Clippers play at a below league average Pace at 89.7 possessions per game (league avg is 91.4) good for 23rd in the NBA, the ORtg is 3rd at 108 points per 100 possessions, and the DRtg is 105.5 points per 100 possessions (league average for ORtg and DRtg is 103.2). The Clippers are 7th in the NBA in offensive eFG% at 50% even, 4th overall in TOV%, 4th overall in ORB% (surprisingly excellent and because of Griffin/Jordan who spot 10%+  in ORB% individually), and just above league average in FT/FGA (amount of FT's in proportion to FGA) . It's no real shock that the Clippers are 3rd in ORtg as they are.

Where the Clippers struggle is defensively. The Clipp Joint is slightly below league average in defensive eFG%, 27th in TOV% (forcing TOV's), a bit above average in DRB% and 28th in FT/FGA (fouling too much in otherwords). The Clippers rank 9th in SRS at 3.18 points a game.

What emerges from the Clippers, unlike the Spurs, is that they are top heavy with significant question marks beyond the top 5 players on their roster which includes Billups. So now you have Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan still around with Mo Williams taking Billups minutes. If the Clippers can't figure out a way to slow down some opponents while still maintaining their offensive effectiveness, their post-season hopes are good as done.




Like the Spurs, it depends on who the Clippers match up with. And like the Spurs, the upcoming 2nd half slate of games may illuminate that very answer. The Clippers play the Spurs one more time as already noted, Memphis two more times (beat Memphis in the 1st meeting), the Lakers once more (at home--ha!), the Dallas Mavericks once more (1-1 in the matchup so far), and 3 more times against Oklahoma City (won the first matchup in LA).

The Clippers have 18 road contests, including tonight in Sacramento, and in fact have a 6 game road trip that GM Neil Olshey (it's in the Southland link up top) says may be the evaluation period for whether the Clippers make the deadline deal. After the current trip ends for the Clippers, they have 16 home games remaining.

Summary

Have we learned anything we didn't already know? Probably not. If you've watched either the Spurs or Clippers this season (willingly in my case), you would know the Spurs thrive off their balance and the Clippers thrive off their star play every night. The trick for each roster will be to figure out those answers that cannot be answered as of today based on sample sizes alone.

Coming into the season, if I had been asked whether the Spurs or Clippers were legitimate contenders, I would have said no for the reasons I've already listed. Coming in I had the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder as the 3 best teams. Nothing up to this point has changed the Clippers or Spurs long term standing, but perhaps the 2nd half will show us who the real contenders and pretenders more effectively than the first half of the season has.

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