I awoke Saturday morning with Stephen A. Smith screaming at me through the television set, and it bothered me. Not necessarily because Stephen A. screamed at me (apparently he has his personal volume setting at 11 all the time), but because of what he screamed about: that the Los Angeles Clippers should be considered contenders in the West.
That sentence sounds wrong. Have the words “Clippers” and “contender” ever been used in the same sentence? But it’s hard to deny when the Clippers have been on a 12-game win streak, and counting.
Having not seen too many Clipper games lately, I checked the data to see how impressed I should be. And to put the streak into context, I compared this current 12-game streak to another 12-game streak in the early part of the 2012-2013 regular season by last year’s West champions, the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Clippers played weaker teams
My first question: how good were the teams that the Clippers beat? Apparently, not very. Here are the opponents’ median win percentage as of December 22, 2012:
- Clippers: 36% (median opponent’s win pct)
- Thunder: 49%
The Clippers clearly played a lot of bad teams, including the dysfunctional Sacramento Kings twice. Switching the perspective, we can also say that the Clippers didn’t play any good teams, having only played three teams with an above .500 record.
In comparison, the Thunder played five teams above .500, including San Antonio and Atlanta, both currently above .600. The remaining games were split evenly between very bad teams (New Orleans, Sacramento, Charlotte) and average teams (Philly, Lakers, Utah).
There’s no doubt the Thunder played, and beat, better teams.
The Thunder had better wins
Though the Clippers’ menu of opponents wasn’t impressive, perhaps how badly they beat those teams could be impressive. The conventional way to measure this would use margin of victory, and by this metric, the Clippers looked very good.
- Clippers: +14 points (median margin of victory)
- Thunder: +10.5 points
And if for some reason, you’re afraid of using medians instead of averages, even the average margin of victory would favor the Clippers:
- Clippers: +14.8 points (average margin of victory)
- Thunder: +13.8 points
However, I’ve never loved margin of victory as a metric, because you’re only looking at a single point of the game to judge and analyze a game in its entirety.
Maybe we can find a better metric. Instead of looking only at the margin of victory occurring at the 48th minute of each game, what if we also looked at the score margin at the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd minute of the game, all the way up to the 48th minute? Averaging across all 48 scoring margin snapshots within a game, we can capture not only IF the team won, but HOW convincingly the team controlled the game.
By extension, we can figure out which 12-game streak was more impressive by comparing each team’s scoring margin over the 12 games. Here are the median game scoring margins for each streak:
- Clippers: +4.9 points (median scoring margin)
- Thunder: +7.8 points
This metric tells us that the Thunder tend to lead their opponents by nearly 8 points at any given point during a game, which is about 3 points better than the Clippers. Not only did the Thunder play better teams, but they seem to command a game more convincingly too.
This wouldn’t have been apparent if you looked only at margin of victory. This metric, which I’m internally calling “Naive Game Margin”, does a good job of deemphasizing analytically weird events like when tight games get blown open in the final minutes, or when a team comes back from a huge deficit in garbage time, but never had a realistic chance to win (gamblers like to call some of these situations “backdoor covers”).
The Clips had a couple games where the margin of victory disguised what really happened, like this 19-point win over the Raptors that was pretty close for the first 3 quarters, or this 18-point win over the Suns the night before that followed a similar script. (Side note: since when did the NBA start scheduling back-to-back home games?)
By throwing out margin of victory, you find that the Clippers actually played in more close games than the Thunder, with 7 of the 12 games having a Naive Game Margin below +5.2 points. The Thunder only had 3 games like this, meaning they controlled the other 9 the games during the streak pretty convincingly.
Don’t call the Clippers contenders… yet
While both teams possess lengthy winning streaks, Oklahoma City’s was more impressive because they beat better teams, and beat them more convincingly. You probably shouldn’t call the Clippers contenders for the reasons described in this post. But even more simply put, they haven’t beaten anyone very good over those 12 games. The Derrick Rose-less Bulls were probably their most formidable opponent.
But that doesn’t mean the Clippers aren’t contenders. It just means they haven’t proven it yet.
In college football, people had historically discounted 12-game undefeated winning streaks from non-BCS conference teams like Boise St., Hawaii, and TCU for the same reason: they hadn’t beaten anyone good. Yet in the NBA, it seems we’re quicker to anoint a team as a contender after a long winning streak, without considering who they played, let alone how they won.
I find the double-standard very interesting. But unlike college football, we’ll get proof at the end of the season if the Clippers actually become contenders.
PS: During the writing of this article, the Clippers pounded the Suns to extend the streak to 13 games. Some people were not impressed.
Clippers’ win streak
|Date||Opponent||Naive Game Margin||Margin of Victory|
Thunder win streak
|Date||Opponent||Naive Game Margin||Margin of Victory|
Sidenote: Yes, you can have a negative Naive Game Margin but still win the game. For example, you can lose for most of the game, but pull it out in the end, like the Clippers did vs. Utah on Dec. 3.