Clippers

L.A. Clippers: Great Rookies, Awful Team

| by David Berri

The LA Clippers have played 14 games this season and only won once. The team’s efficiency differential [offensive efficiency (points scored/possessions) – defensive efficiency (points surrendered/possessions)] is currently -9.9, a mark that ranks last in the NBA. And of course, one has to wonder…why are the Clippers so bad?

Well, maybe no one is really wondering. The Clippers franchise began in Buffalo in 1971. Across the next forty seasons, the Braves-Clippers have only had a winning season seven times. And in seven trips to the playoffs, this team has never made it past the conference semi-finals. So the Clippers not being good is not generally a surprise.

This year, though, was supposed to be somewhat different. At least it wasn’t supposed to be this bad. Afterall, the Clippers have assembled a roster with high-price veterans (see Chris Kaman and Baron Davis) and young – supposedly promising — lottery picks (see Blake Griffin, Eric Gordon, and Al-Farouq Aminu).  Here are some of the comments from the experts at ESPN.com before the season started:

J.A. Adande: We should know better than to envision best-case scenarios for the Clippers, but wouldn’t a healthy Blake Griffin, a steady Eric Gordon and a fit Baron Davis equal playoff material?

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Chad Ford: The Clippers continue to be a Bill Simmons punchline, but after watching Blake Griffin tear it up in the preseason, I’m hedging on putting the Clippers too low. If he stays healthy, Baron Davis may actually engage and if that happens, the Clips could make a surprising run at the playoffs.

Both Adande and Ford predicted the Clippers would finish second in the Pacific.  And Adande predicted the Clippers would be the 8th best team in the West (and therefore, a playoff team).

Overall, the 10 NBA experts at ESPN offered an average forecast that placed the Clippers as the 12th best team in the West (ahead of the Sacramento Kings, Golden State Warriors, and Sacramento Kings). 

Yet, after 15% of the regular season is complete (189 of the season’s 615 games have been played), the Clippers are the worst team. And what’s surprising (at least, it was surprising to me), the Clippers have been pretty good at adding talent via the draft. To see this point, let’s move from efficiency differential to Wins Produced.

An average rookie will post a WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] of about 0.040 (the average player posts a 0.100 mark). As the following table indicates, the four rookies playing for the Clippers this season have all at least doubled the rookie average mark. And three of the four have posted a mark beyond what we see from an average player in the league.

So the rookies the Clippers are employing are “good” (in fact, when we consider what an average rookie offers, one could argue these rookies are “amazing”). And this quartet is on pace to produce 19.9 wins.  If the remainder of this team were producing at the level we observe for these rookies, this team would be on pace to win 57 games. Unfortunately, the remainder of the roster has the following characteristics:

  • Eleven veteran players playing 65% of the team’s minutes
  • Of these eleven, only one is above average (Craig Smith)
  • Of these eleven, six are producing in the negative range
  • On average, these players are posting a -0.017 WP48
  • And these eleven players are on pace to produce -4.7 wins

In sum, the veterans the Clippers are employing are doing everything they can to obscure the productivity of a fairly amazing rookie class.

And leading the way are three players who have started most of the games they have played. Baron Davis, Ryan Gomes, and Chris Kaman have combined to produce -1.3 wins. To be fair, Davis and Kaman have been injured. But this trio was not above average last season when all three played at least 75 games. Consequently, if this these players were playing as well as they did last year, the Clippers would still only be on pace to win about 22 games. 

So the Clippers are bad. And this is not surprising. But there is good news going forward. The Clippers have a very good collection of young players. Furthermore, the Clippers are willing to sign high-priced veterans. Now they just need to add high-priced veterans who actually produce wins.

- DJ