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How Did the Worst Team in NBA History Become a Title Contender?

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Kobe Bryant says that "other team" in LA -- the Clippers -- are title contenders in 2013.

And Kobe made this statement before the Clippers defeated the Lakers on Friday night and then destroyed the Golden State Warriors (who are currently a playoff contender in the West) the next night.

Yes, the 27-8 Clippers look like contenders.

Of course, fans in LA can easily remember the last time this happened. That was back in ...

Okay, this has never happened.

Unlike every other big market team in North America, the Clippers have never, ever, ever been a title contender. In fact, the very best season in franchise history was last season. When the 2011-12 regular season ended, the Clippers had a mark of 40-26. This mark was surpassed by seven other teams (including Kobe's Lakers). In the post-season, the Clippers reached the Western Conference semi-finals -- where they were swept by the San Antonio Spurs.

Such a season likely left many NBA observers thinking the Clippers were a "good" team, but hardly a real title contender. Again, though, this was the best team in the history of the Clippers. For the first time in franchise history (which began in Buffalo in 1970-71), the Clippers won 60 percent of their games.

In 2012-13 the Clippers have moved beyond being the best team in franchise history to being one of the very best teams in the NBA. After 35 games, the Clippers have a 0.771 winning percentage; a mark that -- as of Tuesday morning -- currently leads the NBA.

Clearly the Clippers are better than they were last year. And that leads one to wonder... how did this worst team in NBA history become a title contender?

Dwight Howard -- of the LA Lakers -- thinks he knows the answer. This past weekend, Ramona Shelburne of ESPN LA reported:

Dwight Howard knows a great team when he sees one. Players cheer for each other on big plays, pick each other up after bad ones and play with a chemistry you can't force. He saw a team such as that Friday night in the Lakers' 107-102 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.

"Those guys on the Clippers team, they really enjoy each other off the court and it shows," Howard said Saturday after Lakers practice.

For Howard, the key to the Clippers success -- and the Lakers relative lack of success -- is team chemistry.

Andrew Han -- at the Clipperblog -- has a somewhat different answer. For Han, the answer is improved coaching from Vinny Del Negro. Here is how Han concludes his story:

Back to the snappy Malcolm Gladwell phrase, the "10,000 hour rule:" The average head coach logs approximately 80 hours a week, 36 weeks per year. With the lockout shortened season and lack of training camp, Del Negro's fourth year was essentially the equivalent to half a year. Three and a half years as a full-time head coach and now leading a title contending team. The learning curve for an NBA head coach is a steep one. Nevermind getting the position, it wouldn't be unfair to say that it takes an incredible amount of luck just to keep the job -- ask Avery Johnson. Somehow, while learning on the job, Del Negro's managed to hang onto this one. And the longer he continues to work at the craft, the more he establishes himself as an NBA coach. Vinny's number of hours on the job going into this season? 10,080.

Recently, I noted that the literature in sports economics often fails to find much impact from coaches. With respect to NBA coaches, my co-authors and I found that most -- but not all -coaches had no statistical impact on player performance. So it is possible -- but perhaps not likely -- that Han is on to something. And it is possible -- as Howard contends -- that the key is team chemistry.

Then again... let's look at some numbers.

One of the great things about basketball is that statistics tracked for the players can be connected to team wins. And this means we can measure each player's production of wins (or Wins Produced); which allows us to see which players were responsible for the outcomes we observe.

The following table illustrates what we see when we apply this methodology to the 2012-13 Clippers.


In looking at these numbers, remember that an average NBA player will post a WP of 48 -- or Wins Produced per 48 minutes -- of 0.100. And of the 12 players who have logged minutes for the Clippers this season, seven are above average. So the Clippers have a number of productive players.

Five players, though, seem to be especially important. Of the team's 27.5 Wins Produced (again, the team has won 27 games), 23.1 can be traced to the numbers generated by Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Matt Barnes, DeAndre Jordan, and Eric Bledsoe. These five players are responsible for 84 percent of this team's wins. In other words, the remaining seven players on this team are not producing much.

Such a result is actually typical for the NBA. Most wins in the NBA are produced by a minority of the league's players.

Being able to identify which players are producing wins this season is nice, but it doesn't really answer our question. In an effort to understand why the Clippers are contending, let's ask this question: How many wins would the Clippers have right now if every veteran player on the roster produced wins at the same rate observed in 2011-12?

The purpose of this second look is to see if

  • a. could we have expected the 2012-13 result given what these players did last year?
  • b. if what we see is different, which players are responsible for this outcome?

This second look simply requires a few more columns (specifically columns 4, 5, and 8 below) added to the above table.


(Note: 2011-12 numbers are based on last year's productivity and the position played this year. The overall 2011-12 league position averages are used for all numbers, so these numbers will be slightly different from the Wins Produced numbers seen at theNBAgeek.)

Column 5 reports what each player would have produced this year had his performance from 2011-12 not changed. As one can see, had performance not changed, this would have still been the best Clippers team in NBA history. And with a mark of 23-12, the Clippers would have the 7th highest winning percentage in the NBA.

But that might not be good enough for us to think of the Clippers as a title contender. Those additional 4 wins (see column 8), are what transform a "good" team into the contender we currently see. So where did those four wins come from?

If we look at most players we see very little difference between 2011-12 and 2012-13. Remember, 0.100 is the mark of an average player. In 2011-12:

  • Paul was three times more productive than an average player. And he is still three times more productive in 2012-13 (and Paul has generally been this amazing in his career).
  • Griffin, Barnes, Jordan, and Ronny Turiaf were all above average. And all four players are above average this season (and Griffin, Barnes, Jordan, and Turiaf have generally been above average players in their career).
  • Jamal Crawford, Chauncey Billups, Caron Butler, and Ryan Hollins were all below average. And all four players are below average this year (Crawford, Butler, and Hollins have recently been below average performers; Billups might just be old and/or injured).

The only three players to switch from below average to above average (or vise versa) are Bledsoe,Lamar Odom, and Willie Green.

Green has generally been below average in his career, and his decline this year is really not worth many wins (only -0.4).

So the key seems to be Bledsoe and Odom. These two players have offered 4.4 wins more than their performance last season would suggest. In other words, the players responsible for transforming the Clippers from a "good" team to a "title contender" are Bledsoe (a back-up guard) and Odom (a back-up forward).

So is this "chemistry" or "coaching"? Well, once Odom left the Clippers (a team that was historically awful) in 2003 he was an above average player throughout his career. At least, he was above average until he was traded to the Dallas Mavericks -- against his will -- before the 2011-12 season. These numbers suggest Odom will produce if he is happy. And that means, chemistry might matter for Odom.

What about Bledsoe? Bledsoe entered the NBA in 2010 after one season in college. He was below average his first two seasons (this is common for young players), primarily because he had trouble getting his shots to actually go in the basket. This season his shooting efficiency has clearly improved. And now his overall productivity is clearly above average.

So is this coaching? Or is the improvement we see in Bledsoe simply something we generally see as young players get more experience?

Perhaps it is coaching. And perhaps it is chemistry. But whether you like the coaching or chemistry story, there seems to be a bigger story in the above numbers. The primary reason the Clippers are no longer awful is that this team has acquired a number of players who are capable of producing wins. This list includes Paul, Griffin, Jordan, and Barnes. This quartet has been helped by the emergence of Bledsoe and the resurgence of Odom. All of these players - except for Bledsoe - have generally been above average before 2012-13. So we should not be surprised these players are above average today (NBA players tend to be -- relative to what we see in other sports -- quite consistent over time).

So the big story in LA is really that the Clippers -- contrary to their awful history -- have finally acquired productive players. With these players, the team is now winning. And winning makes people feel good (i.e. creates chemistry) and makes coaches look great.

And losing -- as the Lakers are learning this year -- makes people question chemistry and coaching. But is the problem with the Lakers really chemistry or coaching? Perhaps that question should be addressed by my next post.

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