Debate: Los Angeles Clippers (42-20) vs. Houston Rockets (42-19)

Posted: 03/06/2014 by levcohen in Basketball

The Houston Rockets might just be the hottest team in basketball right now. The have won 19 of their past 24 games, and they have not had a bad loss in that time, with losses at the Clippers (more on that later), the Warriors and the Grizzlies and home against the Grizzlies and Thunder. So basically, they’ve only lost to the most talented teams in the Western Conference in the last two months. Pretty impressive. Houston also has some nice wins in that time, defeating Portland, San Antonio, and Miami. In fact, the win over Miami was the inspiration for this post. And then there are the Clippers. This team just looks like a title contender. They are 13-6 without Chris Paul, one of the five best players in the NBA. That’s amazing. They also haven’t lost more than two in a row once this season, which is a testament to the coaching of Doc Rivers. In many ways, these two teams are pretty similar. They are very talented teams with title aspirations and similar records. They are both fighting for the three seed and possibly the right not to play the other one. If neither of them hold the three seed at the end of the year (and that’s very possible, with the Trailblazers also holding a 42-19 record), they will likely have to play each other in the first round. While that might be fun and would definitely be interesting, I would prefer that they avoid each other in the first round, because I really want to see Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and both of these teams in the Western Conference Semifinals. Los Angeles and Houston are two of the most talented and best Western Conference teams. They are both top three teams in points per game, top five in pace-adjusted offense, and top ten in pace-adjusted defense. But which is better?

Arguments for Los Angeles:

13-6 Without CP3:
I mentioned this already, but it’s worth repeating. What would the Heat’s record be if LeBron missed 20 games? Would the Thunder nosedive if Kevin Durant went down? I’m pretty sure that neither team would be able to hold up as well as the Clippers did without their point guard and floor general. In a way, Paul’s injury was a blessing in disguise, because it enabled Blake Griffin to break out.

Griffin’s Breakout:
It’s pretty hard to believe, but Blake Griffin, one of the biggest name players in basketball, is underrated. Griffin is known mostly for his athleticism and dunking prowess. He can now do a heck of a lot more than that. Griffin is 11th in the NBA in player efficiency rating. He’s averaging more than 24 points per game and nearly 10 rebounds. He’s also improved his free throw shooting from 52% two seasons ago to 66% last year to 70% this year. Griffin is still a free throw liability, but he isn’t that bad from the line anymore, unlike a certain Rockets center (and a certain Clippers center, for that matter). When Paul went down, Blake carried the team. That gives this team two confident superstars at their athletics peaks. And both are playing extremely well and are perfect fits for each other.

3-0 Head to Head:
The Clippers are a perfect 3-0 against the Rockets, with none of the three games being particularly close. They’ve done it a variety of ways, and the head-to-head success is a pretty strong argument.

Doc Rivers:
Doc is one of the best coaches in basketball, and he’s one of a few active coaches with a ring (Gregg Popovic, Erik Spoelstra, Rick Carlisle are the only others). There’s a reason that Chris Paul and the whole Clippers team wanted to play for Rivers. He’s definitely a lot more proven than the Rockets’ coach, Kevin McHale, who was a heck of a player for the Celtics but is not yet an established coach.

DeAndre Jordan’s Breakout (?):
He still can’t make free throws, but DeAndre Jordan has been good this season. Coming into this year, Jordan was a raw 25 year old center who hadn’t posted double digit averages in points or rebounds once in his career. This year he is posting double digits in both. He leads the NBA in field goal percentage (66%) and in rebounds per game (14). Yes, a lot of those points have been from dunks. And Jordan’s defense has been questioned. But the big man is averaging a double double with 2.5 blocks per game. Doc Rivers has absolutely raved about him, and it shows, as Jordan is playing 36 minutes per game, up from 24.5 last season. He’s been valuable, if not as valuable as his stats look at face value.

Take Care of the Ball:
The Rockets are dead last in turnover ratio in the NBA. Worse than even the 76ers. Meanwhile, the Clippers are the sixth best team at holding onto the ball. That’s a sizable difference, and if these two teams were to meet in the playoffs, I think the Clippers fast paced team would be able to take advantage of the Rockets’ inability to hold onto the basketball.

Arguments for Houston:

Rebounding and half court offense:
The Rockets are a much better rebounding team than the Clippers, in large part because they get a lot of boards from non-big men. Chandler Parsons, James Harden, Patrick Beverley, etc. None of those guys are big men, but they all chip in on the boards much more than Jamal Crawford, J.J. Redick (when healthy), and Darren Collison do for the Clippers. This rebounding edge is especially vital in the playoffs, when the game usually slows down. I also don’t think L.A’s “Lob City” will be as effective in the playoffs. Rebounding is key in the half court game that is more common during playoff basketball, and the Rockets are the better half court team.

Harden, Parsons, and Howard– Offensively:
Offensively, these guys complement each other perfectly. Parsons is the floor-stretcher. The former second round pick is a great shooter from the corner, averages nearly 17 a game, is a threat off the dribble, and hits 38.5% of his three point shots. Again, he also chips in on the boards (5.7) and is a good passer. Harden is the slasher. He gets to the rim with ease, scoring north of 24 points per game, and also gets to the line close to nine times a game and hits at an 85% rate. Harden also leads the team in assists. If you are in a close game late, you want the ball in Harden’s hands. Howard is the big presence. While he never developed great post moves, he still finds ways to put the ball in the basket, averaging 19 points per game. He is a consistent threat on the boards, and while he isn’t the defender he once was, he is still solidly above average at defending at the rim. Floor spacer, slasher, and big man scorer. These three fit together perfectly.

They didn’t trade Omer Asik- blessing in disguise?
I thought the Rockets should have traded Omer Asik, but the more I think about it, the more sense it makes that they held onto Asik. Clearly, the big man is unhappy, and he was also clearly on the trade block. But I think he’ll have a huge impact in a few playoff games. He’s a player most teams (and certainly the Clippers) don’t have: a starting caliber backup center. Asik is a tremendous defensive center, and is also a great rebounder and screen setter. He does the dirty work, which gives the Rockets some options. Want to push Blake Griffin around? Get Asik in there. Is LaMarcus Aldridge getting too many easy shots? Unleash Asik. As I said earlier, the game slows down noticeably in the playoffs. I know it ruins the team’s spacing, but I wouldn’t be surprised if McHale experimented with the two big lineup (Asik and Howard) as the regular season winds down. That could cause some matchup problems.

Harden is a difference maker, and he has his Mojo back:
Many people were expecting James Harden to take another step up from his breakout season last year (26 points per game) and to join Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant in the conversation of the best scorer in basketball. It hasn’t happened. The scoring has gone down a little, in fact. But in eight games since the all-star break, a decent sample size, Harden has boosted his average to 28 points per game, and is also playing the facilitator role; he has double digit assists in three of those eight games (he had three total in his first 45 games), and is averaging eight assists per game since the all-star break. If the Rockets want to win in the postseason, Harden will need to be the best player on the court.

Bottom Line: I think the public would lean heavily toward the Clippers. They are more hyped, play in the bigger market, and also have plenty of real basketball things going for them. But I’m less convinced. Houston is rolling right now, and they have a lot of versatility. I’d call it a coin flip right now, with the edge going to the Clippers because of the coaching edge and the head-to-head edge. But this is definitely not over yet. If these teams meet in the playoffs, it will be epic.

  1. dpcathena says:

    Fun post. I hope they do meet, and I hope it is not in the first round.

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