Are L.A. Clippers Elite or Just Middle-of-the-Pack in the Western Conference?

Jesse DorseyFeatured ColumnistMarch 9, 2013

DENVER, CO - MARCH 07:  Head coach Vinny Del Negro of the Los Angeles Clippers talks to Chris Paul #3 of the Los Angeles Clippers as they face the Denver Nuggets at the Pepsi Center on March 7, 2013 in Denver, Colorado. The Nuggets defeated the Clippers 107-92. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Clippers have been an interesting case all year long, as they've visibly been a terrific team, but one that seems to be just a smidgen below the caliber of the top-tier teams in the Western Conference.

At 44-20, the Clippers are a noticeable piece behind the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder, both of whom currently claim the top spots in the Western Conference.

With the league's best point guard, a top-10 defense, two very good young big men, a microwave coming in off the bench and some magnificent veteran leadership, it seems that the Clippers have everything a team would need to be considered among those top teams.

Los Angeles even shared the best record in the NBA with the Thunder as recently as Jan. 20th, when both teams were 32-9. Surely, there must be something there to make an argument that they're of top-tier caliber?

Looking at their regular-season qualifications, it certainly seems as if the Clippers are among the Spurs and Thunder as the West's best teams.

They're 24-13 against teams who are above .500, giving them the most wins (along with the Denver Nuggets) against such teams. That's a better record against winning teams than the Thunder (20-13), but they're definitely a shade behind San Antonio, who has won nearly 70 percent (23 of 33) of their games against teams with winning records.

Even further, Los Angeles is a solid 8-8 against the top eight teams in the NBA. Take away their three rough losses to Oklahoma City, and they're 8-5 against seven of the top nine teams (excluding the Thunder and themselves) in the league.

Undoubtedly, that is a recipe for success.

However, looking at the tiers of teams in either conference, you can see a distinct line drawn. 

At the very top, we've got the Spurs and Thunder in the West and the Miami Heat in the East. Those three teams showed last year that they could make their way into the conference finals and then carry over their success to the following season.

Following those teams, you've got a second-tier group of teams that people like to talk about as dark-horse contenders, or teams with outside shots. In the West, that would include the Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies. Over in the Eastern Conference, it's the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers.

Somewhere above that group, yet below the top group, would be where the Clippers sit.

The Clippers didn't have the success in the postseason last year to instill confidence that they'll put together a title run this year, but they also have been noticeably better than the teams directly below them.

In other words, the only way to really determine that they are one of those elite teams is for them to prove it in the playoffs.

So, to answer the original question proposed: Are they elite? No, but they're not a middle-of-the-pack team, either.

Los Angeles is built to make the jump thanks to Chris Paul's leadership, but they have to do more than put together a good regular season.