The Los Angeles Clippers and the Houston Rockets will meet for the third time in the 2013-14 NBA season on Wednesday in what's shaping up to be a battle of rising Western Conference powers.
The Clippers earned arguably their most impressive result of the campaign on Sunday, a 125-117 road win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Rockets, meanwhile, would be riding a 10-game winning streak—their longest in six years—into their matchup against the Sacramento Kings Tuesday if not for a loss to the Golden State Warriors.
L.A. owns the head-to-head edge thus far, having blown out Houston in each of the teams' two previous meetings. But the third-place Rockets, at 38-18, can claim a one-game advantage over the fourth-place Clips (38-20) in the standings.
The next two months could portend plenty of change for these two clubs, though at present, a playoff series of some sort is well within the realm of possibility. In preparation for this week's potential postseason preview at the Staples Center, let's have a look at how these squads compare, position by position.
There's only one "Best Point Guard on Planet Earth," and he just so happens to play for the Los Angeles Clippers.
No, not you, Darren Collison, but nice try. I'm talking, of course, about Chris Paul. The 28-year-old leads the league in assists by a mile, at 11.2 per game, and is tied with Ricky Rubio for what would be his sixth steals crown in the last eight seasons, at 2.5 per game.
Not that Rockets starter Patrick Beverley is any schlub. He's widely regarded as one of the better defenders at his position—and for good reason. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Beverley has held his opponents to just 38.8 percent shooting and has forced turnovers on 14.4 percent of his defensive possessions this season.
Beverley is not about to take over a game to the extent that CP3 so often does. Of course, the Rockets don't need Beverley to do that when they already have James Harden on the job (more on him in a moment).
And, to Beverley's credit, he's done fairly well against Paul head-to-head. In three tilts opposite Beverley, Paul has averaged 14.3 points on 41.7 shooting. Surprisingly enough, Beverley actually outscored Paul in their previous meeting, 19-14.
Still, as respectable a competitor as Beverley may be at point guard, he's no match for CP3.
Likewise, whoever starts at shooting guard for the Clips, be it Jamal Crawford now or a healthy J.J. Redick come playoff time, would pale in comparison to James Harden.
Harden may be a bit of a laggard on the defensive end, to say the least, but when it comes to dominating as a scorer and facilitator, no 2-guard in today's game does it better or more consistently than does the Beard. He's tied with Blake Griffin and Stephen Curry for fifth in scoring (24.3 points per game) and leads all players at his position in assists (5.5 per game).
(Unless, of course, you count Goran Dragic as a shooting guard...and I'm not sure why you would.)
Harden's productivity has taken a hit, however slight, since Dwight Howard arrived in Houston. He's scoring, shooting and getting to the foul line less this season than he did in 2012-13, his first with the Rockets, and his three-point accuracy has declined by three percentage points.
Still, in all likelihood, Harden would run Crawford and Redick ragged on his end of the floor, assuming they don't do the same to him on theirs. Like Harden, Crawford is a tremendous ball-handler who can create—and complete—all manner of shots off the dribble. The 33-year-old has turned in 25 games of 20 points or more this season, including four 30-plus-point performances.
As for Redick, he ranks among the deadliest perimeter shooters in the league when he's fit. Prior to his latest bout with the injury bug, Redick had converted his threes at nearly a 40 percent clip, including 42.9 percent on catch-and-shoot treys, per NBA.com's SportVU stats.
Redick's health concerns can't be ignored here. "He has a bulging disk so until that calms down so he can get his movement back, he'll be out," Doc Rivers recently told ESPN Los Angeles' Ramona Shelburne. "That could be three days, two weeks, three weeks. No one knows. There's no set deadline on when he's coming back. He can be back quick or it could take a while. I don't think anybody knows."
If a healthy Redick and Crawford were one in the same, they might be superior to Harden. But they're not, so Harden gets the easy nod here.
Small forward has been a sore spot for the Clippers for years now. The arrival of Jared Dudley was supposed to rectify that situation, but the former Phoenix Suns swingman's inconsistency (7.5 points, .352 from three) recently cost him his starting gig. Matt Barnes has done a solid job since sliding into Dudley's spot (9.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists, .413 from three in 16 starts).
But...well, he's no Chandler Parsons.
The 25-year-old has established himself as the "best of the rest" at small forward (outside of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony) in just his third season as a pro. He's one of just 11 players in the Association today who's averaged at least 17 points, five rebounds and three assists. Of that group, only Durant can claim to shoot better from the field (.496) and from three (.396) than he does.
Crazier still, the Rockets have Parsons under contract for less than $1 million per year until the summer of 2015, thereby making his deal the biggest bargain in the NBA.
That's not what makes him so valuable to Houston on the court, though. Of greater interest to the Rockets' on-court success is his versatility. He's the team's ideal "glue guy," filling in whatever skill gaps Harden and the rest of the Rockets' perimeter players leave behind while holding everything and everyone together.
If Blake Griffin is not the best power forward in basketball right now, he's not that far off. He's still dunking as much as ever—131 so far this season, third-most in the NBA, per CBS Sports—but has proven, once and for all, that he's no one-trick pony.
He's scoring a career-high 24.3 points per game, in part because he's become a respectable shooter from both the free-throw line (69.9 percent on 8.6 attempts per game) and mid-range (39.4 percent on 5.4 attempts per game).
Griffin remains one of the game's premier rebounders (9.9 per game) and certainly ranks among the best passing big men in the NBA, with his 3.6 assists only scratching the surface of his excellence in that regard.
Truth be told, putting Griffin ahead in this matchup doesn't require much explanation, if only because his competition can't quite measure up. The Rockets ran through multiple options at power forward, most notably Omer Asik and Donatas Motiejunas, before settling on Terrence Jones as their full-time starter.
To his credit, Jones has been a pleasant surprise in that role up front next to Dwight Howard. The 2012 draftee has averaged a sturdy 11.6 points and 7.3 rebounds while shooting 52.2 percent from the field.
But nobody in his or her right mind would take Jones over Griffin at power forward—perhaps not even Jones himself.
Dwight Howard gets the nod here over DeAndre Jordan, but not by quite as wide a margin as you might think.
Statistically speaking, Jordan has actually surpassed Howard in the two categories that have come to define Dwight's career: rebounding and shot blocking.
D.J. leads the league in boards at 14 per game, with Howard in fourth at 12.6. Jordan also outpaces Howard in rebound percentage (21.6 to 20.3) and, according to NBA.com's SportVU stats, rebounds per chance (.712 to .686) and contested rebounds per game (5.4 to 4.8).
The same goes for swats, with Jordan leading Howard in raw blocks (2.4 to 1.9) and block percentage (5.0 to 4.0).
Howard, though, still has the upper hand when it comes to overall defensive impact. According to NBA.com, the Rockets allow nearly three points fewer per 100 possessions when Howard is on the floor, while the Clips give up close to four points more when Jordan is out there.
This makes some sense, since Dwight remains the superior rim-protector between the two. Jordan faces more attempts at the rim per game (10.1 to 9.2) but allows the opposition to hit at a 52 percent clip, as opposed to Howard's 47 percent mark.
Both are notably limited on the offensive end, though that hasn't stopped Howard from being one of the top options on his squad throughout his career.
Jordan's league-leading .665 field-goal percentage comes almost exclusively on alley-oops and putbacks, whereas Howard's .581 conversion rate (third-best in the NBA) comes on a variety of low-post moves against multiple defenders, in addition to the usual array of dunks and lobs.
And as inept as Howard is at the free-throw line, even he can scoff at Jordan's 44.8 percent stroke from the stripe.
This is easily the trickiest aspect to pick between these two teams.
Both squads sport at least one starting-caliber player among the reserves—Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin for the Rockets, Jamal Crawford for the Clippers. Yet, neither team's second unit is particularly prolific. According to Hoops Stats, L.A. and Houston rank 18th and 20th, respectively, in bench scoring.
In some respects, the battle of the benches would fit best under "To Be Determined." The Clips reserves will look drastically different once Glen Davis settles in and Redick returns to relegate Crawford to the pine.
Even then, it's tough not to take the Rockets' depth over that of the Clips. The addition of "Big Baby" still leaves L.A. short on size, with Ryan Hollins and Hedo Turkoglu as the only other backup bigs.
The Rockets, on the other hand, can turn to a defensive dynamo with extensive starting experience, in Asik, if/when Howard needs a rest or gets in foul trouble. In the backcourt, Houston can turn to Lin to spell either Beverley or Harden, depending on the team's needs at any given moment.
Kevin McHale has come a long way since his early coaching days with the Minnesota Timberwolves. In Houston, McHale has done a masterful job of crafting and implementing a fast-paced, pick-and-roll-oriented offensive system that suits his talented personnel and reflects the vision of efficient basketball put forth by general manager Daryl Morey.
With Morey's acquisitions and McHale's on-court expertise, the Rockets have improved their winning percentage in each of the last three seasons, to the point where they've now crept to the outskirts of the NBA's elite.
But, for as many rings as McHale won as a player, he can't yet boast one as a coach. Doc Rivers, on the other hand, stands as one of just four active coaches—along with Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra and Rick Carlisle—with a championship on his sideline resume.
Frankly, Rivers' impact on the Clips is nearly indecipherable from that of his predecessor, Vinny Del Negro, when looking at the basic indicators of success. L.A. actually allowed 1.3 fewer points per 100 possessions last season and is currently two games behind its 2012-13 pace at the same point in the schedule.
The offense, though, has improved by a full point per 100 possessions. More importantly, the constituent parts of this Clippers club seem more settled and more focused than they ever did under Del Negro. DeAndre Jordan owes at least a slice of his overall improvement to Rivers commanding his respect and channeling his energy and efforts into his rebounding and shot blocking.
On the whole, the Clips have managed to not only survive extended absences from Paul and Redick, disappointing play from Dudley and a thin frontcourt rotation, but also thrive in the face of those challenges because Rivers understands the strengths and weaknesses of his players and, in turn, knows how to organize his team's style of play on both ends accordingly.
The Clips have been a talented club for several years now, but Doc has demonstrated a deft touch in unleashing their full capabilities.
Most of the signs herein point to the Rockets winning out in a seven-game series. They sport superior talent at three of the five starting spots and boast the deeper bench between the two teams.
But there's reason to doubt the Rockets' superiority in a matchup with the Clippers. For one, in today's NBA, there's no ignoring the importance of having a top-notch point guard, a productive post player and a coach who knows the ropes to postseason success.
Thus far, the Clips have had the upper hand over Houston this season. These two teams played each other twice in a five-day span back in November, with L.A. taking the first by 19 points and the second by 13.
Much has changed in the three-and-a-half months since then, though. The Clips have lost Redick to injury and replaced Dudley with Barnes on the wing. The Rockets, on the other hand, were without Patrick Beverley in their first tiff and were still mired in the Howard-Asik experiment at that point.
There's no telling yet how Jones' move into McHale's starting five will affect the dynamics of this matchup, though if it's anything like what we've seen from the Rockets against the rest of the NBA, the Clips have reason to be worried.
Even more so when factoring in just how much the Howard-Harden partnership has improved since its infancy—and how much better it could be come playoff time, when the combined Finals experience between these two might really come in handy.
Who do YOU think would win a seven-game series between these two? Let me know on Twitter!