Watching the Western Conference from the bottom of the ocean
On my list of the coolest things I have done, coaching college basketball is near the top.
Also on that list is something very few people have ever done: I scuba dived under the start of the Ironman competition off the Kona Coast on the Big Island of Hawai’i. The Ironman is an endurance and speed contest in which the contestants do a 2.4 mile open ocean swim, followed by a 100 mile bike race across the lava fields. Only then do the contestants run a marathon, running 26.2 miles immediately after finishing the first two legs of the triathlon.
Seeing the start of the ocean swim from 40 feet underwater was incredible. The tightly bunched swimmers create a fantastic churn of the salty water with arms and legs, knees and elbows colliding as the swimmers race and fight to gain precious seconds that later may be the difference between first and second place, or more likely, 785th and 786th place. Everyone who survives and finishes wins.
I thought of that experience while watching Western Conference teams fight down the stretch to either get into the Play-in round, or to avoid it. In this analogy, the Spurs and their fans are me at the bottom of the ocean, watching the battling swimmers from below.
As of Sunday morning, two Western Conference teams had 36 losses, three had 37, and two had 38, These seven teams filled the 5 through 10 slots in the Western Conference playoff race. Two of those teams will finish in the top 6 and avoid the Play-In, At least one will miss the playoffs altogether. With all of these teams having about eight more games, each of these teams could finish as high as fourth and as low as twelfth.
Each of the three teams with 37 losses also had 37 wins for a .500 winning percentage. Those three teams (Lakers, Wolves and Pelicans) have had key players miss numerous games, but all three teams may be back at full strength shortly. The Denver Nuggets, who have led the West all year, may wind up with a very difficult 1 vs. 8 match-up in the first round against either a LeBron James/Anthony Davis Lakers squad, a Zion Williamson Pelicans team, or the Wolves with Karl-Anthony Towns back and playing full speed.
Another possible 8 seed the Nuggets could face is the Dallas Mavericks, with Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving, though that pairing has not yet led to very many wins for the Mavs. The Mavs have been 7-13 since acquiring Irving. Yechh.
The two teams at the front of this scrum (as of Sunday morning) are the Clippers and the Warriors. Paul George may be out for the year with a knee injury while the Warriors have been without Andrew Wiggins, their second best player on last year’s championship squad. I have watched several Warriors games recently, and that is a very small team. When Draymond Green plays center, Klay Thompson is often their tallest player, and without Wiggins, they often play a four-guard lineup which would be right at home in a March Madness match-up.
Of course, with the closeness of the race, the Sunday morning standings morphed into something different by the end of Sunday. Both the Mavs and the Lakers lost to teams they should have beaten (the Hornets and Bulls, respectively). Amazingly, the Lakers had a losing record all year until their brief stay at .500 with the 37-37 record that lasted less than 48 hours. As a result of these losses, the Lakers fell to the bottom of the Play-In race, and the Mavs fell to 11th and out of the Play-In Tourney if the season ended today.
Two other games involving the Scrum Teams occurred Sunday. The Thunder beat the Trail Blazers (who sat three starters) and ended the day tied with the Lakers, something no one would have predicted at the start of the season. The tiny Warriors squad played the Twin Tower Wolves in a classic Hobbits vs. Orcs battle, but this time the Orcs won. Still unclear if the Orcs obtained the Ring of Power, but the Wolves did move within a half-game of the Warriors, something else no one would have predicted before the season started.
But from the ocean floor, we can see that many things will turn out differently that people expect. The final games of the season will determine which teams will be able to move on, and which will drift to the bottom without any scuba gear to keep them breathing.