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The Western Conference is upside down

Contenders in the bottom half? “Tankers” in the top? What is happening?

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

My earliest basketball memory occurred when I was about 8 years old. We lived in Silverton, Oregon, a town of about 4,000 located 15 miles east of Salem at the foothills of the Cascades. Silverton was, and is, the type of town where everybody goes to the high school teams’ games. The football team was always about .500, wrestling (big in small-town Oregon) was always in the running for the state championship, and the basketball team was … not good.

But my first basketball memory was not of the many losses. Instead, near the end of the season, the 0-16 Silverton Foxes basketball team won its first and only game of the season, against a team from Sandy. I even remember the score: 48-46, when a Fox guard with glasses made a free-throw line jumper at the buzzer. It was the most exciting moment of my young sports fan fandom. In my memory, someone ran the town church bell 48 times, one for each point the now 1-16 Silverton Fox basketball team scored on that wonderful night.

I remembered that night when I saw the Los Angeles Lakers celebrate after they won their first game of the 2022-23 season on Sunday night, beating the Denver Nuggets. With that win, the Lakers went to 1-5 on the season. As they used to say on Monty Python, “There was much rejoicing.” Scenes from the surprisingly raucous Lakers’ locker-room mirrored the joy I felt when the Foxes won their first game, missing only the church bells.

The next night, the Los Angeles Clippers, whom many picked as a title contender, had a similar celebration after breaking their own four-game losing streak. My local paper (the LA Times) headlined the article: “Change to Line-up Does the Trick”. The headline ignored the fact that the tricky line-up change came in a game against the dreadful Houston Rockets (now 1-6), and even then the Clippers only won by 2 points: 95-93. The Clippers squeaked out that win over a seemingly over-matched team only because Paul George had a game that had occurred only seven times in all of NBA history: 35 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists and 6 steals. But the Clippers were thrilled with their two-point win over the Rockets.

Meanwhile, across the country, the defending-champion Warriors just lost two games back-to-back to two equally woeful teams: the Detroit Pistons (2-6 with that win) and the Charlotte Hornets (3-4 with that win). Of course, one of the Hornets’ other wins came against the mighty San Antonio Spurs, so they should get credit for that. The Warriors then extended their losing streak to three with a loss to the Miami Heat last night.

California’s other team, the Sacramento Capitals (remember that Adam Silver changed their name from the Kings last April 1), were picked by many to be the feisty team that finally makes the playoffs. While the season is still early, the Capitals are off to their usual 2–4 start, which at least puts them one game ahead of the Legendary Lakers. And the Capitals needed a two-game winning “streak” to get to that record.

As a result of all of that, the California contingent are a combined 9-18 on the season, and they occupy the 11-14 slots in the Western Conference, leading to this upside down standings in this morning’s paper:

Because this is a Spurs site, after all these words, I suppose I should give them a shoutout. Some of us had such low hopes for the season that we wrote pre-season articles about how Spurs fans, players and coaches should not hope for wins. Instead, some of us wrote that fans, players and coaches should root for “small victories’’ such as getting one stop or making one basket. Of course, the “some of us” is me.

It turns out that the coaches and players either don’t read my stuff, or they do read it and got fired up. Let’s go with the latter.

As a result, even after trading, not re-signing or waiving their entire backcourt from the last two seasons (Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, Patty Mills and Josh Primo), the Spurs sit at 5-2, with five more wins than many (meaning “me”) predicted at this point in the season. Indeed, after a friend texted me with congratulations after the Spurs’ first win of the season (making them 1 -1), I texted back “1-81”. Oh, ye of little faith. One advantage that the Spurs have in the early season: even with the lost players mentioned above, the Spurs have many players back from last year’s team. And with Pop, they are running the same offensive and defensive systems. Perhaps all of this gives them an early season advantage against other teams trying to incorporate new players and/or learn new systems. And that advantage could very well dissipate as the other teams get more familiar with each other. Or might the Spurs actually be, you know, “good”?? Let’s check in here in a few weeks.

The Spurs are not the only team seemingly in the wrong spot in the standings. The Utah Jazz lost their two best players and were widely expected to be lottery bound. Instead, they sit one spot ahead of the surprising Spurs. And one spot above them are the Portland Trail Blazers, who many thought would join the French-guy sweepstakes if their season started slowly. And a small shout-out to the OKC Thunder, who were also projected to be in the bottom (or top?) of the lottery after Chet Holmgren was lost for the season. Instead, the Thunder are in the top half of the early-season standings with a winning record, one spot ahead of the Dallas Mavericks.

The key words in all of this is “early-season”. Most of this will probably turn out to be a mirage. But for all the teams like the Spurs and fans enjoying that mirage today, we will let them ring those church bells and rejoice while they still can.