The NBA regular season consists of 82 games. That means teams hit the one-third point of their season once they have played about 27 or 28 games. And here we are!
This year, more than others, consists of three different races. The first two races are designed to maximize a team’s chance to win the ultimate prize: the NBA Championship. During the regular season, that means the two races to win the number one seed in the Western Conference and the Eastern Conference. The third race is more important this year than in any year since LeBron James was going to be the consensus Number One pick. This year’s prize is Victor Wembanyama, the most sought-after player since LeBron was 18 years old. (That was a long time ago.)
Two of these three races are going exactly as expected. Most experts predicted that the bottom of the league would consist of the Spurs, along with the Pistons, Magic, Hornets, Thunder, Rockets, Jazz and Pacers. The experts were right as to every team except the surprising Jazz (17-15) and Pacers (15-15). The other six teams fill the bottom three spots in each conference. Four of those those six teams are in single digits in wins and have won less than a third of their games — or put another way in the race to the bottom, have lost twice as many as they have won.
Because these teams cannot possibly win the other two races, and because the prize is so tantalizing, their fan bases have a fascinating conundrum. When watching their teams play individual games, they root for a win but must remain cognizant of the bigger prize: Wembanyama. Fortunately for the league’s integrity, but unfortunately for teams like the Spurs, the highest chance to win the French lottery is the 14% chance guaranteed to the three worst teams: essentially a one in seven chance. (The best comment I heard about how badly teams want to get Wembanyama is someone asked the GM of a team how many draft picks he would trade to get the number one pick in the draft. His answer: “All of them.”)
Thankfully (if that is the right word), the consultation prize of the second pick in the 2023 draft is pretty good too, outstanding young guard Scoot Henderson, which means the worst teams have a bit more than a one in four chance of either a generational talent or a player projected to become an All-Star point guard.
People ask me how good the Spurs would be if they somehow win the lottery against these odds. My response: the Spurs would instantly become a good team. Jakob Poeltl is the perfect center to play next to a stretch four like the French Connection. Slot Keldon Johnson into the three spot and Devin Vassel in at the two. Tre Jones is the perfect back-up point guard behind whatever free agent begs to sign up to play with this crew, and two years later, the Spurs are contenders again. I am sure the other teams in the Spurs’ situation have similar dreams.
The other race the experts seemingly have gotten right (so far) is the Eastern Conference. The Bucks and Celtics were picked to be at the top of the conference, and they have not disappointed. They are the only teams in the league playing over .700 ball, and also the only teams with single-digit losses with 8 and 9, respectively. Oddly, both teams have suffered inexplicable blow-out losses recently. The full-strength Bucks lost to Memphis last week 142-101, while the Celtics lost to the Clippers 113-93: proof that it is a long season, and even good teams have bad games. The smart money says that one of the Bucks or Celtics will likely be in the NBA Finals.
The much more interesting race is the Western Conference. I don’t think many picked Memphis and New Orleans to come in first and second, but they lead the way right now. Of course, their lead is best described as precarious. As of Sunday morning, eight teams were less than four games from first place. And those eight teams did not include the defending champion Golden State Warriors or other projected playoff teams like Dallas and Minnesota. Another team not included is the Lakers, who started the season 2-10 but then went 10-6 to get back into the hunt. Of course, FI-AD (Frequently Injured Anthony Davis) just got hurt again and is expected be out at least three weeks.
The Davis injury seems to be part of a larger picture. Many of the teams expected to be in the playoffs have been cursed by the words “if healthy”. For instance, the Clippers are NBA Finals contenders, if healthy. But they are not. Similarly, the Warriors just lost Steph Curry to a shoulder injury, which makes it much more difficult for them to get into the top four in the West, and even to avoid a Play-In game. Same for the Timberwolves, who are without Karl Anthony-Towns for another month, at least.
The Trailblazers are doing better than expected, largely because they were able to overcome an early injury absence from Damian Lillard. Same with the Pelicans, whose depth allowed them to keep winning without Zion Williamson’s annual injury and have done ever better now that Zion has returned and dominated. Similarly, the Suns have stayed near the top of the Western Conference despite a lengthy absence from Chris Paul and a complete no-show from Jae Crowder, who apparently would rather sit around waiting to get traded instead of, you know, playing basketball. Odd.
Simply put, the Western Conference race is a jumble. If gambling were legal, I have no idea who I would bet on to make the Finals out of the West. Oh wait, gambling is legal. But I am still not betting on anyone in the West just yet.
So Spurs Nation, who do you think will wind up surviving the Western Conference? Understanding that we have a lot of the regular season yet to play, and then the playoffs, we might do this again after another third of the season has been played.
Who will win the Western Conference?
This poll is closed
New Orleans Pelicans
Portland Trail Blazers
Los Angeles Clippers
Golden State Warriors