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The NBA's Western Conference is a brutal, riveting war of attrition

November 26, 2018
San Antonio Spurs v Los Angeles Lakers

Harry How

Very early in the NBA season, a few questions were being bandied about concerning the apparently lopsided western conference. Including:

1. Are the Thunder really this bad?

2. Are the Rockets really this bad?

3. Are the Lakers really this bad?

4. Are the Clippers really this bad?

5. Are the Warriors invincible?

Now, with about 18 games under each team's belt—about a fifth of the way through the season—we have answers:

1, 2, 3 and 4. No.

5. Also no.

The standings are remarkable to look at. The Clippers and Thunder are technically in "first place" at 12-6, but the seventh place team, the Lakers, are just one game behind at 11-7. The cluster is real. Meanwhile, the 13-7 Warriors are proving the old adage that winning a championship is never easy in professional sports, regardless of how good a team might be. This is easy to forget with the Warriors, who sometimes look so dominant that you can mistake their greatness for inevitability. Their first title, in 2015, saw them down 2-1 to the Cavs in the finals with only an OT loss saving them from the impossible 0-3 deficit. The next season, their best, actually ended with the famous loss to LeBron in the finals. And though the 2017 title run was a 16-1 picture of peak excellence, last year's championship took a major choke by Houston, who held a 3-2 edge in the western conference finals and a 17-point edge in game six before blowing it.

Now, everything's going wrong for the reigning champs—Curry's hurt (and also got in a car crash), Draymond Green's hurt, their best role player Alfonzo McKinnie is hurt, nobody knows when Boogie Cousins will play, and Draymond and Kevin Durant hate each other so much their mutual enmity is spilling out in public. They lost four straight last week, and though they remain the best team on paper, absolutely nothing is certain.

Meanwhile, the Lakers and LeBron have finally meshed, winning seven of their last eight. The Clippers, after a mediocre 4-4 start and a team that is basically all supporting cast after the departure of Blake Griffin, have reeled off an 8-2 stretch. Rumors of Russell Westbrook's demise have likewise been greatly exaggerated, and he and Paul George have the Thunder clicking on all cylinders. And as the shine has come off early darlings like the Nuggets and Blazers, the Rockets have shown with a five-game winning streak that no, a team with Chris Paul and James Harden is not going to sit in the basement of the conference—in fact, it seems like all they had to do to right the ship was rid themselves of human anchor Carmelo Anthony.

In the east, things are simple—the Raptors will finish with the best record and probably choke in the playoffs, the Bucks and Sixers will contend for the title, and the Celtics may screw everything up because of Kyrie and Brad Stevens. But it's a different story out west, where at least nine teams (and perhaps as many as 14; the Suns are the only dud here) will spend the rest of the season scratching and clawing for playoff position, eking out wins wherever they can, and generally turning the entire conference into a swamp fight. It's going to be great.

Best Video of a Baseball Player Riding a Pony: Johnny Cueto, on a Pony

One of the hardest parts about my job is deciding which video of a baseball player riding a pony is best, and I wish I could say they're all the best. But there can only be one winner, and thus I must make the difficult choices. This week, the winner is Johnny Cueto, and here he is riding a pony:

I would pay $6,000 to a GoFundMe to turn this clip into a two-hour western.

Best Political Sports Burn of the Week: John Kasich, Ohio

When politics comes into sports, the result is usually depressing. Often necessary, and sometimes productive, but pretty much universally depressing at some point in the process. But when sports comes into politics? That's fun, baby! Here's twisty-mouth politics man and Ohio Governor John Kasich burning the Michigan Wolverines with an actual resolution:

As I read, I thought the best part would be the diss about seven-year-olds not knowing what it was like for Michigan to beat OSU, but then I took Kasich's advice and looked up the Harbaugh chicken thing, and yep, it's so real. Read this passage:

"Early in his Michigan tenure, Harbaugh pulled Speight aside and told him not to eat chicken, a protein that is considered fairly safe by nutritionists," Hayes wrote. "When Speight asked why, Harbaugh said, 'because it's a nervous bird.'"

Along with the hilarity of this belief, I do have one additional question for Harbaugh: Does he think that chickens are nervous, perhaps, because we mostly keep them in captivity before beheading them? In these conditions, I would likely also be nervous. Then again, you could say the same about cows, and cows are not nervous, but I think this just means cows are dumb and chickens are smart. Eat more chicken, it will make you smart.

Best NBA Burn of the Week, as Committed By an NFL Player: Amari Cooper, Cowboys

At first, this touchdown celebration may not seem like a burn to you:

Until you watch this:

Okay, so something is definitely off with Markelle Fultz, and it may be mental as well as physical, but it's okay to laugh at Cooper's celebration, right? The answer is...YES, because of this:

Good Sport of the Week: Markelle Fultz, Sixers

Fultz is a mensch:

Someone should make fun of Draymond Green's "I'm wearing a backpack" shooting form next, just to see him have a complete meltdown.

Weird Sports Proposal That I Can't Get Fired Up About Yet, But That Is Going to be a Thing Pretty Soon: FIFA World Cup

They might hold it every two years soon. Prepare your takes now, because within like...two months?...this is going to be all up in your face.