On October 29, 2018, the Oklahoma City Thunder, losers of their first four games to start the season, beat the Phoenix Suns.
Phoenix dropped to 1-5 that day, sinking into last place in the Western Conference, a position they would occupy for the rest of the season (as this goes to press and includes games through March 10, 2019, the Suns’ “tragic number” for clinching last place stands at four; they are 16-52, while the 14th-place Dallas Mavericks are 27-39.
In fact, the Suns would only manage to be as good as “tied for 14th” for two days, as they and the Mavericks were both 2-7 on both the 4th and 5th of November.
But something downright bizarre happened in the West. It seemed like every time a team dropped to 14th and threatened to end up out of the playoff picture, they’d go on a winning streak and yield 14th to someone else, who would only remain there for a couple of days, maybe a week.
Between October 29 and Christmas, the following teams occupied 14th place in the West:
Oct. 29: Thunder
Oct. 31: Rockets
Nov. 3: Mavs
Nov. 11: Timberwolves
Nov. 17: Mavs
Nov. 18: Timberwolves
Nov. 25: Jazz
Nov. 26: Timberwolves
Nov. 27: Jazz
Nov. 29: Rockets
It is here that we note that on the last day of November, 14th-place Houston was 9-11, just two games under .500, and just one game behind the 8th-place Pelicans. Anyway, on with the list:
Dec. 1: Spurs
Oh, and on December 1, the Grizzlies were 13-8 and in fifth, while the Mavs were 10-10 after starting 2-7. This will become relevant for reasons you’ve probably already figured out from context earlier in this piece.
Dec. 3: Jazz
Dec. 5: Spurs
Dec. 8: Rockets
Dec. 14: Timberwolves (at 13-15. Still just 2 below .500.)
Dec. 18: Jazz
Dec. 20: Timberwolves
Dec. 24: Pelicans (on Dec. 26, they would drop to 15-20, the first time a West team other than the Suns stood 5 games on the wrong side of .500 since early November.)
Finally, on January 8, the Mavericks and Grizzlies, each 18-22, were tied for that non-Suns bottom spot, but even on the eighth of January, with nearly half the season played, there were Western Conference teams one place above dead last who were closer to first place (nine games back of first-place Denver) than to last place (the Suns, at 9-32, were 9.5 games back of the Mavs and Grizz.)
So to recap, the Thunder, Rockets, Jazz, and Spurs, all playoff teams in a conference where the top eight is all but decided (San Antonio is 38-29; the ninth-place Kings are 33-32, three back in the loss column and four in the standings), were all at one point in the season in the worst spot you can be in without being dead last.
And Memphis and Dallas have both been top-8 teams; the Grizzlies were even in first place as late as Thanksgiving, when at 12-5 they sat atop the West. On that day, New Orleans, at 12-8, was a playoff team; they dropped to 14th just a month later.
Even the Timberwolves, for two glorious days in December between the 6th and the 8th, rose to 13-12 and staked a claim on the top 8.
Every Western Conference team has been in the top 8 for at least one day of the season—the Suns even won their first game to sit at 1-0 in October.
And a team that has a very real chance to end up in the NBA Finals and might, with a surge and a bit of fallback from the two teams above them, even get the No. 1 seed, the Rockets, were in 14th place on the eighth of December.
We have never seen a season this utterly weird for this long in NBA history, where even as late as Christmas and beyond, teams second up from the bottom were thinking less about tanking and more about how winning three in a row would have them right back in the playoff hunt.
It makes it all that much weirder that the field was all but decided in as much time as it took the Spurs to wrap up the awful 1-7 Rodeo Road Trip and get back to the business of what is at press time an eight-game home winning streak.
And sure, in May it’s going to be some combination of the Bucks, Rockets, 76ers, and Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals depending on how the seeding breaks out (and it pains me as a Pacers fan to say so but there’s no way that they’re getting past the second round even if they luck into a favorable 4-5 matchup in round one) and a pick-2 of the Warriors, Nuggets, and Rockets in the West. Only seven teams have a remotely realistic chance to win anything real this year, just like the NBA must inevitably reduce itself to in its top-heavy star-driven configuration.
But 14 teams with playoff hopes that aren’t utterly ridiculous at the halfway mark of the season? That, friends, is entertainment.