Right now, in the NBA, a war is being fought. There are no heroes, but there are victims. None are innocent, but some are weak while some are strong. This war has raged for months and will only give way to another, bloodier campaign. In the western half of the nation, no team can escape the slings and arrows of war, no team can avoid the blood-soaked battleground that awaits.
The Eastern Conference, however, escaped long ago, retreating into what may look like a safe haven but is actually closer to a halfway house. Some teams, like the Toronto Raptors and the Chicago Bulls, have risen from their beds in the infirmary to challenge their grim stewards, but the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers remain implacable, above the mewling struggles of their charges. No, the contest is fought in the vast, open spaces of the American West.
The corpses of the fallen litter the ground, the ashes of burnt out arenas mixing with the dust that once was the Los Angeles Lakers, the Utah Jazz, the Sacramento Kings. These teams have fallen quickly, with little fight, even though scant years ago they were loaded to bear. The Lakers, in specific, show a grimacing rictus of regret and recrimination. This pauper was once king, here. All have been eliminated from playoff contention. All have reasons to be excited about the coming draft. None will rise again this season.
Some are not deceased, but are too far gone to recover. These mortally injured teams have yet to arrange their affairs, and some still think of a miracle that might spirit them into the next echelon. For the New Orleans Pelicans, the Denver Nuggets and, yes, the Minnesota Timberwolves, we offer a moment of silence and an internal wish for more success in the next tilt. These teams are not dead, but there is no hope. The war leaves suffering, and these teams have soaked more than their share.
Standing atop the defiant yet broken sit the soldiers of war in the nightmarish landscape. The teams on the fringe, occupying spaces five through nine, welcome the Portland Trail Blazers to their ranks, a castoff from the overlords above. None of these teams will fight in their home turf in the first time, and one of them won’t fight at all. The Phoenix Suns are a mere one game behind the Memphis Grizzlies, who are in turn a half game behind the Dallas Mavericks, who have crept to within a game and a half of the Golden State Warriors who are themselves only a game and a half back of the Blazers. This showdown grows more heated with each passing day, and the standards of excellence just to meet mediocrity simply grow higher. The Phoenix Suns look at the other teams as though a lifetime away, their own wounds bleeding ever more, even when they expected to be destroyed by March.
The true killers stand above, a club for which the Houston Rockets now fight desperately to gain entry to. These four teams will go to war on their own grounds, and one will carry that, potentially through the finals and toward a championship. The Blazers may be nipping at Houston’s heels, but the Los Angeles Clippers sit above, all but implacable. The Oklahoma City Thunder, a juggernaut in blue and white. The ever stony San Antonio Spurs wait on the crest of the hill, face cold and emotionless as the blood of the fallen, the weak, streams between the sun-blasted stones of central Texas.
There is no mercy, no respite for the Rockets. Any time they feel comfortable, even for a moment, another team is there to strike. The Blazers will be gunning for the Rockets, sniping for their position in the standings. If the Rockets want to wear their own red banner into the final battle, that banner will necessarily be painted with the life’s blood of the other teams occupying this stage. When any tiny losing streak puts one’s life in peril, danger is the only way. The Western Conference is a wind-swept nightmare for those who toil, who battle, who fall in the name of duty. For those watching from home? There could be no more amazing spectacle than the blood-soaked battlefield of the West.