When we're not commiserating with the fine denizens of Bright Side of the Sun in the comment threads or tending to our underground auto theft business, us staff writers here at BSOTS often spend time bickering with eachother through email chains.
During one such discussion this past summer, we were debating the Vegas over/under on 43 wins for the Phoenix Suns. I should say, we all agreed that the over was the safe bet except for that bottomless well of unpopular opinions, Bryan Gibberman.
Gibby postulated that the West had improved even more than the year prior, when 48 wins wasn't enough for the Suns to extend their season.
I strongly disagreed.
Houston had a paperthin bench with Ish Smith and Joey Dorsey set to back up the 1 and 5 spots. The Mavs' signing of Chandler Parsons was the most overpublicized move of the offseason. Portland didn't do much of anything to improve a team that looked largely average in the second half of the season. The Clippers were still starting Matt Barnes. The Thunder still hadn't found a third scorer. Steve Kerr was an unknown factor.
Every team looks great in September, I reasoned. It's when February and March roll around that we can begin to separate activity from achievement.
I thought that most of the transactions made over the summer in the West fell in the latter category.
My reason for this was admittedly a rather flimsy form of logic -- I figured that the law of averages would pull the West back to it's usual spot of being merely superior to it's Eastern counterpart (rather than absurdly elite), and I simply couldn't fathom the pendulum still being on the upswing.
Well, it was. And perhaps it still is.
If you need a barometer of how competitive the Western landscape is, consider that the Golden State Warriors recently won their 60th game of the season yet they can't even be considered clear-cut favorites in their own conference.
Or consider that the Dallas Mavericks are likely the weakest link in the playoff bracket, but are bringing Dirk Nowitzki, Rajon Rondo and Rick Carlisle to the party.
How about the sobering fact that the West has three (Harden, Curry, Westbrook) or possibly even four (Chris Paul) players that are deserving of the MVP award?
Would a Finals run from any of the top eight teams even register shock? Mild surprise, perhaps, but not much more.
Where my logic failed was that I neglected to consider that so many of last year's playoff attendees had even more to play for this time around. Houston had legitimate Finals aspirations after landing Dwight Howard, but were unceremoniously dispatched in the first round by Portland. As a result, James Harden stepped up his game from star player to MVP candidate.
Dallas was a mild surprise in 2013/14 and are now in a similar situation as the Suns were in during the 2009/10 season -- their window of contention with Nowitzki is almost shut and they are desperate for a last chance at glory before years of botched drafts finally catch up to them.
After years of being a day late and a dollar short, Memphis has finally assembled an adequate supporting cast to go along with the guy who probably should have been coaching them all along in Dave Joerger -- right as Zach Randolph enters the twilight of his career.
Oklahoma City probably needs a championship more than any team in the NBA as Kevin Durant inches closer to free agency. Is it a coincidence that Russell Westbrook has joined Harden in taking that extra leap to MVP consideration? Probably not.
The Clippers are facing sheer embarrassment if they don't at least make the Conference Finals at this point after so many successful regular seasons have ended in early disappointment. Chris Paul has to realize that his current legacy is marked by postseason shortcomings just as much as his rare status among the perennially elite.
The insane level of competition in this conference goes far beyond basketball talent, of which there is a plethora. It is truly emphasized in a much more personal sense. There are a handful of veteran teams jumbled together who have already taken their share of lumps and have bit into this season with a vengeance.
There are also the San Antonio Spurs, who for all intents and purposes reduce the Western playoff bracket to seven teams, not eight. The last year in which they failed to make the playoffs was 1997. That year 39 member's of the Heaven's Gate cult committed mass suicide in San Diego. The Phoenix Lights phenomenon occurred in which an apparent UFO floated slowly across the Phoenix skyline. The English Patient won the Oscar for Best Picture, somehow beating out Fargo.
Since these bizarre events unfolded, the Spurs haven't finished a season with a winning percentage under .610 and only the 1998 lockout would prevent them from winning 50 games for what is about to be 18 straight seasons.
Considering the above factors, there was an question that couldn't be answered before the season and can't be answered now: If the Suns are to make the playoffs, who is dropping out?
The hopes and expectations of their fanbase were unfairly (but understandably) ratcheted upwards after the 2013/14 season, but all the while the Suns were playing the role of Llewelyn Moss in Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, fighting valiantly at times but ultimately unable to escape the crushing inevitability of fate.
The heartbreaking buzzer-beaters and melodramatic antics of Goran Dragic were only footnotes. The Suns never stood a chance in this climate.
After Thursday's loss in Oakland, they now stand at 8-20 versus the West playoff teams. There have been blowouts, dogfights, double-overtime showdowns, buzzer-beaters, and everything in between. Yet the real reason these 20 games were lost isn't as much a reflection on this Suns team and the multiple forms it has taken this season, but rather a testament to the brutal nature of the eight teams in question, all of which boast at least one star player and all of which are in varying stages of their competitive prime.
They're the kind of teams that can win a game with a single well-timed 20-4 run, and seem to do so like clockwork.
Expecting the Suns to throw in with this lot was an exercise in faith right from the beginning. That they were in the playoff picture at all should probably be commended.
Surely it's no coincidence that the Suns' front office has reshaped the roster to one with a competitive window that likely won't truly open for another season, rather than forging ahead with the nearly-29-year-old Dragic.
They have stayed true to their word and not carried forth the previous regime's modus operandi of hopelessly chasing the backend of the playoffs in lieu of building a future foundation, and it is only through the sheer power of irony that they still find themselves drafting in the late stages of the lottery.
The possibility of playoff realignment looms, though it will surely face fierce opposition from the owners of Eastern Conference teams. Regardless of where those chips may fall, in the West you gotta come heavy or not at all. There is simply no room for underdogs.