NBA Divisions: Make them Fight For It

Jan 1, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry (7) and center Jonas Valanciunas (17) and power forward Amir Johnson (15) react to a play during the fourth quarter of a game at the Air Canada Centre. Toronto won the game 95-82. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports


 In 2008, the Golden State Warriors amassed a very respectable 48 wins but missed the playoffs in the hyper-competitive Western Conference. It was the largest win total in league history that resulted in a trip to lottery (fun fact: the Warriors then drafted future “Hall of Famer” Anthony Randolph). This year, with the conferences once again sadly but predictably lopsided, there has been much caterwauling about the weakness of the East in general, and the Atlantic Division in particular. Is it fair that up to four or five teams in the West will have better records than their Eastern counterparts and yet fail to reach the playoffs? No, of course not, but that may just be our obsession with the idea of micro-fairness and I have a silly idea that may rectify this.

Make these so-called division “winners” fight for it.

Before that, another few words on the sordid state of the Eastern Conference. The discrepancy this year between the Good (the West) and the Worse Than I Could Have Ever Dreamed (the East) has led to another spate of hoop head articles pushing for some playoff structuring revolution.

Maybe there is something to be said for the “novel” idea of letting the teams with the 16 best records in the league go to the playoffs, conferences be damned. The pushback to this is that fans in the “East” (which as we know is a homogenous area that stretches from the acid rain skies of Milwaukee to the humid sprawl of Miami) will tune out and this will severely damage TV ratings. I am sure many have pointed out the complete banality of watching the Indiana Pacers or Miami Heat waste their time on bottom feeders might also turn people into NBA iconoclasts. If the playoffs started today, Indiana would play Boston and though Boston is a large market and Indiana is a small one, the extreme unlikelihood of that series even reaching five games seems like a stronger disincentive than mere municipality based loyalty. Is it just that the league counts on casual fans to tune in when “superstars” like Boston’s Avery Bradley or Jared Sullinger lace em’ up? This seems akin to the calculated (but gross) triangulation policy of Republicans and Democrats during the general election: say the right things to the base and then assiduously court the people who don’t really care either way (there are many more people in this category).

I propose that the NBA ought to shore up its base and give them (the people who actually care) a worthy post-season product, something that at least honors the unpredictable. The Indiana Pacers playing the New Orleans Pelicans or the Minnesota Timberwolves in a series without a foregone conclusion is so much better for the NBA and so much better for basketball.

(A counter-argument I am willing to entertain: mere record doesn’t accurately reflect quality or excitement factor and there are bad teams and there are “bad” teams. The same year the 48-win Warriors failed to make the playoffs was the fateful year that the Atlanta Hawks, a fixture of the “entertaining but not that great” school of hoops, crept into the post-season with a record several games below .500. They proceeded to play out of their minds, take the Celtics {who would go on to win the championship that year} to seven games, and use their success in that series as a springboard for several years of regular season gold and many more trips to the playoffs. It’s always possible for those things to happen, but much more likely the 8th seed in the wretched East will resemble the hapless Milwaukee Bucks of last season, a depressing four game waste of time.)

There’s already a pretty strong feeling that NBA divisions are an obsolete, (not to mentioned gerrymandered) entity that don’t serve any real purpose and are almost designed to backfire, especially in the case of chronic underperformance. As I mentioned, the Atlantic Division is a pretty depressing piece of work, made only slightly respectable by occasional tiny win streaks by the Boston Celtics and the mild competence of the post Rudy Gay Raptors (who find themselves at the dreaded To Blow It Up or To Aggressively Chase the First Round Exit Quandary). Together with the serious dysfunction of the New York teams, and the not-goodness of the Philadelphia 76ers, these teams are collectively what the French would call les incompetents. And yet, one of them is guaranteed the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference!

Questions of fairness and some mythical exact perfect representation of the fanbases of the continental United States (and Toronto) is one thing, but come on! That is absurd. Let’s say Toronto, Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Brooklyn all fail to win a single game from this point on this season. Stop those guffaws; it’s only a half insane idea. One of those teams (currently Toronto) would be assured that number four seed. And this is a league that unlike the NFL or the MLB, is strictly an East/West split and doesn’t make use of a Wild Card system. Divisions are thus completely superfluous and just plain weird to boot.

Abolish divisions? That would be great, but if you are going to keep them, they have to come with some sense of danger. It’s criminal a team can count on the crumminess of their nearest peers to help them get to the post-season. It may seem ridiculous to introduce a moral component to this, but it just isn’t right. I’d like to suggest something radical, something inconceivable, something medieval almost. Any team with a superior winning percentage that falls outside the top 8 of their conference should be allowed to “challenge” a team that has won less but holds down a spot in their respective Top 8. A very poorly rendered sentence, but here’s an example: say the Dallas Mavericks finish 9th in the West with 49 wins. They can then challenge any playoff team in the East (as long as they have a lower winning percentage) for that spot. We’ll let the East team host and enjoy homecourt advantage. If they win, great, awesome, they’re in. But if they lose, it’s lottery time and nobody can say that it’s unfair. In a strictly fair world, they wouldn’t have been a playoff team in the first place! This way the demands of “honor” are met and there is incentive to play hard every game and to never be complacent because you happen to exist in an awful conference (or worse, division).

Basketball should be fun and dangerous. In the “real world” I believe in the welfare state and paying it forward and helping thy neighbor and compassion and love and all that junk, but the thrill of this game (especially the playoffs) is watching the best of the best. Not the best of the best wasting everyone’s time embarrassing the Bucks.

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