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Everybody Is Mad About the Tie-Breaker Thing


We clarified it last week: If the Celtics and Hawks finish with the same record, the C’s win the tie-breaker for the 3rd seed even though the Hawks swept the season series from Boston 4-0.

I’ve already written that the rule doesn’t sit well with me. When the league moved to six divisions, it initially guaranteed the top three seeds in each conference to the three division winners regardless of record. But in 2006, San Antonio and Dallas—both members of the Southwest Division—finished 1-2 in the Western Conference, and league rules mandated Dallas be seeded 4th.

Nobody liked that, so the league de-prioritized winning one’s division as a seeding criteria. But they found out in 2008 that they prioritized it (in the league’s view) too much. See if you can follow Peter May’s description (via ESPNBoston.com) of what happened in 2008 that caused a small panic in the league office:

Three of the teams were in the Southwest Division: Houston, New Orleans and the defending championSan Antonio Spurs. If those three teams ended in a tie, the league’s tiebreaker formula would kick in and give the division title to the Hornets. But that wasn’t the problem. The problem was the fourth team, the Lakers.

If all four teams ended with the same record, which was entirely possible, then the Rockets would emerge as the tiebreaker winner. And there you had it: A team that could not win its division under one scenario emerged as the No. 1 seed in the conference under another scenario. The league did not want that to happen.

So the league re-instituted winning one’s division as the top tie-breaker between two teams with identical records if one of those teams is not a division winner and the other one is.

And now here we are. And the backlash against this reality has begun. Here’s Jon Barry in Peter May’s piece:

“I don’t understand that at all,” said ESPN analyst Jon Barry. “Why wouldn’t head-to-head be No. 1? There’s no fairer barometer than head-to-head. It doesn’t seem right. I’m shocked. The Celtics are in a terrible division, which they’re going to win. But realistically, what does a division title mean anyway?”

I wrote last week that Atlanta is getting jobbed here, and that the league should move toward a system where the teams are seeded by record only. The problem with that, of course, is that divisions would seek to have any real meaning (other than perhaps preserving geographic rivalries). And if divisions have no real meaning, why have them?

Henry Abbott at TrueHoop takes the narrative a step further, asking: “Who cares about divisions?”

Here’s Henry:

The team I grew up supporting happens to play in one of the NBA’s least intuitive divisions. When I was younger, Portland had meaningful season-after-season standings squabbles with geographically relevant teams like the Seattle SuperSonics and the Los Angeles Lakers. Now the Lakers are in a different division and the Sonics are no more. It was always a long shot that a team from Minneapolis or Oklahoma City would really have that familiar rivalry feeling, and lumping them all together into the generously title “Northwest” division.

Oklahoma City is, I guess, northwest of the Caribbean. The Twin Cities are west of Lake Michigan.


But through it all — do you care? How much bragging can you do if your team wins its division? Are Denver and Utah locked in a contest for a better playoff spot, or a division crown?

I could be wrong, but I put it to you that division crown means almost nothing, and if you ignore it entirely, you miss almost nothing.

Abbott goes on to write that he’s “considering” rooting for the Hawks to finish ahead of the C’s so the weird tie-breaker rule doesn’t come into play.

But I submit Henry should be rooting for Boston and Atlanta to finish tied, precisely so that this rule does come into play and there are more Jon Barrys screaming about it. Because if the Jon Barrys of the world scream on television, fans will scream at bars and in comment sections, and a larger discussion might happen.

And it might be time to have a more serious discussion about a division-less future.

  • coco

    “Abbott goes on to write that he’s “considering” rooting for the Hawks to finish ahead of the C’s so the weird tie-breaker rule doesn’t come into play.”

    He can always root for the Cs to finish ahead of the Hawks. Hater. :)

  • Berkcelt

    Please. We need less screaming Jon Barrys in this world, not more.

    I do agree the rule is no good, but only because the divisions don’t mean anything. Really there are only two divisions, East and West. If teams schedules were weighted more towards teams in the same division, like baseball or football, it wouldn’t be so counterintuitive. Although people would probably whine a river about how weak the Celtics division is. Of course some idiots still do that anyway.

  • DRJ1

    Typo – 2nd paragraph: “league rules mandated Dallas be seeded 2nd” — Dallas had to be seeded 4th, that was the problem.

    If we want NO problems like this, eliminate Divisions. Personally I like them, but it doesn’t really matter much. If you ARE going to keep Divisions, then the way the rules are this year is as reasonable as any other way. Whatever set of rules you choose, there will be SOME possible problem. The one this year is relatively minor, one we can live with.

    Btw, schedules are weighted, slightly, in favor of teams in the same Division. All such teams always play a full 4 games against each other. Against other teams in the same Conference but not the same Division, a team will sometimes play only 3 games/season.

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  • dont_drink_the_koolaid

    @DRJ thanks. i was wondering if the schedules were weighted to divisional games but too lazy to look it up.

    divisions are a lame league attempt to create rivalries. they don’t mean anything. would anyone wear a ‘Celtics Atlantic Division Champions 2010′ tshirt even if they gave them away for free? biggie and 2pac knew it was always about east coast/west coast……stern should recognize….liquor on the curb.

  • Perry

    @DRJ1: Botton line…The tie breaker should go to the team with the better head to head record.

    Celts stand to catch a huge break here. Given the never ending rash of injuries this season we can use a break or two.

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  • Berkcelt

    Intraconference I think it’s only 4 teams that are played 3 times. I don’t consider that a significant weighting.

  • Jrmz

    I dont know what divisions are for but there seems to be divisions in every sport anyway..the MLB and the NFL have divisions. In the NFL, the divisions mean something since you only play 16 games and those in your division you meet twice. As for the MLB…can’t figure our what their divisions are for just like the NBA. Should Boston be given the 3rd seed? I don’t think so. Plus heck who cares..maybe the 3rd seed helps us, maybe the 4th seed helps us.. either way it doesn’t do anything past the first round since you’re playing the magic or the cavs in the second round and they got home court..not unless they meet in the finals does it matter..Boston-Atlanta finals?

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  • Anthony

    Wouldnt the Hawks get home court advantage if they face the Celtics in the Playoffs if it they had identical record?? That’s their reward for winning the head-to-head match-ups. It’s not the Celtics fault that their division suck.

    And supposingly, if every team in the Atlantic division have a winning record against the Celtics but they still manage to win the division, should they still win the division?

    Celtics have a better division and conference record than the Hawks so doesnt that count for anything??

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  • Rav

    Isn’t the intent of the divsion grouping and the conference grouping to reduce travel?

    As to the actual schedule: I don’t know why a team will play all but 4 teams in their conference 4 times (with these 4 teams being played only 3 times). A few problems:

    1. How can you divide home and away games fairly when 3 games are played?

    2. Is it fair if for Team A these teams are weak teams (so they lose out on 4 chances for wins), while Team B these teams are strong (so they avoid 4 potential losses)?

    3. Isn’t it just strange?

    I have 3 solutions:

    1. Make these 4 teams the other teams in your division. (This would defeat the point of the division though)

    2. Play these 4 teams four times. This will increase the season length to 86 games. (A 4.9% increase – not too drastic)

    3. Play every team in the conference only 3 times. This would shorten the season to 72 games, which would appease those who say the season is too long (A reduction of 12%, meaning a revenue reduction – for the team owner – of less than 10% – which is still a lot – because not all the revenue comes from tickets/concessions etc.). HCA would be alternated every year, e.g.

    Year 1: Team A has 2 home games, 1 away game against Team B
    Year 2: Team A has 1 home game and 2 away games against Team B…and so on

    4. Play half the teams in one’s own conference 3 times, the other half 4 times. this reduces the season to 79 games, a reduction of 4%. The teams played 4 times and the teams played 3 times would be alternated every year, and HCA alternated each two-year cycle, i.e.

    Year 1: Team A has 2 home games and 1 away game against Team B
    Year 2: Team A plays Team B four times (2 home & 2 away)
    Year 3: Team A has 1 home game and 2 away games against Team B
    Year 4: Team A plays Team B four times… and so on

    (wow. sorry for the idiotically long post)

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