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?”
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.