The NBA Board of Governors (the team owners) voted on a new playoff seeding format yesterday. The last time we saw a change, the Association decided to alter home-court advantage, ensuring that while division champions would still be given a top-4 seeding, the team with the better record in a playoff series would have the extra home game (and host the first two games). Now, starting with the 2016 postseason, division champions will no longer be given preferential seeding. The 1-8 seeds will be based strictly on win-loss record, which conceivably means that a division titlist could actually miss the postseason entirely. The division title itself now becomes a tie-breaker between teams with similar records.
(Insert predictable and inaccurate Atlantic Division jokes here. Do you know how hard it would be for a division champ to miss the playoffs in this scenario? Almost impossible.)
This may have some of basketball’s most beloved and loathed media types salivating for their dream conference-less playoffs. It’s been an idea that’s been bandied around since before you, dear reader, got a Twitter or Facebook account. With the new seeding format now in place, plenty of fans, media and possibly people within the Association will wonder what purpose will the actual divisions serve beyond having historic and geographic tie-ins. It’s something that we are guaranteed to hear for a while, even as the NBA and the NBPA move closer and closer to collective bargaining in a couple of years.
Of course, there’s one way to change that, and one that it’s hard to imagine that wasn’t one the table at some point; change the scheduling formula.
The Association could borrow from the unbalanced schedule that Major League Baseball and the NHL use, which features more games within the division, yet can avoid overdoing those matchups in the way those leagues tend to.
How could this work? Let’s use the defending champion Golden State Warriors as our example. Their schedule for the 2015-16 season is set up like this:
16 games within the Pacific Division: Phoenix, Sacramento and both Los Angeles teams (Clippers and Lakers) all split home and road dates evenly.
36 intra-conference games against teams in the other Western divisions: 18 against the Northwest Division and 18 against the Southwest Division.
- Northwest Division: 3 games each against two teams (two home/one road against Oklahoma City, one home/two road against Minnesota) = 6; 4 games apiece against three teams (two home/two road against Denver, Utah and Portland) = 12. The teams will rotate between the 3-game and 4-game sets over a few seasons.
- Southwest Division: 3 games a apiece against two teams (two home/one road against New Orleans, one home/two road against Houston) = 6; 4 games apiece against three teams (two home/two road against San Antonio, Houston and Dallas) = 12. As in the Northwest, teams in the Southwest will rotate between the 3-game and 4-game sets over a few seasons.
30 games versus all 15 teams in the Eastern Conference; one home/one road game season series with each team, 15 home and 15 road games
82 total regular season games (41 home, 41 road)
It’s a lot to take in at once, but here’s the gist of it for those who lost track; 52 games within the conference, 30 in the opposite conference. Of the 52 interconference games, one-third of them are against teams within the Warriors’ division. Just less than one-fifth (19.5%) of the Warriors’ entire season will be played within the Pacific Division. As it stands right now, Golden State plays more games against teams in the other Western groups than within their own.
Here's what a hypothetical modified schedule would look like:
20 games within the Pacific Division (four more than the current schedule)
- A 3-home/2-road game season series each against both Los Angeles teams
- A 2-home/3-road game season series each against Phoenix and Sacramento.
- Each other season, the third home game would be alternated between all teams so that the Warriors would get the extra home game against the Clippers in 2015/16 and the Clippers would have it the following year.
- 10 home games, 10 road games
32 intra-conference games against teams in the other divisions: 16 against the Northwest Division and 16 against the Southwest Division.
- Northwest Division: a 2-home/1-road game season series each against Utah and Oklahoma City, a 1-home/2-road game season series each against Portland and Denver, and one 2-home/2-road season series against Minnesota. Each type of season series would alternate between the five teams over five years.
- Southwest Division: a 2-home/1-road game season series each against San Antonio and Dallas, a 1-home/2-road game season series each against Houston and New Orleans, and one 2-home/2-road season series against Memphis. Each type of season series would alternate between the five teams over five years.
- 18 home games, 18 road games
30 games versus all 15 teams in the Eastern Conference; one home/one road game season series with each team, 15 home and 15 road games (unchanged)
82 total regular season games (41 home, 41 road)
As the current 82-game schedule does, a modified formula can retain the logistics of having visits from every team within the league. Of course, it's not so simple when league schedulers have to consider the hosting commitments of the team's arenas (not that it's a walk in the part now). After all, with the Islanders now in Brooklyn, ten arenas in North America house both NBA and NHL teams. Add the traditional lengthy road trips for some teams - examples: the Lakers and Clippers leave L.A. during Grammy Week, San Antonio's Rodeo kicks the Spurs out of town in February, the Knicks make room for the Big East Tournament - and coordinating a new slate of divisional matchups will take even more precision than normal.
At its core, there's a sentimental reason for re-emphasizing the league's divisions; good old fashioned hatred. No matter what's the league or game, the truth is that sports’ greatest passions stir between fan bases within a bus ride or short flight of each other. If there's one thing that the NBA is devoid of these days - and in comparison to the other major pro leagues - is a geographical rivalry where bad blood truly gets to boil. Not since the New York Knicks and Miami Heat traded fists and baskets have there been those kinds of regular season games that were hyped because of pure, unabated hatred within the division.
But maybe there doesn't need to be fights or literal blood. The last two seasons have given us the entertaining Warriors-Clippers rivalry, where personalities, meme-inspired crossovers and high-octane offense have given us some fantastic basketball. So just imagine one extra game between the only two Pacific Division teams worth a damn in the NBA right now. Or the super competitive Southwest, where all five teams made the playoffs last year. Or the Central, where the offseason darlings in Milwaukee try to challenge Chicago and Cleveland.
So, why not one extra game a year where a division crown, season bragging rights and a higher playoff seed would be on the line?
None of this stands to happen at this point, until the Eastern Conference as a whole shows that it's no longer the (L)east, it's probably inevitable that conference-less seeding will happen in the NBA. It doesn't mean that the six divisions shouldn't hold some weight, however. Even if the pendulum swings back to the East in the coming years - just as how baseball's National League and the NFC in the NFL have reasserted themselves in the last few years after years of fawning press about their American counterparts - the right scheduling formula should be able to survive the power shifts leagues tend to have over time.
Besides, division banners should be a bit more than participation trophies.
Jason is the editor-in-chief here at TSFJ. In addition to a past life as a research analyst in advertising, television and online media, he spent seven seasons as the New York Beacon's beat writer for the New York Giants. Jason has written for Yardbarker, Dime Magazine, Decider, Awful Announcing and The Week. He is also a member of his high school's 4th period gym class floor hockey champions.