The NBA is divided into six divisions. Before the entry of the Charlotte Bobcats in 2004-05, only four divisions existed. The NBA revised its divisional structure to accommodate the 30th team, and that is how it has always been since. Why do divisions matter in NBA games today? In hindsight, what are the league’s rule changes regarding division champions? You are about to find out.
What are the NBA Divisions?
The current NBA divisions are the Atlantic, Central, Southeast, Northwest, Pacific, and Southwest. These divisions are further split into two conferences: Atlantic, Southeast, and Central are under the Eastern Conference, and the rest belongs to the Western Conference.
When there were only 29 teams in the NBA, there were only four divisions under two conferences. These were the Atlantic, Central, Midwest, and Pacific divisions. The entry of the 30th team invoked a realignment and that’s how the NBA divisions are as of the moment.
Why is NBA Split into Conferences and Divisions?
Conferences and divisions were carryovers from the past and have existed since the league was in its infancy. Grouping teams together in the same region lessens travel, and less travel means fewer expenses. The NBA was different from the marketing and revenue machine it is today, so they did the division and conference thing for these reasons.
The NBA kept the division and conference formats for possibly other reasons as well. Here are some logical theories:
- The NBA wanted to create inter-division rivalries. The biggest rivalry there is in the NBA was the Lakers-Celtics, and they are itching to cash in on some more. The closest to an inter-division rivalry are the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs (Southwest).
- The league wanted to minimize player fatigue due to travel. Teams in each division play each other four times each season, while the majority are only three. However, the players travel on chartered jets and receive the best accommodations, so it shouldn’t matter that much.
- Divisions were used for seeding purposes, but the NBA has already abolished said rule. (More on that later.) Nevertheless, division records are still used for tiebreakers.
Conferences exist because of the same logic, but only on a larger scale. Traveling cross-country in America (and Canada) was a logistical nightmare back then, so the league had to do something; that’s why conferences were created.
Teams have come and gone during the league’s history, and the same with its structure. As additional clubs joined the NBA, the decision was taken in 1970 to divide the league into two formal conferences– the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference.
In addition to logistical reasons, conferences are also used for seedings. There are only eight teams in each conference that advances to the playoffs. (Before the 2019-20 season, the top eight teams earn outright playoff seeds. Now, there is a play-in tournament for the sixth seed to the tenth to determine which club advances to the postseason.)
How Do NBA Divisions Work?
There are six divisions, each with five teams, for a total of 30 teams. For a total of 16 games, each side plays each opponent in the same division four times (twice at home, twice away). Teams from other divisions in the same conference play each other three times. Winning the division may not matter as much now, but it is used as a tiebreaker if at least two teams finish with the same record.
Do NBA Divisions Matter?
Yes and no. Yes, it mattered before, and no, because the NBA rightfully changed the rule.
Believe it or not, division titles were practically a trump card when it came to determining playoff seeding. The rule was that division champs automatically held the top three seeds in the playoffs. If this arrangement was made to make things interesting in the playoffs, it proved counterintuitive.
Imagine this scenario: Say the Los Angeles Lakers (Pacific Division) ended up with a better record than the OKC Thunder in the NBA standings. However, the Purple and Gold did not win the division; the Golden State Warriors did.
According to this rule, the Thunder earns a better seed over the Lakers, which could affect the matchups down the line. It’s expected that Los Angeles will be matched up with better opponents (the fifth seed) instead of the seventh or eighth-seeded team. Winning all those games would mean nothing.
And guess what, something of this nature happened in 2005-06. Teams and fans were not happy, to say the least. The San Antonio Spurs (63-19) won the division and secured the No. 1 seed in the West. However, the Dallas Mavericks were second in the standings but were seeded fourth because they were in the same division as the Spurs. The Suns and Nuggets were the second and third seeds, respectively, for winning theirs.
Here’s the rub: The two best teams in the West met in the semifinals, where the Mavericks took out the Spurs in Game 7. If not for this rule, Dallas and San Antonio would not cross paths until the Conference Finals, right where the fans want them to be. After all, they were No. 1 and 2 in the West standings.
The “division champs secure higher seeds” rule was rightfully abolished, but not after nine seasons. Since 2015, the NBA now seeds teams based solely on the standings, with tiebreakers if certain clubs end up with the same record. It took long enough for the NBA to get rid of that rule, but it’s better late than never.
With the ruling abrogated, divisions only matter because of scheduling. Other than that, they are largely irrelevant.
Should the NBA Get Rid of Divisions and Conferences?
For now, the NBA doesn’t plan to, but they could very well be in the near future. There are always outside talks of changes and re-alignment, even of getting rid of conferences and just letting the top 16 teams enter the playoffs. All these are just talk, though no one knows if they are being considered.
But from a logical standpoint, it wouldn’t matter (at least for now) to eliminate divisions. As far as scheduling is concerned, playing every team in a division one more time than teams in the conference is pretty much negligible. It’s easier to implement some tweaks without divisions. It doesn’t matter if Boston plays Detroit more than their current division foes Toronto. Either way is a two-hour flight.
Here’s the rub, though. Abolishing conferences is more complicated and, quite frankly, a health and scheduling nightmare. Don’t be surprised if the number of players is cut down in half by January because of all the cross-country travel and whatnot. On top of that, conferences built rivalries, not divisions, so the latter can go, but the former should stay.
For now, everybody’s just asking, “Why are there divisions in NBA still?” Nobody knows, and they could be on their way out.
Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference
Parity has always been the goal for the NBA in order for them to market a better product. In the history of the NBA, the East leads the West in championships, 40-36. The East also trumps the West in All-Star Game wins, 37-39.
Make no mistake about it, though; the West has dominated since the calendar turned 2000. Because of the efforts of the Lakers, Spurs, Mavericks, and Warriors, the West has 15 championships, while the East has had eight over the last 23 years.
Wrapping Things Up: Why Do Divisions Matter in NBA?
The NBA’s division system has been around since its inception. Apparently, it was a big part of practically everything the NBA has done, including the playoffs and scheduling. From four, it has expanded to six since the league grew to 30 teams. The Atlantic, Central, and Southeast divisions are in the Eastern Conference, while the Northwest, Pacific, and Southwest divisions are in the West.
Before 2015, division winners (or champions) were automatically awarded the top three seeds in the playoffs. This could be problematic because the fourth-seeded team could technically be better record-wise than the second and third seeds. The team with the better record may end up matched up with better teams and basically being punished.
It’s exciting and all, but it’s confusing why a team with a better slate ends up having the short end of the stick. The NBA has since abolished that rule, and now, the top eight teams in each conference are seeded based on the standings.
So, why do divisions matter in NBA proceedings now? Primarily, it’s a yardstick for scheduling. Teams bundled up in a division are relatively close to each other geographically. That’s why it makes sense to play each other four times because it means less fatigue for the players. Other than that, it’s practically useless. It could be on the way out, but NBA might keep the divisions for now because it has always been there. It’s a tradition, and they may not want to mess with tradition.
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