The NBA, and sports in general, have evolved in the last 30 years. I don’t just mean in terms of how they’re played, but also in the way they’re taken in and consumed by the American public. And in an unobvious sort of way, that’s a part of the reason why the NBA has devalued the significance of divisions.
The latest byproduct of this trend are the new seeding changes, whereby the division winner is no longer guaranteed a top four seed, or for that matter, even a playoff spot. And head-to-head trumps division winner in tiebreaks now.
The “old fart” in me wants to reject this out of hand. I grew up appreciating divisions, but the world was different then.
I grew up in the late ’70s and ’80s. When I was 10, we got cable for the first time. It was cool. No more taking turns with my brothers trying to bend the rabbit ear antennas in just the right way, rolling up tinfoil and attaching it to the end, and then having the reception all go to garbage the moment you let it go.
Cable was cool and clean. It was like a constant picture!
And the best part about it — you got 12 channels!!! Count ‘em! Of course, we still had to get up to change them because we had an “Armstrong” tuner, but you could almost always find something to watch, even if it was old reruns of Hazel.
But when it came to sports, it was still pretty locally driven. You grew up cheering for the team in your city because that was pretty much the only team you could watch. And the first goal of every team was to win their division, regardless of what sport it was.
That’s because you played your division teams the most. You grew to know those teams better than the teams that were outside of your team’s division because you actually saw them play. For the NBA, it was still pretty normal to see games on tape delay. The first game I ever watched was the 76ers beating the Houston Rockets in the Eastern Conference Finals two days after it happened.
There was no “League Pass,” so you watched what you could and doggone it you liked it! Because you really didn’t have any choice in the matter.
But that was the world I grew up in, and too often I see my Facebook page cluttered with “When I was young we didn’t spend all our time on our phones, we played outside” memes and I want to say, “Shut up. You’re on Facebook complaining about how young people spend too much time online, and you don’t see the hypocrisy in that?”
My point is that change usually happens because it’s supposed to. What “was” wasn’t cutting it, so what “is” replaces it. Change isn’t always for the better, but it usually is. And old fart or not, I have to accept that this is one of the times.
The fact is that now the league has changed, and as much in the way it’s watched and absorbed by the world as the way it’s played. Consider this comparison. In 1981, of the 17 games played in the two Conference Finals and NBA Finals — three of them were aired live. What do you think that said about the importance of national regular-season games?
By contrast, this year 143 regular-season games will be broadcast on national TV. And they’re all live. And for those willing to shell out the money, there’s League Pass. And with all that comes options.
In addition, there’s the wonderful Interweb we’ve weaved, which allows you to see clips of every magnificent dunk, crossover or step-back on Twitter moments after it happens. It’s a big television watching social bonanza. And it’s easier and easier to know, like and embrace other players and teams outside your division.
And as that happens, fans care less about the division. And when it comes times for playoff seeding, and we see the Portland Trail Blazers getting seeded above better teams, we see the inherent unfairness in rewarding a bad division winner.
Don’t be mistaken. This isn’t a new deal. As recently as 2006, the Denver Nuggets waltzed into a No. 3 seed with a mere 44-win season, just because they won their division. Under the new rules, they would’ve been eighth, losing the head-to-head tiebreak with the Sacramento Kings.
By then, we’d already begun to have a turn in our thinking away from the importance of division titles, but that wasn’t the chief concern in 2006. The San Antonio Spurs had the West’s best record with 63 wins, while the Dallas Mavericks were second with 60 wins. But because the two best teams in Conference were the 1 and 4 seeds, the objections were over the unfairness of them not being able to meet in the Conference Finals.
Ergo, the NBA opted to shed the rights of the division winner to a top three seed, the very next year. We weren’t quite ready to abandon division entirely.
Now, though, the division banner means little more than the cloth it’s printed on. And for the most part, this is the fairer, more egalitarian way of doing things. But there are still problems with it until the league adjusts the scheduling along with it.
For example, the Southwest and Central Divisions will respectively be the toughest in each conference. Every team in both could be in playoff contention, and every team will have to face each of those other teams four times.
Meanwhile, the other weaker contenders will get to face easier competition on a nightly basis. Oklahoma City will get four games each against the Utah Jazz, the diluted Portland Trail Blazers, the Denver Nuggets and the Minnesota Timberwolves. Conceivably, only the Thunder make the postseason out of that division.
And in the Atlantic Division last season, the Toronto Raptors were the only team that had a record above .500. The average non-Canadian team in it had 28.5 wins. The average non-champion in the Southwest had 51.3 wins — or 2.3 more than the Raptors had. Point being, not only are divisions still rewarding teams, but they’re also punishing those that are in the tougher ones.
If you’re going to take away the award and benefits of winning a challenging division, remove the obstacles, too. Even out the scheduling.
This feels ham-fisted. It’s a half change that moves the problem more than it solves it. It’s not that getting away from divisions is wrong, but if you’re going to do it, do it all the way.
Otherwise, we could end up with a Southwest Division winner with a much tougher schedule finishing a game behind a weaker team and losing a seeding spot — not because they were a worse team, but because they played better ones.
And if the whole point is to address fairness, make it fair.