In the NBA, divisions mean less than they do in MLB and the NFL. What really matters in the NBA are the league’s two conferences — and even that is a topic of debate and speculation).
In the past, regular season winners of each division were awarded a one of the top two playoff seeds in their respective conference. When the league divisions were re-aligned to a three divisions per conference structure at the start of the 2004-2005 season, the seeding provision simply expanded to the winner of each division getting one of the top three seeds, regardless of overall record.
The Diminishing Importance of Divisions
Not long after the league moved to three divisions did it became obvious that the two best teams in a conference might belong to the same division and, as #1 and #4 seeds, would face off in the second round of the playoffs rather than the conference finals. To account for this, the NBA might the appropriate adjustment by awarding a top four seeding to each of a conference’s three division winners with placement between seeds 1-4 being based overall record.
For the past three seasons, though, the NBA has awarded the top eight teams in each conference a spot in the playoffs, regardless of division placement. Still, NBA divisions aren’t entirely meaningless. Winning one’s division is a secondary tie-breaker for playoff seeding (granted, that’s a far cry from the days when a division crown equaled an automatic top seed). Plus, coming out of the regular season with a division title is typically an indicator of a team’s superiority to the other four teams in that division.
So, even if divisions don’t mean as much now as they did in the past, there’s something to be said for being a division winner at the end of an 82-game season. And there’s something to be said for divisions that produce half of a conference’s playoff teams. The Western Conference’s Southwest division, home to the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Pelicans, and San Antonio Spurs, has long been the definition of a “power division” in the NBA, regularly producing 3-4 playoff contenders season after season.
The NBA’s New Powerhouse
It’s been a bit under the radar, but there’s a case to be made that the Northwest division is the new “power division” this season. The Portland Trailblazers have not yet claimed the division title, but are technically the lone team from the division to clinch a playoff berth this season with 48 wins thus far. But the teams in the “basement” of the division, the Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves, are only four games behind Portland and both teams are battling for one of the final spots in the Western Conference playoffs.
If the New Orleans Pelicans slip over between now and Wednesday, all five teams from the Northwest might find themselves in the playoffs. The last time an entire division made the playoff was 2014-2015 when all five teams in the aforementioned Southwest division accomplished that feat. (And it’s only actually happened twice since the league realigned into the current six division structure.)
Since the Northwest division’s inception in 2004, the Minnesota Timberwolves are the only team to never claim the division crown at the end of the season. In fact, the last time Minnesota even made the NBA playoffs was when they claimed the top record in the now-defunct Midwest division during the 2003-2004 season. And though they again won’t win the division this season, the Timberwolves have certainly made progress just by entering the playoff conversation for the first time in nearly a decade and a half.
A playoff draught like Minnesota’s hasn’t been nearly as long for the Nuggets, but Denver has refused to fall into obscurity all season and might just be able to claw their way to the eighth seed and make the playoffs for the first time in five years.
Down to the Final Game?
It’s not a lock, yet, but the Portland Trailblazers are likely to be the division winner come Wednesday night and the owners of the #3 seed in the West if they win out their final three games. But that’s certainly not a given – especially considering that in the final game of the regular season Portland hosts the Utah Jazz, currently riding a modest four game winning streak. That final game might just determine who wins not just the division, but the #3 seed and a likely date with the in-division foe Oklahoma City in the first round. And the runners-up? They’re likely to still get home-court advantage in the first round and take the Spurs. Playoff implications coming down to the final game of the year between division rivals is something the NFL tries its best to manufacture every season. It might just happen this year in the NBA.
Divisions don’t mean everything anymore, but when they mean something it can make the dog days of the regular season a bit more interesting than usual.