Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Are NBA Divisions Deciding Who Is #1?

I just noticed something you might find interesting, too. In the NBA, in both conferences, the teams that are in first place are both in the divisions with the least teams making the playoffs. In other words, the teams that look the best are in what seem to be the weakest divisions.

For those of you who don’t follow the NBA enough to worry about the distinction between its conferences and divisions (forgivable, though objectively wrong, since everyone should follow the NBA), the NBA is divided into two conference (the Eastern and Western) and these are each divided into three divisions. Laid out on a map, you see that they are only roughly geographical.

For example, Memphis, TN is in the Western Conference. Similarly ridiculous, Minneapolis, MN is in the Northwest Division. (Oklahoma City is also in the Northwest Conference, but that’s because the team was in Seattle when the conference system was devised.) Geography aside, the number of times teams play one another is determined by their conferences and divisions. To quote NBA.com’s Hoopipedia, “Under this plan, teams play divisional opponents four times each (two home games/two road games), conference opponents outside the division three or four times each and opponents outside the conference two times each (one home game/one road game).” They play more games in their own conference, and even more in their own division. So why, on both the right and left coasts, are the number one teams in the weakest divisions? Is this cause or effect? Are these teams so good that they've driven their division rivals further down in the standings, or are they both weaker than they seem in that they have played weaker competition to earn their record number of wins?

Ultimately, the playoffs are organized to make this irrelevant. Seven game series don’t just show who is better on a single night; they do a good job of showing who is the better team. Teams that win their conferences don’t always win their way to the finals come playoff time. Even if the conference structure produces number one teams who can’t match their records once they are faced with the best opponents from stronger divisions for seven games, that's okay. “The truth will out.” In fact, it’s possible (though unlikely) that a few nights from now Miami may overtake Chicago in the Eastern Conference. Far more possible, San Antonio may overtake Oklahoma City in the Western Conference. Also, Milwaukee or Utah could crawl into the playoffs in the Central or Northwest Divisions, meaning those divisions wouldn't be the weakest in their conferences by that measure. In any of these scenarios, the phenomenon of both the best teams coming from the weakest divisions will come to an end before the playoffs begin. Still, for this brief moment in time, we have a glimpse of a way the conferences could be skewing the standings. It’s how they are skewing them that makes me wonder.

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