When the NBA returned to Charlotte in 2004-05 – making the Bobcats the league’s 30th team – it simultaneously reconstituted its divisional structure. Before the expansion, there were four divisions that encompassed 29 organizations. Afterwards, that number was broadened to six, each with five different teams.
At the time, it was a consequential aspect of the league’s composition. Not only was each team guaranteed to play inter-divisional foes four times a year – compared to three games against most other teams in the same conference – the winner of each division was ensured a top-four seed in post-season play.
In terms of maximizing playoff fervor, this proved to be an inefficient strategy.
For instance: In 2005-06, the San Antonio Spurs won 63 games to lead the Southwest division. The Dallas Mavericks, a member of the same division, had the second most wins in the Western Conference (60). But because the Phoenix Suns (54 wins) and Denver Nuggets (44 wins) won the conference’s other two divisions, they earned higher positions in the playoff standings. The Mavericks wound up with the fourth seed and faced the Spurs in the conference semi-finals.
In response to years of backlash, this loophole was eliminated in 2015. Today, playoff seeding is decided by conference standings, making divisions largely irrelevant. The only implication that persists is one additional regular season matchup.
So we started wondering: why does the NBA continue to maintain its divisional structure? Is it significant, and are there any unintended consequences? In the doldrums of summer, we thought now would be a good time to have a back-and-forth conversation on the topic.
Your tweet got my gears turning. Does it make a difference – any given season – that a team plays in a stronger division? The Wolves, as an example, have three games against most Western Conference teams each year, but four against the Thunder, Jazz, Blazers and Nuggets. It’s only one extra game (or four total), so it can’t be very meaningful, right?
Well, sort of. But let’s look closely at last year’s standings.
- Houston Rockets: 65 – 17
- Golden State Warriors: 58 – 24
- Portland Trail Blazers: 49 – 33
- Oklahoma City Thunder: 48 – 32
- Utah Jazz: 48 – 32
- New Orleans Pelicans: 48 – 32
- San Antonio Spurs: 48 – 32
- Minnesota Timberwolves: 47 – 33
- Denver Nuggets: 46 – 34
- Los Angeles Clippers: 42 – 40
- Los Angeles Lakers: 35 – 47
- Sacramento Kings: 27 – 55
- Dallas Mavericks: 24 – 58
- Memphis Grizzlies: 22 – 60
- Phoenix Suns: 21 – 61
Outside of the Wolves, the rest of the Northwest Division won 191 games (58.2 percent). If you were to put a replacement-level team in the Wolves’ spot, they would — mathematically — have about a 41.8 (1 – .582) percent chance of winning each inter-division contest. Since that hypothetical group would have to play their excess games against four above average teams, they would be at a relative disadvantage. Of those four matchups, they could be expected to win 1.66 (4 x .418).
Contrarily, the New Orleans Pelicans – a member of the Southwest Division – play four games against the Spurs, Mavericks, Grizzlies and Rockets. Outside of the Pelicans, that division won just 48.17 percent of its games in 2017-18. If the same replacement level team were put in the Pelicans’ spot, they would be expected to win 2.073 ((1 – .4817) x 4) of four surplus inter-division contests.
By the time the dust settled on last season, the Pelicans had won 48 games. They wound up with the Western Conference’s sixth seed and swept the Blazers in the first round of the playoffs. The Wolves, on the other hand, won 47 games and were blown out by the first-seeded Rockets. The analysis above suggests that, by being in a weaker division, the Pelicans naturally won about .413 (2.073 – 1.66) more games than the Wolves; not enough to cover the one-game difference between their records, but a meaningful variance nonetheless.
Certainly, this isn’t perfect math. But it paints a decent picture of the analytical significance of divisional play.
The Wolves were just one win away from finishing with the fourth seed, Dane. Do you think it mattered that they were in the league’s best division? What do you think about this format in general?
Is there anything good about divisions?
Well, in other sports, yes there is. With fewer teams making the playoffs in baseball and football, the rounding down into a smaller group battling among themselves for a playoff spot is fun. Divisions are not fun in basketball. Divisional rivalries do not exist. If a team has a rival within their division it is likely happenstance and the real rivalry comes from historically significant games in the playoffs. Not regular season. The LeBron James Cavaliers and Paul George/Lance Stephenson Pacers (Central Division) come to mind as a recent example, as do Kobe’s Lakers and Steve Nash’s Suns (Pacific Division).
Tangent aside, this is the format; making gnashing teeth over its existence fruitless.
So, to answer your first question: Yes, I think it mattered that the Wolves were in the best division last season. Your math is more precise, but the use of simple addition here illustrates the uphill battle Minnesota — and everyone else in the Northwest Division — faced last season.
Northwest (POR, OKC, UTA, MIN, DEN): 238 total wins
Atlantic (TOR, BOS, PHI, NYK, BKN): 223 total wins
Central (CLE, IND, MIL, DET, CHI): 208 total wins
Southwest (HOU, NOP, SAS, DAL, MEM): 206 total wins
Pacific (GSW, LAC, LAL, SAC, PHX): 183 total wins
Southeast (MIA, WAS, CHA, ORL, ATL): 172 total wins
However, the only real impact of divisions is having to play those teams a guaranteed fourth time. But even that is overrated, in my opinion, because this is how the split actually breaks down:
4 games against the other 4 division opponents (4×4=16 games)
4 games against 6 (out-of-division) conference opponents (4×6=24 games)
3 games against the remaining 4 conference teams (3×4=12 games)
2 games against teams in the opposing conference (2×15=30 games)
Ten out of 14 teams in a conference are played four times. Meaning: The real advantage or disadvantage is if you are in the better or worse conference. The Wolves are, of course, in the more difficult conference but that is a disadvantage EVERY team in the West has.
All that said, being in that division was particularly cumbersome last season with seeds 3 through 9 in the West so tight. A sad fact (and kind of exciting now) is that the Wolves were two games away from being the three seed last year. Eliminate one game from divisional strife and don’t blow one of those games to Atlanta, Orlando, etc. and the Wolves grab the three seed, maybe make it to the second round and enter this season with an entirely different narrative.
So did it matter? Yes. But will it matter? That’s a different question.
I think to assume the West will shape up very similarly to last season is ignoring randomness. Whether it be injuries or dumb luck, I think history suggests there will be a greater scatter amongst the win totals from 3 to 9 this season.
For example, the Westgate Superbook in Las Vegas just released their over/under win totals for next season and have the Oklahoma City as the third-best team in the West at 50.5 and San Antonio as the ninth-best with 43.5. That seven-game differential spreads to nine if you include Portland at 41.5.
- Warriors: 62.5
- Rockets: 54.5
- Thunder: 50.5
- Utah: 48.5
- Lakers: 48.5
- Nuggets: 47.5
- Pelicans: 45.5
- Wolves: 44.5
- Spurs: 43.5
- Blazers: 41.5
Am I treating these teams too much like random variables, Charlie? Is your assumption that the West comes down with a similar differential of the middle-class teams?
(Side note that I think is a funny story: During a shootaround at Target Center last season I asked Damian Lillard if he thought the Blazers were the best team in the middle class of the West. That was a mistake. He got very upset with that “middle class” terminology. Hopefully, he’s not reading this article.)
Also, a second question: Is it just me or do almost all of those over/unders feel too low for the West? Does the West just beat up on itself too much for it to be impossible for the 8 seed to have 50 wins? Because I think it is more likely that the 8 seed wins 50 games than the 45 those win totals suggest.
I was a little bit surprised by Westgate’s lines as well. But while odds makers are good, they certainly aren’t perfect. Before last season, Westgate set their over/under for the Pelicans at 39.5 wins (48 actual), the Pacers at 31.5 (48 actual), the Jazz at 40.5 (48 actual) and the 76ers at 42.5 (52 actual).
If there are 10 Western Conference teams that can be predicted to win 40+ games, and three more (Clippers, Mavericks, Grizzlies) with the upside to do so as well, I can understand their skepticism around the number of victories the eighth seed will amass.
Still, I don’t think you’re treating these teams too much like random variables. My assumption is that the Western Conference will have nine or 10 teams competing for a playoff spot as the regular season winds down. But I agree with you – which teams that is will be decided by unpredictable variables.
Will Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday maintain their health from a season ago? Can the Blazers – last year’s best of the middle class – exceed expectations once again? Will the Jazz preserve their second-half tear? Will the band of misfits mesh in L.A.? Will the Wolves regress as Vegas is suggesting? Can the grit-and-grind Grizzlies find their second wind? Will a rookie stand out like Donovan Mitchell?
Injuries, outperformance, and disappointment will always occur. But we seem to be in a unique era for the Western Conference where a plethora of organizations have appropriately similar expectations. I’m going to anticipate another blood bath.
Back to divisions.
Beyond the math that we’ve pointed out, I think there’s still a modicum of goodness that comes out of this mostly insignificant structure.
You’re right, rivalries in the NBA are bizarre. The Lakers and Celtics – a contentious relationship that has persisted through generations – aren’t even in the same Conference. But still, don’t you sense some more animosity between the Wolves and the Nuggets/Blazers/Jazz than you do between the Wolves and the Pelicans/Spurs/Clippers? Maybe it’s just a random occurrence because this franchise’s relevant tenure has been so short and sporadic.
Rivalries are great for sports, and divisional rivalries are historically bitter. Yankees vs. Red Sox, Penguins vs. Flyers, Packers vs. Vikings (or Bears); these teams and fan bases genuinely loathe one another, and that drives interest. In the NBA, it’s not what it could be, and it’s not what I wish it were. But I think it’s there to a very small extent.
Is there anything specifically you would like to see change? Put aside conceived logistical issues. I’ve always imagined that a division with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Milwaukee Bucks, Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers would be far more intriguing.
You asked if I sensed more animosity between the Wolves and the Nuggets/Blazers/Jazz/Thunder than between the Wolves and the Pelicans/Spurs/Clippers. I’m going to say no. Or, at the very least, I’m going to point to recency bias, again.
I think the Nuggets/Blazers/Jazz/Thunder games were some of the most fun games last year, but I do not think that had much of anything to do with them being in the division. In my opinion, it had to do with Towns taking offense to the notion that Jokic is his peer; with Teague being wildly frustrated about the assumption that he was a downgrade from Rubio; with a sweet buzzer-beater by Wiggins against the Thunder; with a Wolves fans bigoted remarks towards Lillard causing a ruckus. Maybe that is “division stuff” but my read is that it is more happenstance.
I think if we want to improve the division dynamic, you have to double-down on the importance of the inter-divisional matchups. Sure, this would be a competitive disadvantage to the teams in the best divisions but, in theory, over time it would balance out.
I’d have teams play their division opponents five times and everyone else in the conference three times. Something like this:
5 games against the other 4 division opponents (5×4=20 games)
3 games against 10 (out-of-division) conference opponents (3×10=30 games)
2 games against teams in the opposing conference (2×15=30 games)
2 games against a random team from either conference (2×1=2 games)
I want us both to take a quick, way-too-early stab at the order of the division here before we sign off. Let’s not pick an exact win total but choose an over/under and select our estimated order.
- Oklahoma City Thunder OVER 50.5
As of today, Oklahoma City is my clear-cut favorite for not only the division but for the third seed in the West — Golden State and Houston (with an over I would hammer at 54.5) are the class of the West, but the Thunder are close.
There is value in continuity and I think Westbrook, George, and Adams benefit from that. I also think repurposing the “asset” of Carmelo Anthony into Dennis Schroder has value even if Schroder’s contract is also not a positive. The Thunder have been atrocious the past two years with Westbrook off the floor. Having Schroder instead of Semaj Christon or Raymond Felton is a boon that I see rendering a few more regular season wins.
- Utah Jazz OVER 48.5
I don’t remember what podcast it was that I was listening to but somebody compared this Utah team to the Miami Heat of last year. In 2016-17, the Heat had a 30-11 second-half of the season surge that led many (hand raised) to assume they would be a relative force in the East for 2017-18. That didn’t happen. However, while I can see a similar ethos between Erik Spoelstra’s team and Quin Snyder’s, I’m willing to believe again.
Are the Jazz a true force that can threaten Golden State or Houston? Probably not. But they can be a very good regular season team. I see the Jazz winning over 50 games this year, so I’m definitely taking over 48.5.
- Minnesota Timberwolves OVER 44.5
I do think a tier break happens here within the division, as I see Minnesota, Denver, and Portland as similarly a step below Oklahoma City and Utah. But, I do think the smart money is on the Wolves being the best of the rest.
As I said before, 44.5 is way too low for even a fringe playoff team, and the Wolves are that at a minimum. I will be floored if Minnesota’s bench is worse this season. Last year seven non-playoff teams had an aggregated bench net-rating better than the Wolves — including the tanking, 24-win Dallas Mavericks’ bench who was a whopping 4.7 points better per 100 possessions than the Wolves bench. If Minnesota’s second-unit can be even average, that’s a small handful of wins right there.
And are the starters going to be worse? Who regresses in total productivity from the Wolves starters? Thirty-three-year-old Gibson? Maybe. Odds are both Teague and Butler have healthier and thus more productive seasons and progression from Towns and Wiggins should be a near given, barring injury.
I’m not all roses on this team, but 44.5 seems criminally low. Did you know that the only team that has received more action on the over in Vegas than the Wolves is the Phoenix Suns? Damn right.
- Denver Nuggets UNDER 47.5
I would consider betting the over on almost every team in the West 1 through 10 right now. But the one team I’m most inclined to bet under of the bunch is Denver. And given that I’m probably missing something — because it would be stupid to take all 10 over — I’ll hit the under on this one pretty hard.
I see promise in this team through a progression from Jokic and Murray but I also see the potential for combustibility. We often say that Derrick Rose is a safe risk at the minimum and I believe that to be true because I saw a willingness in him to take a lesser role than his days of stardom. I’m not sure I see Isaiah Thomas — also on a minimum — assuming that role. If Thomas is taking the ball out of Jokic, Murray and Millsap’s hands that is a problem for this team.
I’m not condemning Denver; again, I see them in a similar tier to the Wolves. But, when you’re betting an under, you look for a way that the team can fall apart. I see ways, not limited to Thomas, that this team combusts.
- Portland Trail Blazers OVER (barely) 41.5
I was extremely low on the Blazers last year and, in ways, they proved me wrong. They got the three seed in a damn good conference. However, I feel somewhat justified in my caping for the Wolves to catch them in the first round last year by the way Portland flamed out in round one. The Blazers got swept by the Pelicans because there is a litany of holes in that team that surrounds a few elite-level talents. I believe those holes are exposed again this year but, still, I would be surprised if that means they lose more games than they win. Give me the over barely, while still finishing with the fewest wins in the division.
I know we’re running a little long here, Charlie. But I’d like you to wrap it up by disagreeing with me in my order of the division, or by telling me I missed something on these over/unders.
I like these kind of thought exercises; it’s especially difficult to rank the teams in such a competitive division. But here it goes:
- Oklahoma City Thunder OVER 50.5
I agree with you on this one. I think the Thunder are going to be a brutal regular season foe. With Paul George and a healthy Andre Roberson on the wing, alongside Steven Adams down low, their starting unit’s defense has the ability to rank among the league’s best. Combine that with Russell Westbrook’s offensive ferocity – and George alone as his side-kick – plus the addition of Schroder for depth, this should be a very tough team.
Though at this point, I may not think it’s as clear-cut as you, Dane. I won’t be that surprised if either of the next two teams ends up with the division crown.
- Minnesota Timberwolves OVER 44.5
44.5? Is it because the Western Conference only got better, and Vegas needs to hedge their bets somewhere? This seems low to me as well, and I’m really not used to being more confident about this team than most others.
Last year, the Wolves won 47 games while Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague endured the most injury-riddled season of their careers. In 2018-19, they will return an elite starting unit that features two players (Towns and Wiggins) with a very good chance to improve moving forward. And as you mentioned, Dane, any improvement from their revamped second-unit will simply be a bonus in comparison to 2017-18.
You alluded to this with regard to the Thunder, and I think that the Wolves will benefit from a similar continuity for the first time in years. Barring meaningfully extended injuries, it feels like adding a couple of wins would be middle-of-the-road progression this upcoming season. An above-average leap could make this over/under feel quite apprehensive.
- Utah Jazz OVER 48.5
I have the Wolves and Jazz in a tier of their own in the middle of the division.
But this Jazz group is fascinating, and I keep coming back to the same 2016-17 Miami Heat comparison that you laid out. I think that a good rule of thumb for a team that experienced such a roller coaster of a performance is to look at how the two-volatile time periods average out.
Over the first half of the 2016-17 season, the Heat were 12-29; on pace to win 24 games. The second half, they went 30-11 (a 60-win pace). Combined together, those two stretches would predict a 42-win team the following season. As it turned out, the heat won 44 games in 2017-18.
Before finishing 31-8 (65 wins extrapolated over 82 games), last season’s Jazz started off 17-26 – a 32-win pace. Averaged together, those two phases would forecast a 48.5 win team next year. Interestingly, that’s exactly what Westgate predicted.
Because there are some outside variables – namely, Donovan Mitchell’s potential to improve and Rudy Gobert’s attempt for a more healthy season – I am also taking the over here.
- Denver Nuggets UNDER (barely) 47.5
What an interesting off-season. After drafting Michael Porter Jr., who may miss his entire rookie season with a back injury that caused his surprising draft-night fall, the Nuggets’ front office traded away Wilson Chandler and Kenneth Faried to clear cap space. A roster full of shooting guards and power forwards, I don’t think they’ll have a problem replacing Faried’s minutes. But the loss of Chandler, though he may be on the decline of his career, eliminates a perimeter defensive threat that they will struggle to replace.
The Nuggets are going to rely on outscoring their opponent each and every night. I think they’ll be good enough to do that pretty often – they had the sixth-best offensive rating last season – I’m just not sure it’ll be enough to make a jump in this crowded conference.
- Portland Trail Blazers UNDER (barely) 41.5
Will this finally be the year that breaks up the Blazers all-star back court? It feels like we may be at a breaking point in Portland.
After being wiped out by the New Orleans Pelicans in the first round of the playoffs, a familiar (for Wolves fans) stressful aura seemed to loom over the Blazers’ offseason.
Like you said, it’s difficult to take the over on every single team. After the Blazers’ front office let go of Ed Davis, an effective power forward and locker room favorite, I started to worry about where their season could go. With such star power at the top of their lineup, I don’t imagine them falling mightily. But my pessimistic feeling is that the Blazers will be the team that tumbles to 40 or 41 wins in 2017-18.
So there it is: mostly agreement, but a little bit of controversy around the edges. No matter the significance, it’s set up to be an extremely competitive division once again.
Thanks for the chat, Dane.
Dane Moore and Charlie Johnson collaborated on this story.