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If divisions must hang around, make them matter

A few days ago I blogged about the meaninglessness of NBA divisions. Basically, fans are becoming aware that division-winners have a chance of getting slightly better playoff seeds, and having a reaction that could roughly be described as: "The NBA has divisions?"

That post inspired a couple of interesting ideas in response.

One comes from TrueHoop reader Aaron, and his idea is to make divisions matter by giving them their own mid-season winner-take-all tournaments. He writes:

Basically, there should be one long weekend a year where there is a pause in league play and all the teams play for divisional trophies. In one city, with a single elimination format, for all the marbles. Over in Europe, there are four or five trophies up for grabs for each season. Not only does this allow more teams to win, but it makes the competitions more interesting because coaches can choose to hold players back for certain competitions, or maybe go all out for the smaller trophies if they don't have a chance at the league.

I also think the divisional tournaments would be amazing for fans -- a great excuse to fly into a city for the weekend. I imagine that the host city would rotate each year through the division. Hypothetically, say each year it's held on MLK weekend, and this year the Northwest Division's was in Utah. All the teams fly into Utah. Fans come from Portland, Oklahoma City, Minneota, etc. for the festivities, to see the games, and cheer at the bars. Games Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with some sort of seedings so teams don't play every day but there are two or three games a day. The final, for the divisional trophy, is on Sunday.

With a trophy and "divisional championship" on the line, I think teams would care much more about their divisional rivals.

No doubt that would be a very fun event for all involved -- possibly the highlight of the regular season. I might argue for having it closer to the end of the year, which would give teams like the Timberwolves and Nets some flicker of hope in March. To be determined, though, is what exactly you get for winning your division. A playoff spot seems like an awfully big, but perhaps appropriate prize. On the other hand, if you're going to get one anyway, why kill yourself at this things? A better draft pick might be another idea. For the tournaments to really wow fans, the prize would have to be meaningful for all thirty teams. Otherwise, I could see some coach like Gregg Popovich saying screw it, and tanking the first couple of games just to get his old guys an extra day or two off.

TrueHoop reader Gabe, meanwhile, is ready to tackle the reality that it's hard to carve up the NBA's 30 cities into six sensible, rivalry-rich geographic groups. His solution (which could work in tandem with Aaron's mid-season tournament) is to make the divisions more intuitive, and (radical idea alert!) scrap the conferences. He writes:

The problem isn't that we don't need divisions anymore, it's that divisional associations have become meaningless for many teams (like the example you gave with the Blazers/Thunder non-rivalry).

To me then, the solution is to fix the divisions, rather than just scrapping them. I gave this a bit of thought a few years ago when the Bobcats first came on the scene. There are a few problem cases of teams that are just sort of hanging out there in the middle of nowhere, not near any of their other divisional rivalries (T-Wolves, Thunder, Wizards all come to mind) but for the most part the divisions could still be meaningful.

On the other hand, to me the conferences aren't as meaningful anymore. Especially given the large role they play in shaping the playoffs. How many times has it been said that the "Western Conference Finals are the REAL NBA Finals", or substituting "Eastern" for "Western"? Cross-country air travel, which was one of the main reasons for the initial conference alignment, isn't as grueling as it used to be.

So, I came up with a fantasy plan for divisional realignment a few yeas ago where we scrap the conferences. Create five divisions, and seed the playoffs 1 through 16, guaranteeing that all five division winners get in, but leaving it up to overall record besides that. The divisions would be as follows:

Atlantic

  • Boston

  • New York

  • New Jersey

  • Philadelphia

  • Washington

  • Toronto

Great Lakes

  • Cleveland

  • Detroit

  • Indiana

  • Chicago

  • Milwaukee

  • Minnesota

Southeast

  • Charlotte

  • Atlanta

  • Orlando

  • Miami

  • Memphis

  • New Orleans

Central

  • Oklahoma City

  • Dallas

  • Houston

  • San Antonio

  • Denver

  • Utah

Pacific

  • Portland

  • Sacramento

  • Golden State

  • Los Angeles Lakers

  • Los Angeles Clippers

  • Phoenix

The only question is how to split up Phoenix and Utah (Central vs Pacific), and I could go either way on that one. But that's the basic outline.

Although many have suggested it, and it makes a ton of sense, scrapping the conferences really is radical. Perhaps too radical to bother discussing -- I don't think the NBA will ever do it. However, there's no denying that the NBA would be both more exciting (mid-season tournaments!) and more fair (if the playoffs started today, 39-37 Memphis would beat out 38-38 Toronto) if TrueHoop readers ruled the world.

What I'm not sure about is ... would the Finals lose something to fans nationwide who identify with East or West? Do people in Virginia root for Orlando 'cause they're both from the East? Does Idaho feel an affinity for the Lakers 'cause they're all in the West? Maybe. I remember being a kid in Portland rooting for the West to win the All-Star game, for instance. Maybe a little of that "I'll root for my half of the U.S." spills over into fan passion in the Finals. But on the other hand, maybe not. And if it were really about stoking fan passions, wouldn't they make those conferences North and South, or has not enough time passed yet since Civil War to make such a thing fun?