Who cares about divisions?

March, 29, 2010
3/29/10
11:48
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Yesterday, during the ESPN broadcast of the Spurs at Celtics, there was talk about how if the Celtics and Hawks ended up with the same record, the Celtics would get the higher seed.

Even though they have lost every single time they have played the Hawks this season.

That's because the Celtics will win their division. You can see the NBA's tie-break rules here.

The reason the NBA made the rules this way is to give the divisions some meaning. To my mind, the NBA is right in assessing that divisions need all the help they can get in remaining relevant.

'Cause I'm not sure they matter at all.

In the newspaper, or here and there online where they still show the standings organized by division, it almost seems cute. It's a nice little relic of the past. It's also a total hassle if you're trying to figure out who's going to get which playoff seed, which is half the reason to even have the standings (and, for that matter, the regular season).

Divisions could matter, in theory, as a way to intensify rivalries. And it's no small factor that sponsors like rivalries. But -- and here my inner jaded Blazer fan is going to come out -- divisions are not currently all that valuable in that regard.

The team I grew up supporting happens to play in one of the NBA's least intuitive divisions. When I was younger, Portland had meaningful season-after-season standings squabbles with geographically relevant teams like the Seattle SuperSonics and the Los Angeles Lakers. Now the Lakers are in a different division and the Sonics are no more. It was always a long shot that a team from Minneapolis or Oklahoma City would really have that familiar rivalry feeling, and lumping them all together into the generously title "Northwest" division.

Oklahoma City is, I guess, northwest of the Caribbean. The Twin Cities are west of Lake Michigan.

Thank goodness Clay Bennett jerked around the people in Seattle so much -- at least that's one division matchup that people get excited for in the Northwest. But I think that rivalry has a lot to do with the division between what Bennett promised Seattle and what actually happened, not the NBA division the Thunder happen to play in.

Maybe it's different in other divisions. In the Northeast, where I live, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia are natural rivals that share an interstate and compete with each other in all kinds of things on and off the court. (In that division, the Nets are the throw-in to make the salary cap numbers work.) The Central is a tidy roundup of Midwestern NBA cities that hang together pretty nicely. In the Southwest those three proud Texas teams are -- if you ignore the absence of Oklahoma City -- intuitively lumped with nearby Memphis and New Orleans.

But through it all -- do you care? How much bragging can you do if your team wins its division? Are Denver and Utah locked in a contest for a better playoff spot, or a division crown?

I could be wrong, but I put it to you that division crown means almost nothing, and if you ignore it entirely, you miss almost nothing.

Unless, of course, you plan to end up in a tie with another team at the end of the season and that team's in a different division and it so happens that they're not winning that division. Then, in that one weird setting, it can mean a ton.

That weird happening (I'm considering cheering for the Hawks to finish ahead of the Celtics just so this awkward notion doesn't become reality) is the pinnacle of what a division means. Does that intensify rivalries? Is that regular season Timberwolves vs. Thunder, or Kings vs. Clippers game, more intense because of this weird rule? I have my doubts, which is why I'd be happy to see the NBA take a break from this whole division thing. Maybe after some more teams move around the country, there'll be six intuitive categories again one day. But for now, it's a strained marketing construct, and it'd be a shame to have that infect important things like playoff seeding.

Henry Abbott | email

TrueHoop, NBA

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