March 6, 2017

Why The Division Matters

The Washington Wizards are about to embark on a five game west coast-ish road swing, their longest such streak of games away from Verizon Center this season. These five games represent the first part of the payback that the rest of the league owes the Wizards for a very friendly front-loaded home schedule. There are only 21 games remaining in the 2016-17 season for this team and just six of those are being played over at 601 F Street. With the team sitting in first place in the Southeast Division later than they ever have, my question is can the Wizards hold on and win the Division? And should they?

Winning a division in the NBA used to get you something in the way of playoff seeding. But just prior to the 2015-2016 season, the NBA made a change to the playoff seeding rules. Starting with the 2016 playoffs, the league decided postseason seeding would be determined solely on the basis of win-loss record and would not offer special seeding or qualification based on a team winning a division.

This is not the first time playoff seeding rules have changed since I became a serious pro hoops fan back in 1994. Under the old two division per conference system, the division winners always received the one and two seeds and the league kept this rule the same when the conferences re-organized to three divisions per conference beginning with the 2004-2005 season. Then they tweaked the guaranteed part a bit starting with the 2006-2007 season when they decided the division winners would be guaranteed a top four seed, but not necessarily the one through three seeds.

The effect of last season's rule change removing a guaranteed 1 through 4 seed could have had a significant impact in past seasons. While no division winner has ever performed poorly enough to miss the playoffs entirely, if the new rules were in effect from the beginning of the division system in the league, there could have been some significant changes in matchups in past postseasons. Most notable among these would be the 2006 playoffs, when the Denver Nuggets finished tied for the seventh best record in the conference and still got the three seed, albeit without home court advantage. If Denver had been in the seven spot it could have had a potential huge effect on the series outcomes. Or not. The Mavs might still have won the conference. Who knows.

The change in playoff qualification procedures in 2015 caused a number of media outlets to declare the end of relevance of the divisions. A quick google search while I was writing this post yielded SBNation declaring divisions "essentially meaningless" while For The Win went with "the uselessness of divisions." Further searches got me Deadspin's declaration that the NBA move would "kill divisions" and Blazer's Edge wrote "division titles no longer relevant."

While most of these articles I found (correctly) address the lack of connection between division titles and playoff qualification, they collectively de-emphasize the importance of anything but an NBA championship and some go further than the playoff seeding issue only. The For The Win piece notes that no teams are "holding parades to celebrate a team winning the Eastern Conference's Atlantic Division." While they are not incorrect, the importance of winning a division is not diminished completely by the re-organized playoff seeding rules. After all, no team celebrates anything but a NBA title. That doesn't mean seasons aren't worth celebrating if a team fails to win it all.

I've had or been witness to a few conversations this season about whether the Wizards should try to win the Southeast Division. After all, the conventional wisdom out there is sometimes that the division title means nothing. In today's NBA, there is definitely a prevailing undercurrent that if you can't win it all, you may as well tank and start over. Maybe you'll get lucky enough to get the next game changer through the draft.

I say this reasoning is false and division titles still mean something. And if there's a team out there that needs to win SOMETHING, it's my beloved Washington Wizards, a franchise without any sort of wins in the last 37 years. That's right: there have been no titles of any sort, not Division, not Conference and certainly not NBA that would cause the Washington Wizards (and before them the Bullets) to hoist a banner up to the rafters of the Capital Centre (later USAir Arena) or Verizon Center (formerly MCI Center). I think the Wizards should go for it and make sure they win the Southeast Division this year because there are fans out there who need to win something for all the metaphorical blood and real sweat and maybe even some tears and certainly some cold hard cash that we have poured into following this team year after year and decade after decade. I want a Wizards Division Champions t-shirt. And I want it this year.

I know some people will disagree with me on this. Yes, the Wizards should try at all costs this year (without sacrificing future success) to win the NBA Championship. Compared to winning a Championship, winning a Division means nothing. So what would that mean? Resting players? I'm not in favor of pushing any of our players so it causes them to be injured. Nor do I want to give up a playoff series because we played our stars too much in the closing weeks of the season. But there's enough time between games  in the postseason to allay most if not all fears about rest. If it means losing the Eastern Conference Finals in five games rather than in six (and nobody can predict that by the way), then I'm all in favor of grabbing a Division title. Because I believe it means something. If only to the fans. Let's get a banner raised to the rafters in 2017.

Washington Capitals banners; so many Division titles they had to consolidate.

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