Before the NBA reshuffled its playoff seeding, the impact of division winners shook up the 2015 playoffs in a way that forced the league’s hand.
Unlike the NFL and MLB, where only two non-division winners make the playoffs — only one in the MLB before 2012 — winning the division hasn’t earned teams much in recent NBA years.
16 NBA teams qualify for the postseason, eight per conference. Simply put, the more available postseason spots, the less dire the need for the division crown becomes.
The indifference towards that title wasn’t always the case. In the years before the 2015-16 season, the NBA ensured division winners were guaranteed a top-four seed in the conference playoff picture.
It didn’t matter what their record was in comparison to the rest of their respective conference. Winning the division, no matter how easy, netted a potentially more favorable first-round matchup.
Given the structure of its postseason, why the NBA operated in this matter is still unknown. Its impact was significant with more than 10 teams rewarded by the rule just since 2000:
- Utah Jazz in 2000
- Sacramento Kings in 2003
- New Jersey Nets and Los Angeles Lakers in 2004
- Seattle SuperSonics and Boston Celtics in 2005
- Phoenix Suns, Denver Nuggets and New Jersey Nets in 2006
- Toronto Raptors, Miami Heat and Utah Jazz in 2007
- Utah Jazz in 2008
- Boston Celtics in 2012
- Portland Trail Blazers 2015
None of these teams significantly benefited from the loophole — at least in no way that can be definitively mapped out. Each still creates a hypothetical, maybe none more significant than the 2015 playoffs that put the rule to rest once and for all.
Portland was 51-31 during the 2014-15 regular season, four games worse than both the Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs. By claiming the Northwest division, they were awarded the fourth seed while Memphis and San Antonio were slotted fifth and sixth, respectively.
The Grizzlies would still prove superior in their first-round matchup with Portland, easily winning in five games. San Antonio wasn’t so lucky, having to face off against the LA Clippers in a matchup closer in stature to the Western Conference Finals.
An emotional seven-game series went to LA in the final seconds of Game 7, ending the Spurs’ chances at back-to-back titles.
In a postseason bracket based solely on wins, Portland would take on the Clippers as the sixth seed. The Spurs and Grizzlies would battle for what would’ve been the third time in four years as the four-five matchup.
A presumed win by LA still pits them against the Houston Rockets in the second round. But a first-round victory by the Spurs — plausible given their experience and relative success over Memphis in recent years — has them face off against the Golden State Warriors, the eventual champions.
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Golden State was ridiculed for what was deemed an easy path to the title, always facing an injury-riddled opponent en route to the first championship of the dynasty. The Spurs weren’t just healthy. Along with a 2-1 regular-season edge, they maintained the makeup of a proven champion, something the Dubs didn’t yet possess.
Getting the job done is a lot easier when you know how to, especially under championship expectations. Who’s to say it wouldn’t have worked out in San Antonio’s favor, altering the eventual title winner?
Why two teams as elite as LA and San Antonio were pitted against each other in the opening round never made sense, at least in regards to how the matchup materialized. Recognizing its flaw, the NBA changed the rule the following year, seeding playoff teams on record alone.
No matter the angle, the rule could never be justified. Division winners weren’t even awarded homecourt over a team with more wins, just the right to face them as the higher seed.
Good on the NBA for making the changes that reward what teams can control while removing the impact of what they can’t. Looking back, one still has to wonder the rationale behind its origins, to begin with, and whether history would look much different in its absence.