In most American professional sports, divisions — the grouping of regionally similar teams for the common goal of producing storylines and rivalries that drive narratives and cash flow — have some meaning. In the NFL, for example, division champions, the team who wins the most games that season amongst the grouping of four teams, are awarded higher seeds in the playoffs, even if their record is worse than one of the Wild Card teams. When it comes to the NBA, however, divisions mean next to nothing.
This wasn’t always the case, though, as up until the 2015-16 season division winners were guaranteed top-four seeding in the playoffs. The change in playoff seeding structure, which ultimately diminished the importance of divisions, was made, at least in part, to better reward the top seeds for their dominance during the regular season. Instead of potentially facing a team with the talent of a No. 4-6 seed who unfortunately ended up as the No. 8 seed in the first round, teams at the top of the playoff food chain would now face true fringe playoff talent.
However, in today’s NBA, the existence of divisions can still have an impact on seeding for the playoffs, albeit a little more indirectly. Nowhere is this more true than for the Western Conference’s Northwest Division.
The Northwest — comprised of the Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers, and Utah Jazz — figures to be an utter bloodbath during the 2018-19 season. Last season, the five-team division produced the third, fourth, fifth, eighth, and ninth seeds in the loaded Western Conference with all teams finishing within a measly three games of each other. Barring any catastrophic injuries or collapses, next year’s division race figures to be just as tight.
Each team, save for perhaps the (third-seed) Blazers, likely got better during the offseason either by adding talent or through the virtues of having played with each other the season prior. The Nuggets took smart fliers on the injured Isaiah Thomas and Michael Porter Jr., which could make them one of the most explosive offenses in the league, and shipped out Wilson Chandler to Philadelphia. The Wolves addressed their two main deficiencies by adding perimeter defense and (admittedly theoretical at this point) 3-point shooting while moving on from defensive sieve Jamal Crawford. The Thunder re-signed Paul George and traded away Carmelo Anthony for Dennis Schroeder in a move that will either work out wonderfully or abominably. The Jazz retained their young talent and standout Donovan Mitchell got one year older. The Blazers lost Ed Davis and Shabazz Napier for literal pennies.
While no team had the type of offseason that will place them exclusively among the NBA’s upper-tier, all figure to be in the playoff conversation next season. How many ultimately make it to the postseason, however, will depend on a couple of factors.
Of an NBA team’s 82 games, 16 are against division rivals; that’s a full 20 percent of the schedule. As the New Orleans Pelicans and San Antonio Spurs face off against the (not quite ready yet) Dallas Mavericks and (oft significantly injured) Memphis Grizzlies and the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers against the (downright bad) Sacramento Kings and (incredibly young) Phoenix Suns eight times a year, the Thunder will get the Wolves and Jazz.
Team health is another factor, as was prominently displayed this past season when Wolves’ wing Jimmy Butler went down with the torn meniscus. The Wolves fell from comfortably in the playoff picture to playing a one-game loser-goes-home showdown with the Nuggets on the final night of the regular season. The healthiest teams will survive while the ones who struggle will almost undoubtedly shrivel.
The even competition in the Northwest Division isn’t anything particularly new — only twice has the division champion won more than 55 games (Thunder in 2012-13 and 2013-14) — but the 2017-18 and (likely) 2018-19 seasons feel unique in that there isn’t one clear favorite. It isn’t obscene to think that any of the five teams could win the division or miss out on the playoffs entirely.
Similarly, it wouldn’t be particularly shocking if all five teams made the postseason, but in all likelihood one or two will miss out, a testament to the overall talent in the Western Conference and the cruelties of having to play against high-quality opponents on a more regular basis. The single biggest factor that may determine who ultimately makes the playoffs is how the teams in the Northwest fare against all the other teams in the league, particularly the dregs of the Eastern Conference.
Regardless of how the upcoming season ultimately pans out, it will be fun to see the teams of the Northwest duke it out against each other all year. The matchups will be compelling and the storylines more so, particularly as the doldrums of winter transition to the opulence of spring and playoff basketball.