Why Doesn’t NBA Emphasize Division Rivalries?

Who wouldn't be down for eight "subway games" a year between the New York Knicks and the Brooklyn Nets? Or two dozen annual "backyard barbecues" among the Mavericks, Rockets, and Spurs? Or home-and-home series between the Lakers and Clippers where the two teams wouldn't even need to travel across town since they both play their home games at the Staples Center?

Division rivalries are the lifeblood of sports. But never, really, in the NBA.

The 10-team NBA of 1966-67 had an absolutely balanced schedule — every team played every other team nine times, regardless of division. The following season the league had two six-team divisions, and each team played their five division rivals eight times each and their six non-division opponents seven times. The schedule for the next two seasons was even more balanced, with only four of six pairs of division rivals getting an extra game.

With the three-team expansion and realignment of 1970-71, various combinations were used, mainly because some divisions had five teams while others had only four, but none of them featured a distinctly division-based distribution, as there was a minimum of four meetings for all teams.

After the NBA absorbed the remnants of the ABA in 1976-77, it went to a virtually balanced schedule under which each team played three games against two teams in the other conference, and four games each against every other team regardless of conference or division. The number of same-division games was increased to six with the addition of the Dallas Mavericks to the league in 1980-81; but as more teams were added, the number of meetings between teams in the same division was steadily reduced — to five by 1989-90, and to four with the expansion to 29 teams in 1995-96, where it remains today.

Besides the heightened fan interest division rivalries generate, it would save the league an untold amount of money on travel-related costs, and also help address the issue that Charles Barkley so crudely addressed last month — how else would Sir Charles ever address an issue? — about how today's players are softer than Barkley's peers when it comes to playing back-to-back games. But maybe if, say, the Knicks played at home one night and at Philadelphia the following night more often, and after a game at Orlando, the Heat could come home for a game the night after, back-to-back games would be less of a problem?

As for the theory that more same-division games would lead to more Auburn Hills-type incidents: based on one game — even if there did appear to be a casual relationship between the ugliest empty-bench brawls in the NHL and games played within the same division in the 1980s?

The specific format to be implemented is eight games against each division rival, three games against each team in the same conference but not in the same division, and two games each against all five teams from one division in the other conference and one game each against the teams in the other two divisions, the divisional assignments rotating according to a three-year cycle, upon the completion of which every team will have played every team outside their own conference four times — twice at home and twice away.

And to maximize the travel-reducing effects of the schedule change, realignment would prove highly desirable, as follows:


Atlantic Division: Boston, Brooklyn, New York, Philadelphia, Washington
Southeast Division: Atlanta, Charlotte, Memphis, Miami, Orlando
Central Division: Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Indiana, Toronto


Midwest Division: Denver, Milwaukee, Minnesota, Phoenix, Utah
Southwest Division: Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, San Antonio
Pacific Division: Golden State, L.A. Clippers, L.A. Lakers, Portland, Sacramento

Less travel for the players, less travel expenses for the owners, and more appealing games for the fans.

What's not to like?

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