Could The Southeast End Up Being The Worst NBA Division Ever?

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When the NBA expanded to six divisions from four in 2005, it retained a rule that guaranteed each division winner a top seed in the conference. Therefore, a team that won its division could finish no lower than third, even if it had a worse record than another team that didn’t win its division.

That led to some interesting jockeying for playoff seeding in 2006, most notably when the Los Angeles Clippers may or may not have deliberately lost to the Memphis Grizzlies in the last week of the season to fall to No. 6 in the West. As a result of that loss, the Clippers played the Northwest champ Denver Nuggets in the first round, who they beat handily, instead of the Dallas Mavericks, who finished 16 games better than Denver and eventually advanced to the NBA Finals.

Needless to say, that was bad optics for the league, which immediately changed its postseason rules to only guarantee a division winner a top-4 seed in the conference, and not even homecourt advantage in the first round if the fifth seed had a better record.

That worked mostly well, but also failed to solve the league’s issues. Over the next nine postseasons, five division winners received the No. 4 seed despite another team in the conference having a better win-loss record. The straw that broke the camel’s back came in the 2015 playoffs when the Portland Trail Blazers earned the No. 4 seed at 51-31 while two teams finished four games better, the Grizzlies and the San Antonio Spurs.

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As a result, in the 2015 offseason, the NBA eliminated divisions from playoff consideration. The league only seeds teams by win-loss record, though winning a division serves as a secondary tiebreaker. Theoretically, this means a division could be entirely absent from the postseason. That has yet to happen and likely won’t happen this year. However, there is a possibility that only one team from the Southeast makes the playoffs as the eighth seed, with only one team — the Atlanta Hawks — clearly entering the season without plans for a playoff run.

So, four teams in this division began this year with the goal of reaching the postseason — though Orlando probably had slimmer hopes — and three of them might fail despite the presence of four abjectly terrible teams in the Eastern Conference (Knicks, Hawks, Cavaliers, Bulls). That is a remarkable feat of ineptitude. If you remove those four teams, there are 11 playoff spots and it’s possible only one gets filled by a member of the Southeast Division.

The Southeast consists of Atlanta, Charlotte, Miami, Orlando, and Washington. Last year’s Southeast champ, Miami, was the sixth seed in the East, the lowest any division winner has been since the format change. The Heat are currently sixth again, with almost no chance of breaking into the five-team oligarchy that sits atop the conference. If either the Heat (19-20) or Hornets (19-21) cede their spot to ninth-place Detroit Pistons (17-21), which remains a legitimate possibility, the Southeast would have one playoff representative. FiveThirtyEight currently projects only the Heat to make the playoffs in a tie with Brooklyn for the seventh seed.

Assuming only one team makes the postseason, the Southeast Division will lay a strong claim to being the worst five-team division in NBA history. There are eight instances of a division fielding one playoff team, but all of them save for the aforementioned 2006 Nuggets and 2015 Trail Blazers were among the best teams in the conference, including the 2018 Golden State Warriors, 2009 and 2011 Los Angeles Lakers, and 2005 Phoenix Suns.

But there are no examples of a division being entirely under .500. The Southeast is on the precipice of unprecedented awfulness only approached by the 2006 Atlantic Division, when the then-New Jersey Nets made the playoffs at 49-33 and the rest of the group finished with losing records. Even then, the second-place 76ers finished 38-44, which is better than what the Heat are projected to finish this year (37-45, per 538) as the division champion. The Southeast’s best team could finish eight games under .500 and fail upward because of the stunning incompetence of the Eastern Conference.