Much has been made of the NBA's divisional format during this 2013-14 season. Until just recently, every team in the Eastern Conference's Atlantic Division was playing sub-.500 basketball, threatening to create flawed seeding in the playoffs.
At first, early-season demands that the NBA reconsider its divisional format seemed like premature complaints by reactionary journalists and fans. But the Atlantic Division's continued struggles lent more legitimacy to the movement.
Then Adam Silver, who will succeed David Stern as NBA commissioner on February 1, said that he would consider disbanding the divisions. Suddenly, an October hypothetical had matured into a distinct possibility. The focus shifted from whether the NBA would be open to a change to whether this season in particular would be enough of a catalyst to actually cause that change.
Historically the league has adapted quickly to perceived injustices in its playoff-seeding logic. When the 44-38 Denver Nuggets were seeded higher than the 60-22 Dallas Mavericks in the 2006 playoffs due to divisional winners receiving absolute supremacy, the NBA shook up its format. The improved structure allows non-division winners to secure higher seeds or home-court advantage if warranted by their records.
Less than two weeks ago, the NBA's divisions appeared doomed thanks to the Atlantic's atrocious play. On Christmas morning, the league unwrapped daily standings that showed every Atlantic team at least four games below .500, led by the Toronto Raptors at 11-15.
At that pace, the Raptors would win the division with just 35 victories, the least for a playoff team since the NBA's expansion in the late 1980s. The projected outcome would conceivably boot a slightly better team from the postseason and create seeding mismatches. Such a debacle would almost necessitate Silver and the NBA to reformat their conferences.
And then something unexpected happened. The Raptors won four straight games to reach 15-15 and put some room between themselves and the rest of the Atlantic. Since the Rudy Gay trade, originally considered a continuation of general manager Masai Ujiri's roster purging, the Raptors are 9-3.
Amongst those victories are a win in Oklahoma City, maybe the toughest place to play for visitors, and a 12-point triumph over the vaunted Indiana Pacers. Unshackled from Gay's inefficient style of offense, they are executing unselfish basketball and challenging the league's best teams.
The Raptors' turnaround will be tested in the next week when they visit both the Miami Heat and a vengeful Pacers squad. Their long-term performance over their final 52 games, however, is a more intriguing issue since Toronto very well may hold the fate of the NBA's divisional format.
If the Raptors continue to play well and win 31 of their final 52 games, they would finish 46-36. Such a record—poor for a division winner but not downright horrible—might not be enough to lead to the league abandoning divisions and reformatting the conferences. The Pacers won the Central Division with 49 wins last season, and the Heat won the Southeast Division with only 44 wins in the 2006-07 season. Neither scenario caused any modification by the league.
Plus, if a couple of other Atlantic disappointments got their act together—perhaps one or both of the mystifying New York teams—the division would begin to look more respectable.
Then again, the Raptors' recent surge could just be an anomaly. What if they finish 26-26 or worse and their Atlantic cohorts don't enjoy a turnaround either? Then there would be a division winner with a non-winning record, potentially prompting controversial playoff seeding and the accompanying fan backlash. In that case, the NBA could decide that this season was the final, poisonous incarnation of the divisional format and rearrange the conferences.
There is a lot for the NBA to think about when weighing whether they should abolish divisions after this season. Travel, schedules and rivalries have always been factors that could determine if and how the conferences are realigned. In the past few weeks though, the final record of the rejuvenated Toronto Raptors has joined that list of considerations. It's possible that the survival of the NBA's divisional format is linked to the fate of a team left for dead just last month.