For the most part, divisions in the NBA have become more a formality than anything else. It’s been four years since the league last guaranteed division winners home-court advantage during their first-round playoff series, and it’s been 12 years since division winners were guaranteed a top-three seed regardless of their record.1 These days, the top team in a division is not guaranteed to make the playoffs at all — the top eight teams from each conference advance to the postseason regardless of division alignment.
If we’re being completely honest, it sure seems like the only real use the league has for divisions these days is scheduling.2 The only other benefit appears to be the occasional excuse to make fun of the lonely division winner banners that hang in the rafters of Madison Square Garden.
But this season, one of the league’s six divisions really stands out — and not for a good reason. Not a single one of the teams in the Southeast is above .500, with the Charlotte Hornets sitting in first place at 27-28.
No division winner has finished below .500 under the NBA’s current alignment, which was established in 2004 when the league expanded to 30 teams and split them into six divisions to accommodate the then-expansion Charlotte Bobcats. Since Charlotte re-entered the league, the worst division winners were the 2005-06 Denver Nuggets, the 2006-07 Miami Heat and the Southeast’s winner from a year ago, the 2017-18 Heat, which each finished with 44 wins and a 0.537 winning percentage.
Only 14 division winners (including this year’s Hornets and Houston Rockets, who are leading their divisions) since 2004 have finished with a winning percentage south of 0.600 — otherwise known as the teams that won fewer than 50 games (or the lockout-shortened season equivalent) and still managed to win their division.
There are also signs that this year’s Southeast might be among the worst overall divisions we’ve seen during the 30-team era. The current combined record of the Hornets, Heat, Washington Wizards, Orlando Magic and Atlanta Hawks is just 119-159. That works out to a 0.428 combined winning percentage — worse than all but eight other divisions since the 2004-05 season. So in terms of the ability of its teams to actually win basketball games, the 2018-19 Southeast ranks among the bottom 10 percent of all divisions since the most recent league expansion.
The season isn’t over yet, though, which means there’s still time for the Southeast to get even worse. Washington just traded away Otto Porter and Markieff Morris at the deadline after its star, John Wall, suffered a torn Achilles tendon that will keep him out for at least a year. Miami, likewise, shipped away rotation player Tyler Johnson and received very little on-court help in return. The Hornets did not add Marc Gasol, as had been heavily rumored, while the Hawks are finalizing a buyout with Jeremy Lin, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, and could potentially do the same with Dewayne Dedmon. The Magic added former No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz but dealt away Jonathon Simmons to do it, and Fultz is more of a future asset than a present one, anyway.
Accordingly, the FiveThirtyEight NBA predictions expect this division to fall off slightly: The division’s combined projected winning percentage is just 0.420, which would rank sixth-worst among the group of 10 teams listed above. Additionally, the Hornets are projected to win the division with a record of just 38-44, which would fall an incredible six wins short of the 44-win 2018 and 2007 Heat and 2006 Nuggets.
What’s remarkable about the Southeast, though, is that each one of these teams has managed to post a losing record despite the opportunity to rack up wins against other Southeast teams. As a result, the win-loss records might actually undersell how bad the division really is. Consider two more reliable indicators of team quality: point differential and Basketball-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System (SRS). Point differential has been shown time and again to be more predictive of a team’s future performance than actual win-loss record, while SRS takes point differential and adjusts for strength of schedule, then scales that adjustment so the league average is 0 and every point represents one point above or below average.
The 2018-19 Southeast division has the fifth-worst combined per-game point differential of the 30-team era. And when you adjust for those five teams’ relatively soft schedules, they’ve actually been outscored by 3.050 points per game, seemingly confirming this as the fifth-worst division (out of 90) since the then-Bobcats and now-Hornets came into the league. And given the aforementioned roster realities, it’s not at all difficult to see the Southeast sinking further into the depths of despair.
Despite the truly historic nature of the Southeast’s horribleness, the division is pretty much guaranteed to get at least one playoff team this season, sparing it the ignominy of being the first NBA division in history to entirely miss the postseason. The dreadful Bulls, Cavaliers and Knicks will surely finish with the three worst records in the conference, which means the worst the Southeast champ can do is finish eighth in the East and earn the right to be smoked by the Bucks or Raptors in the first round of the postseason. (Even with the newly flattened lottery odds, those three awful teams also have a considerably better chance to land the No. 1 pick and the right to select Duke superstar Zion Williamson, while the Hawks, Magic and Wizards will more likely be left picking in the mid-to-late lottery, possibly dooming the Southeast to even more mediocrity in the future.)
Meanwhile, only one of the Clippers, Kings and Lakers is likely to be headed to the postseason in the West, despite all three teams being projected to finish with better records than every single team in the Southeast. If the season ends with the 38-win Hornets in the playoffs and, say, the 41-win Lakers staying home, perhaps the NBA will finally decide to move to an open-seeded playoff system — with the best 16 teams making it to the dance regardless of conference alignment.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.