The 2014-2015 Portland Trail Blazers have, unofficially, become the impetus for a major change to the NBA playoff format.
The NBA announced yesterday that its Board of Governors has voted to seed the eight playoff qualifying teams from each conference by record alone starting with the 2016 playoffs. Previously, division winners were guaranteed a top-four seed, even if another non-division winning team in the conference finished the season with a better record.
The rule change was likely spurred by the seeding of last season's playoffs, in which the Blazers finished the regular season with 51 wins and were automatically seeded 4th by virtue of their Northwest Division title. Midwest division runners-up Memphis and San Antonio were seeded 5th and 6th, respectively, despite each having four more wins than the Blazers.
As a result of the seeding, the defending NBA champion Spurs, rather than the Blazers, were forced into a first-round matchup against the third-seeded Los Angeles Clippers. The Spurs ultimately lost the series in seven games. Under the league's new rules Portland would have faced the Clippers in the first round.
Sean Highkin of NBC Sports and Basketball Reference reported via Twitter that a league spokesperson confirmed that division winners will not be granted an automatic playoff berth either.
Confirmed w/ league spokesperson: No guarantee a division winner makes the playoffs. All five teams in a division could theoretically miss.— Sean Highkin (@highkin) September 9, 2015
Additionally, the league has changed its tiebreak procedure for playoff seeding; head-to-head record will now be the first tiebreaker, and division champion status will be the second tiebreaker. The two criteria were reversed under the old system.
The NBA last altered its playoff seeding structure in 2006 when it guaranteed a top-four seed, rather than a top-three seed, to division champions in each conference. This change was implemented to ensure that the top two regular season teams from each conference would not meet in the second round of the playoffs, even if they came from the same division.
Over the last 10 years the NBA has now twice made rule changes that de-emphasize the importance of divisions. Yesterday's amendments rendered a regular season division title almost meaningless. Given that teams within divisions are already not necessarily in close geographic proximity to each other, and do not play each other significantly more often than other teams within their own conference, it is logical to wonder if yesterday's announcement signifies an eventual death knell for the division format in the NBA.