No one contests the marketing bonanza now enjoyed by the NFL, and the NBA is doing its best to emulate the success of its fellow professional sports league. But while the NBA's television contracts continue to soar, especially its cable deals, it should join the NFL in going back to high school geography.
Okay, so you say that it was silly for the expansion Miami Heat to play in the Midwest Division last year, and you're relieved to see the Celtics get six opportunities to ice the Heat this year after the 15-67 expansion team was appropriately transferred to the Atlantic Division.
But wait, what's this? The NBA turned around and told the Charlotte Hornets, "It's your turn this year to wallow in the mire of the Midwest Division cellar and rack up tremendous travel expenses playing three games on the road at Pacific Division opponents." I guess that's the thanks they get for leading the league in attendance in their first season of existence.
Transition to What?
The geographic confusion is all part of the NBA's three-year "transition period" for three of its four new expansion teams, Charlotte, Miami and the Orlando Magic. Mercifully, the league will allow the Minnesota Timberwolves to start in the Midwest Division and remain there.
This year, while Miami is in the Atlantic, Orlando is in the Central and Charlotte plays in the Midwest.
Can you guess next year's alignment?
Fooled you again. Miami stays in the Atlantic Division, and Charlotte and Orlando switch divisions. Finally, in the 1991-92 season, the league settles into its permanent alignment with Miami and Orlando in the Atlantic, Charlotte in the Central and Minnesota in the Midwest.
And what about the Pacific Division? Why doesn't it get its fair quota of expansion teams to beat up on? Well, when you've got teams like Sacramento and the Los Angeles Clippers in your division, you don't deserve any more patsies to kick around.
Well, what's wrong with a little variety? Let's go back to our good pals in the NFL for that answer. You see, it seems that geography has nothing to do with determining the makeup of divisions in the NFL. Didn't you know that the city of Dallas is in the East, or that Atlanta is in the West or that Tampa Bay is in the Midwest?
Of course, when franchises move, there's no need to disrupt the delicate balance of division "rivalries" by forcing the teams to move into their geographically-appropriate division, right? I mean, there's nothing wrong with Phoenix or Indianapolis contending for Eastern Division crowns, right?
Wrong. Almost every great rivalry in the NFL is based on geographical proximity. There's only one exception to this rule: the Cowboys against the Redskins. But all the rest--Giants-Eagles, Giants-Redskins, Bears-Vikings, Bears-Packers, 49ers-Rams, Raiders-Chargers, Browns-Steelers--involve two cities near each other.
And the best divisional rivalries can be found in the two divisions with the tightest geographical breakdown--both Central Divisions. The Black and Blue division in the NFC, with Chicago, Green Bay, Minnesota and Detroit, is equalled in intensity only by the Pittsburgh-Cleveland-Cincinnati showdowns in the AFC.
So, one glance at the NFL illustrates that the NBA does a comparatively good job of aligning itself into geographically correct divisions which foster heated rivalries. But why go through this three-year transition period? Why must one of the potentially fiercest rivalries in the league, Miami and Orlando, wait two more years before they compete in the same division?
Maybe Pete Rozelle knows.