A History of Pro Sports Divisional Parity

By Daniel Granoff

Two thirds of the way into the NHL season, the Los Angeles Kings are in last place in their division, on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. They were darlings of the preseason rankings and several members of the NHL punditry predicted big things for them. How could they have fallen so far?

The answer is they haven’t fallen that far at all. While they are currently 10th out of 15th in the Western Conference and fifth in their division, they are also two or three division wins from being on top of the Pacific Division and third overall in the Conference. Projecting the current standings out to 82 games, the Kings would finish last in the division and yet only 8 points out of first, which would make for the second closest division finish in any of the three major “long-season” leagues (NHL, NBA, MLB) in the last thirty years. I decided to take a closer look at the history of divisional parity in these three sports.

When looking for the closest divisions, I decided to leave out the NFL for the simple reason that there are so few games in a season. (However, for those interested, the 2002 AFC East had three 9-7 teams and one at 8-8.) For the same reason, I disregarded strike years (which in several cases produced closer divisions than those listed below). Then, for each league I looked for divisions with the smallest gap in wins/points between the top and bottom team, choosing the top five in each sport. From there, I looked at the standard deviation of each division’s winning/points percentages for a more precise measure of parity.
Putting together the data for the three sports, however, I came across one odd statistic: none of the NBA’s top five divisions were remotely as close as the NHL’s and the MLB’s. My initial thought was that this was explained by the division size in the NBA. This, however, was discredited by the data, which showed larger divisions often topping the lists of baseball and hockey. Another idea for the difference between the NBA and the NHL is the NHL’s use of ties (or OT losses), which create an extra potential point each game. As for baseball, the longer season may bring teams closer together, especially if extreme payroll disparity is absent (worth noting that even in a list of top ten closest divisions, the AL East made zero appearances). A third theory is that the NBA simply has less parity than baseball or hockey. Obviously, considerably more data would have to be compiled to prove anything either way.

GB/PB Average 6.89 6.19 7.06
Avg SD of W% 0.03 0.03 0.07
Avg W% 0.5 0.52 0.51

As for the closest division of the past thirty years, it is the NHL’s Patrick division of 1988. Over the course of the eighty-game season, the six teams ended up with 39, 38, or 36 wins. Factoring in ties, this meant a total of seven points difference. Had the last-place Penguins won just three more games against the first-place Islanders, they would have leapfrogged all five other teams. Not that they would have a better chance at beating Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers, but still.

Team GP Wins Losses Ties PTS PTS% PB
New York Islanders* 80 39 31 10 88 0.55 0
Philadelphia Flyers* 80 38 33 9 85 0.53 3
Washington Capitals* 80 38 33 9 85 0.53 3
New Jersey Devils* 80 38 36 6 82 0.51 6
New York Rangers 80 36 34 10 82 0.51 6
Pittsburgh Penguins 80 36 35 9 81 0.51 7

As curiosities, two other conferences are also worth a mention. The NBA’s Midwest Conference 2004 barely made this list for its parity, but it earned prominent mention because the average winning percentage of the division was an astounding 60% (the current Pacific Division projection is 59%). To put that year in perspective, out of the eight-playoff spots in the Western Conference, six went to the Midwest Conference. The only Midwest team to miss the playoffs, the Utah Jazz, only missed by a single game. Another impressive stat: only four of the other twenty five teams in the NBA had a winning record against the division. Despite, or perhaps because of, such a historically strong division across the board, none of the Midwest teams made it to the Finals.

Midwest 2004 Wins Losses W% GB
Minnesota 58 24 0.71 0
San Antonio 57 25 0.7 1
Dallas 52 30 0.63 6
Memphis 50 32 0.61 8
Houston 45 37 0.55 13
Denver 43 39 0.52 15
Utah 42 40 0.51 16

0.6 8.43

Conversely, the 1987 Norris division in the NHL featured five teams, all of whom finished with losing records, giving the division a points’ percentage of just 46%. This year marked the low point of a nine year run in which (despite having a guaranteed spot in the semi-finals each year) the Norris division failed to put a single team in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Team Wins Losses Ties PTS PTS% PB
St. Louis 32 33 15 79 0.49 0
Detroit 34 36 10 78 0.49 1
Chicago 29 37 14 72 0.45 7
Toronto 32 42 6 70 0.44 9
Minnesota 30 40 10 70 0.44 9

0.46 5.2

Finally, for those interested, here are the top five closest divisions in each sport:
1. MLB: (1) NL East 2005 (2) AL West 1987 (3) AL West 1991 (4) NL Central 2007 (5) NL West 2006
2. NHL: (1) Patrick 1988 (2) Northwest 2008 (3) Norris 1987 (4) Norris 1990 (5) Northwest 2005
3. NBA: (1) Midwest 1984 (2) Atlantic 2005 (3) Southeast 2007 (4) Central 1988 (5) Midwest 2004

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