It's not cool to like divisions anymore. NBA commissioner Adam Silver wants to get rid of them, or at least make them essentially irrelevant. SB Nation's Tom Ziller and Grantland's Zach Lowe both argue that we shouldn't only get rid of divisions, but conferences all together. (I disagree, but they're smarter than I am.) To many, divisions have become an imbalanced relic from a more regional time, when not every team was available for every person to watch every night.
Balderdash, I say! Divisions matter because regionality does matter. It does mean more when the Cubs beat the Cardinals, or the Clippers beat the Lakers, or the Vikings beat the Packers, or the Islanders beat the Rangers. It's supposed to mean more: Being happy is one thing, but happiness at the expense of your neighbor? Yes please. Division races are, in some ways, their own reward. Nobody brags about being a third seed rather than a fourth seed, but winning your division? They make t-shirts and trophies for that.
With all the baseball previewin' going on and all the dramatic movements in the NFL since free agency opening -- not to mention the sprint down the NHL and NBA seasons' final months -- I thought it might be time to take a step back and look at the most compelling division in the four major North American sports. Each division has its own personality and quirks, and the current situations vary depending on the quality of the teams in each. But they're all fun. The goal should always be for a team to win a championship. But to defeat its geographical rivals and lord it over them the entire offseason? That has to count for something.
Thus: A ranking of the 24 divisions in the four major North American sports. These are listed in order of least intriguing to most intriguing, but in my eyes, you're all winners.
24. AFC South
You knew going into last season that this division was going to be weak, and it did not disappoint. The race was a dud from the beginning: The Colts weren't particularly good last season, and they ran away with the title anyway. Houston is making moves in the right direction, but Jacksonville and Tennessee both seem miles away.
23. AL Central
The Royals just made the World Series, the White Sox seem to have some people excited and the Tigers are desperately trying to sneak one more in before the piper comes calling … but this division may need a reboot. You can make an argument, actually, for every team in this division finishing under .500 this year. I don't think that will happen, but the fact that it could tells you how much transition this division is going through.
22. NFC South
I'm not trying to pick on the South here; those divisions just happen to be ending up near the bottom of my standings. By any measure, though, this division was junky all season long in 2014-15, and considering the Saints are apparently trying to rebuild and the Falcons just fired their coach, it's tough to see it improving much in 2015. Whether this division becomes more compelling or more unlikable if it ends up having Jameis Winston next season, I'll leave that up to you to decide.
21. NHL Pacific
Anaheim is one of the best teams in the NHL, but they're running away with this division far too easily. Even though they also have the defending champion Kings, this one is the dregs at the bottom: It's honestly sad seeing Edmonton like this.
20. NBA Southeast
This division is hurt by its geographic disparity. It's sort of the Eastern Conference leftovers, with two teams in the South, an area that's not always full of the most rabid fans of professional basketball. (Though if you've been to an Atlanta Hawks game this season, you would know that's starting to change. It's a nightly party over there.) The division is also hurt by a lack of natural rivalries, unless you consider Magic-Heat one.
19. NL East
As a general rule, when the Mets are relevant and competitive, this division rises with it. Suffice it to say, then, it hasn't been compelling in a while, and though the Mets should be better this year, the NL East might have the two worst teams in baseball in it (Atlanta and Philadelphia). This is going to be the division you forget about this year, because Washington's going to be up by 20 games in August.
18. NBA Northwest
Here's the NBA hodgepodge division: Teams from Colorado, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Oregon and Utah don't typically combine for many fierce border wars. Still, this one has its moments, particularly between Portland and Oklahoma City, and all five have pretty intense fanbases. It's worth pointing out, though, that as of this writing only one team in this division would make the playoffs.
17. NBA Atlantic
This is usually a far more compelling division, with a burgeoning New York-Brooklyn rivalry adding to the always fun Celtics-vs.-Everybody vat of bile. Unfortunately, right now it has two of the worst teams in the game, a Nets team that's on its way there and a Celtics team that's just starting to turn it around. When everybody in this division is good, though, there are few better.
16. NFC East
This is the flashiest division -- it's full of teams with fans who won't stop talking about themselves -- but it's far from the best. The Giants seem in need of a reboot, Washington is its usual mess, Dallas had everything fall just right last year and still crapped out in the playoffs and … well, maybe Chip Kelly's master plan is just apparent to him and no one else. But all told: This is the More Hype Than Substance division.
15. AFC West
If you think Peyton Manning is going to work with a new coach and a potentially new system and win that last Super Bowl, maybe you put this one a little higher. Otherwise? This looks like a bunch of 9-7 to 7-9 teams to me. Maybe now that they have a quarterback, the Raiders can finally start pulling their weight.
14. NL West
It's all about San Diego here. If the Padres' offseason plans result in the breakthrough season they think it will, this division immediately becomes a wild three-team race between the upstart Padres, the wealthy Dodgers and the defending champion Giants. If the Padres can't make that step, the NL West falls quite a few spots … especially because that will mean the Dodgers will likely run away with this thing.
13. NHL Central
This one's about the top three: With the new playoff system in place, it's going to be a gas to watch Nashville, St. Louis and Chicago battle it out. The division lost some luster when it lost Detroit. Someday, St. Louis needs to win a title, though. It just looks bizarre to see Colorado so low, doesn't it?
12. NHL Atlantic
At its peak, this one has some of the best rivalries in the NHL: It does, after all, have four of the Original Six. It's just a mess right now, with Toronto and Buffalo both so far down, and Tampa Bay -- not a member of the Original Six -- outshining some of the more traditional powers. It would be nice to get Buffalo back in this mix someday.
11. AL East
There are years in which all five of these teams are in a death match: wealthy, motivated teams all finishing over or near .500 and beating each other up. Then there are years like this one, in which they all look generally close to the same level of mediocrity. The Red Sox and the Blue Jays could take steps forward, the Orioles and Yankees could take steps back, but they're still all mostly in the muddled middle.
10. NFC West
The Seahawks set the bar high in this division -- and it was almost certainly the best in football last year -- but you can sense it taking a step backward in 2015. Seattle will still be the class of the division, but San Francisco appears to be dismantling itself in sadly public fashion. St. Louis might get a push forward if the team ends up moving to Los Angeles, and while there's good momentum in Arizona these days, last year was another reminder of just how much that team loves to roll the dice at quarterback. Depending on whether or not Bruce Arians can pull some more rabbits out of his Kangols, this division looks more like Seattle's than ever.
9. NBA Pacific
If you've got the Lakers, you've got some rivalries: You can argue that, historically, the team they have the least history with in this division is the one they share a building with. Now that the Clippers have Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, the Kings are the only real consistent loser in the Pacific, and even they're starting to make some moves in the right direction. It also doesn't hurt that this division is led by the most exciting team and player in the sport. Now, about getting those Lakers back on track …
8. NFC North
The Lions taking a step forward did wonders for this division, but Jay Cutler is almost single-handedly dropping it a few spots. The Bears are supposed to be in the middle of every division race, but instead they've fallen apart right when the division needed them to take a step forward. The Vikings have a quarterback, at last, and the Lions aren't going away, but this division belongs to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in a way that's not healthy: Other than the occasional one-year run, this still feels like the Packers and everybody else.
7. AL West
Not all five of these teams are necessarily great right now, but they all should be. The Rangers were felled by injuries last year, but made two World Series in a row not too long ago; the Astros are finally starting to see results from a protracted rebuilding process; the Mariners are going all-in, at last; the A's remade their roster in a way that's fascinating and full of possibility; and the Angels have the best player in the game and lots of high end, if aging, talent. This is like the AL East, except all the teams seem potentially above average, rather than potentially below average.
6. AFC East
This would seem high, considering how much the Patriots have dominated this division (they've won it 11 of the last 12 seasons). But there's a lot going on here. Rex Ryan moved over to Buffalo. The Jets have Revis again. The Dolphins signed Ndamukong Suh and seem to be steadily improving. And the Patriots just won the Super Bowl. This division isn't just getting tighter -- it's getting more personal.
5. NHL Metropolitan
This one tops the NHL this season for one reason only: The battle between the New York Rangers and the New York Islanders for the division title. (With Pittsburgh hanging around as well.) This is the final year for the Islanders in Long Island, so it's sort of beautiful that this is their best team since they won all those titles in the '80s. I'd argue that what the Islanders are doing is one of the most compelling stories in sports right now … and that it's the Rangers and Penguins trying to stop them makes it that much more thrilling. These are standings you check every morning, no matter what.
4. NBA Central
As with many things in the NBA, Michael Jordan's responsible for much of the fun of this one: Bulls-Pistons, Bulls-Pacers, Bulls-Cavs … they all have a little more spark because of Jordan. But LeBron James has played his part too: Cavs-Bulls and Cavs-Pacers have a spark as well. This division could use the Pistons to come back into view; right now, they're the only team in the division who wouldn't be in the playoffs if the season ended today. And all apologies to the Hawks, but Cavs-Bulls would be an awfully tasty Eastern Conference Finals … particularly if Derrick Rose comes back.
3. AFC North
The Bengals have made the playoffs four seasons in a row and five out of the last six … and they have the third best recent playoff history in this division. The teams above them, the Ravens and the Steelers, have reached three of the last seven Super Bowls, and when those two teams play each other, the entire NFL world stops. The Browns have been the whipping boy since they returned, but there's still a lot of fascination around them as well, and not just because of Johnny Manziel. This is the most fun division in the NFL, and may remain so for several years.
2. NL Central
Here's the best division in baseball. The Reds and the Brewers are the clear worst two teams … and I'd argue they'd be reasonable choices to win the AL Central, were either in that division. Meanwhile, the Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs not only look like World Series contenders this year; they look like they'll be battling each other deep in October for the next decade to come. Someday we're going to get a Cardinals-Cubs NLCS. That day may be soon.
1. NBA Southwest
Right now, the Southwest division has the Western Conference's second, fourth, sixth, seventh and eighth seeds. That's right, all five teams in this division are currently in playoff positions. Oh, also, if you exclude the Lakers, this division has had every Western Conference NBA champion since 1979. The Pelicans with Anthony Davis (who looks like he's going to rattle off three MVPs in a row sometime in the next decade) are the worst team in this division. This is the NBA's best … and the best in all of sports.