The Raptors, 76ers, and Knicks lost on Sunday, which means that, through 86 games, the Atlantic Division had a winning percentage of .314. You can't blame Philadelphia, whose 6-12 record has put them on track to crush its preseason over/under of 16.5 wins. Boston and Toronto were expected to be mediocre, so the real surprise has come from the combined 8-25 start of the aging New York teams. A .314 winning percentage is terrible, but, as commenter Indecent Expose wondered on Thursday, is it bad enough to put the Atlantic on track to become the worst division of all time?
So far, the answer is actually yes. NBA divisions go back to the 1970-71 season (I'm counting "divisions" as any sort of structure that splits the league into more than two parts). In the NFL/AFL they go back to 1966, in MLB they go back to 1969, and in the NHL they go back to 1974-75.* The chart above shows the only seasons—of the 910 in total—where a division had a combined winning or point percentage below .390. (All data are from the appropriate Sports Reference site; click here for a spreadsheet with all the divisions updated through Monday's games.) The individual teams' records are shown as well, with the size of their rectangle proportional to how much of their division's total wins/points they accounted for.
This season's AFC South, home to arguably the two worst teams in the NFL, sits at a winning percentage of .375, while the NBA's Atlantic Division currently has the lowest winning percentage of all time, by a long shot. To give a better sense of just how rare these sub-.390 records are, here are the distribution of the 910 divisional seasons across the four major sports, with the best and worst division in each sport noted.
So do either of these awful divisions-in-progress have a chance to make history, and finish the year as the worst of all time? Let's start with the AFC South, which has 16 games remaining. Ten of those are within the division, so if we add in those five automatic wins the division gets bumped up to a .397 winning percentage, with the following six remaining non-division games remaining:
- Colts at Bengals (Week 14)
- Titans at Broncos (Week 14)
- Titans vs. Cardinals (Week 15)
- Jaguars vs. Bills (Week 15)
- Texans vs. Broncos (Week 16)
- Colts at Chiefs (Week 16)
That's just a brutal schedule against some very good teams (and the Bills) that have a lot to play for as the season closes out. If the AFC South goes 2-4 in those games, they'll drop off the chart with a .391 winning percentage. If they go 1-5 they'll sit tight at .375, and if they go 0-6—a real possibility, as I doubt they're favored in any of these match-ups—they'll end up at .359, tied for the third-worst divisional record of all time.
The NBA's Atlantic Division is in a much bigger hole, but with 324 games remaining, these teams only need to go 114-210 (.352) to avoid being the worst division of all time. 74 of those games are within the division though, so they actually have to go just 77-173 (.308) in non-division games to avoid holding the title. Only four teams held a worse winning percentage overall last season.
They'll probably do a lot better than that. The Knicks and Nets may be bad, but they're not this bad, one season removed from going a combined 103-61. Like Eli Manning's interception barrage to start the season, you'll just have to enjoy this bout of unprecedented awfulness while it lasts.
* Some notes: To be consistent across eras, I always counted overtime losses in hockey as simply losses. For this analysis I'm considering the AL and NL as two "halves" of these same sports league—since they play each other for the championship—so the AL/NL East/West splits established in 1969 count as divisions (because they split one sports league into four parts). To be consistent with this definition, I'm counting that NFL/AFL divisions began in the 1966 season when the first Super Bowl was played, even though the NFL and AFL East/West existed before that. This is a bit messy, but it didn't make a difference on the divisions at the top and bottom.