With their 110-90 win over the Cavaliers on Friday night, the Dallas Mavericks have clinched the Southwest Division for the 2020-21 season. A team winning their division isn’t the feat it used to be, but it’s a truly remarkable accomplishment nonetheless for this Mavericks team. In early February they were 9-14 and thought to be on the verge of losing their season. Now they’re the Southwest Division champs.
At one point, division champions were guaranteed a top three seed in the playoffs, regardless of their record. This system came under fire in 2006, when the Mavericks, owners of the third best record in the NBA, finished second in their division to the San Antonio Spurs, who owned the best record in the league.
Despite having the second best record in the Western Conference, the Mavericks entered the playoffs as the fourth seed. This led to criticism of the system, which was changed in 2007 so that division winners were only guaranteed a top four seed. In 2016 the system was changed again, slotting teams into playoff seeds solely on their records. Division winners were no longer guaranteed any seeding.
So why is the division championship significant to the Mavericks this season? It’s used as a tiebreaker in the event of a three-way tie. If three NBA teams end the year with the same record, the highest playoff seed goes to the division champion. With the Lakers, Blazers, and Mavericks all closely bunched together in the standings, there’s a strong chance the season ends with the three teams tied. Winning the division gives the Mavericks an important edge over the Blazers and Lakers, who they’ve been trading spots with constantly over the last several weeks.
This is only the third time the Mavericks have won their division, and only their second time winning the Southwest Division. They previously captured the division championship in 2010 and 2007. They also won the Midwest Division in 1986-87.
It’s worth noting that the Mavericks’ two NBA Finals trips were in seasons they didn’t win their division. And while winning your division doesn’t come with seeding advantages or the prestige it used to, it’s a nice milestone for a franchise trying to get back to being a perennial Finals contender.