On February 20th, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban went on a podcast with NBA legend Julius Erving and uttered the following comments:
I’m probably not supposed to say this, but I just had dinner with a bunch of our guys the other night. Here we are, not competing for the playoffs and I said, ‘Look, losing is our best option.’ They hated hearing that, but at least I sat down and I explained it to them. I explained what our plans were going to be this summer, that we’re not going to tank again. This is like a year and a half of tanking and that was too brutal for me.
Cuban was fined a whopping $600,000 by the league office for this statement.
At the time, in the middle of the All-Star Break, the Mavericks were sitting at 18-40, among the worst five records in the league, with a winning percentage of .310. In the 10 games since the break, the Dallas Mavericks have gone 4-6, which if you can do basic math, is a .400 winning percentage.
They’re winning more since Cuban told that story to Dr. J. Are you kidding me?
Cuban was wrong to share that story and not just because it’s unlikely that it even happened. The Mavericks didn’t just start tanking. They’ve been battling their asses off all season, and the end result is that the team simply wasn’t very good.
But now that other teams are committed to the tank, Dallas can’t keep up. They either don’t know how or they aren’t willing to. It seems that other teams have a lower floor than the Mavericks, unless Dallas is willing to give Maxi Kleber and Kyle Collinsworth a ton of minutes.
From a fan perspective, this is utterly infuriating. While we might get lectured by old hats about the Basketball Gods and players playing to win, the simple fact is the current NBA incentive structure results in fans rooting for losses. Losses result in a chance at a higher pick, and a high draft pick can turn a team’s fortunes around in a hurry.
The Mavericks have the seventh worst record. They are now 3.5 games “back” from the league worst Memphis Grizzlies, and with only 14 games remaining, there’s very little chance the Mavericks tumble back down the standings. If nothing changes, Dallas has a 14 percent chance to jump into the top three of the lotto and a four percent chance at the number one overall pick. But even this is unlikely, as Dallas is projected to finish with 28 wins. Their schedule is too weak, and they are apparently incapable of committing to this strategy.
The Mavericks started 5-17 the first two months of the year. In November, Cuban said the Mavericks wouldn’t tank until they were eliminated from the playoffs. They were eliminated on March 9 and have gone 2-1 since. The writing appears to be on the wall for everyone but the Mavericks organization.
The NBA draft is the fastest, cheapest way to improve a team over time in the modern NBA. But Cuban’s said it clearly, losing like this is “too brutal” for him, even though Dallas can’t do it effectively. So that means free agency, again, which has worked so well since 2011, with a grand total of four playoff wins. The Mavericks won’t accept what it takes to embrace a rebuild, so we may be stuck watching a bad, but not terrible, team for years to come.