The Dallas Mavericks, whether they want to or not, might end up tanking in 2016-17. Such is life with a sidelined superstar and 2-11 record to start the season.
This was not the plan, nor has it ever been the plan under Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. He’ll be the first to tell you that acquiring a star (and the requisite price controls over said star, through the last four and nearly five incarnations of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement) via the draft is the quickest way to forming a sound franchise base. If Cuban could avoid a year essentially spent “off,” in chasing down lottery luck, he would.
He’s had that luxury, with Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas’ hand since 1998 and Cuban’s hand since just after the clocked turned over into the year 2000. When asked recently about his instincts when it came to blowing it all up, though, Cuban would only commit to letting things loose sometime in early April:
Q: Would you consider tanking this season?
A: We will look at that like game 75 or maybe game 70. Like I said many times when six teams are racing to the bottom you don’t want to race to the bottom. When teams aren’t racing to the bottom, which is more like this year, then you play your heart out and win as many games as you can. When your young guys learn how to play to win, you’re still going to have a chance at a good pick if things aren’t working for you.
There’s no question we knew we had to get younger. It wasn’t working just bringing in 30-35 year old guys all the time, and so we did it. We’re not winning games like we want but we’re hoping it’ll pay off dividends because the young guys are getting minutes.
Some young guys – Harrison Barnes, Seth Curry, Justin Anderson, Dwight Powell and Dorian Finney-Smith – are getting minutes. That’s hardly a fearsome batch of young prospects, though, and the rest of the team’s roster (and top minutes per game ranks) is dotted with those working past their primes.
The team’s 70th game takes place on March 21, against the Golden State Warriors in the wake of an East coast swing from the Mavs. GSW might be well on its way toward setting an NBA record for averaging 192 points per 100 possessions at that point, and that contest against the Mavs might give Dallas all it needs to commit to calling it a season.
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Game 75? On the road in Memphis, in the midst of a five-game traveling streak that would see Dallas hitting up New Orleans, Milwaukee, Sacramento and Los Angeles in order to play the Clippers. The reward for that jaunt is a home date against the Spurs, followed by contests against the Suns, Nuggets and Grizzlies (in Memphis again) to round out 2016-17.
That’s when the Mavericks could actually attempt to give in. Prior to that, as we saw during the team’s spirited loss to San Antonio on Monday – one that saw Spurs coach Gregg Popovich spit out that the opposing Mavericks “deserved to win the basketball game” – Dallas will go all dogged in its attempts to string wins together.
Which will be tough. Could be worse …
How does Rick Carlisle keeps Mavs' spirits up? "Well, we could all be digging ditches."
— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) November 22, 2016
… but it will be tough.
The same woes that dogged the team’s 2-11 start to the season won’t go away just because the Mavs made Gregg Popovich angry by coming a little too close (with two potential game-tilting shots from Seth Curry and Harrison Barnes spiraling awry) to winning on Monday. Dirk Nowitzki has played just 83 minutes all season as he deals with a sore right Achilles in his age 38 year, and the future Hall of Famer has shot 35.9 percent on the season.
Point guard Deron Williams (calf) is game-to-game at absolute best, while reserves Devin Harris (toe) and J.J. Barea (muscle tear in his calf) are out for extended periods of Mid-30s Basketball Time. This is why the Mavericks, desperate for a player like Quincy Acy to help shape things out, had to waive the actual Quincy Acy recently in a move that Mark Cuban called “horrible” three times before chalking up the “brutal” move, one that left him “heartbroken,” to necessity: Dallas needed a point guard in the worst way, which is why it needed a roster spot to sign Jonathan Gibson.
Gibson has responded with some terrific play, 14.7 points and 2.7 assists in 22 minutes over three contests, including a 26-point night against Orlando on Saturday. The 29-year old rookie hasn’t been the answer in the three games he’s played, though, as Dallas has dropped all three. The Mavs have only wins over the Bucks in overtime and coltish Lakers to count on their side so far in 2016-17.
This is why Cuban and general manager Donnie Nelson, rightfully credited for creating a champion in 2011 that looked nothing like the 2005-through-2007 championship contenders they intelligently pieced together some years earlier, are staring down the “tank” questions. As with each of the questions that have followed up the franchise’s trip to the 2011 title, though, things remain clouded (with silver linings coming and going) due to the presence of Mr. Nowitzki.
The whole point was never to waste a season with Dirk on board, while still retaining flexibility – mindful of his aging helpers and Nowitzki’s seeming agelessness. This is how, despite massive roster turnover and a series of prominent free agent misses in five different offseasons, the Mavs still made the playoffs in four out of five years following the Finals run while notching a .500 record in its lone postseason-less campaign.
Dallas didn’t exactly whiff so badly during the 2016 offseason, securing Andrew Bogut for a song while signing prized (to many, at least) free agent Harrison Barnes to a four-year, $94 million deal. After a frighteningly-poor exhibition season, Barnes has contributed 21 points and six rebounds for his new team.
That’s cold comfort, though, in comparison to his terrible finish with the Golden State Warriors and his October introduction to Dallas. Barnes is not a franchise player and would work best as a third man on a great team. He’s this generation’s Sean Elliott, and most basketball observers of the era would remind you that one of the great questions of the mid-to-late 1990s surrounded how, exactly, David Robinson’s San Antonio Spurs could turn Elliott into a third star, rather than sustaining his role as a lacking franchise deputy.
The hope was that Barnes would act as Nowitzki’s Number Two, but even if Dirk returns to form (he averaged 18.3 points in just 31 minutes last season) there is still the small matter of Nowitzki’s 39th birthday to look forward to next June. He’ll make $25 million next season and has given no indication as to when he plans to walk away.
Dallas owns its first round pick this year, and the team with the league’s worst record and lowest-rated offense should have a sound shot at nabbing a high-end lottery pick next spring even after entering 2016-17 with playoff expectations. There will be cap space, even with Dirk, Wesley Matthews and Harrison combining to make nearly $66 million next season. This setting isn’t barren.
For the local media and ravenous fans, though, the postseason miss will come as unexpected. They’d be wrong in that regard, however. Few were picking 2-11 to start things, but with this aging and/or brittle roster (Matthews has hit fewer than a third of his shots this season), only homers were expecting a playoff miracle. That’s local sports talk radio, for you.
Mark Cuban wasn’t planning to tank, and that’s to his credit. As with most aging and luckless teams, however, the slip to the bottom won’t be anyone’s choice but the opposition’s. The Mavs won’t be allowed to call things in April, as the declaration will come far sooner than that.
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