After DeAndre Jordan committed to Dallas more than a week ago, Mavs owner Mark Cuban revealed in an interview that the team would have gone into tank mode had they missed out on the Clippers' big man. But after Jordan reneged on his deal this week, the team appears to have shelved any plans for outright tanking.
Dallas first honored its commitment with shooting guard Wesley Matthews, signing him to a $70-million deal. The team then traded a highly protected second round pick for Bucks center Zaza Pachulia. On Monday, it's likely to add point guard Deron Williams to join Matthews in the backcourt. And the Mavs continue to look for ways to improve the roster before next season.
This team won't be be a lock for the playoffs by any means after losing Jordan but they could be a dark horse in the race for the seventh or eighth seed in the West. Dallas might look like a team headed for mediocrity right now. But for a number of reasons staying competitive and trashing "plan tank" is the right move for the franchise.
1) They still owe a protected draft pick to Boston
As part of the Rajon Rondo trade, Dallas gave up a first round draft pick that's top seven protected through 2020. So, if the team wants to keep that pick, they would have to be really bad. Even having the seventh worst record in the league would leave the Mavs with a 25 percent chance of falling below the seventh position in the lottery.
Just that scenario unfolded a year ago when the Sacramento Kings, the team with the seventh worst record, dropped to the eighth pick after the draft lottery. So the Mavericks could try to be bad and still give a pick in the bottom half of the lottery to the Celtics.
Should the Mavericks get to keep their pick next year and take a highly rated prospect to build for the future, the franchise will still have the draft obligation hanging over its head until 2021, when the pick becomes fully unprotected. That hurts the team's flexibility because of NBA limitations on trading future picks. The so-called Stepien rule was created to prevent a team from trading first-round picks in consecutive years (maybe the NBA could add a Cuban rule to prevent a team from moving back in the draft multiple years?). For a team like Dallas with protections on a traded pick, the earliest a future first rounder could be moved is two years after those protections expire--in the Mavs' case, that means they couldn't trade another pick until 2023.
A future first round pick would have come in handy this summer with Denver's Ty Lawson apparently available via trade. The sooner Dallas can send its pick to Boston and have that extra flexibility, the better.
2) A tanking strategy can have negative consequences with few returns
As Mark Cuban himself observed, plenty of teams have gone into tank mode over the last few seasons to get a chance to acquire young talent like Andrew Wiggins. But that often meant very little in terms of later on court success. The Cleveland Cavaliers accumulated five top 5 picks over four seasons after LeBron James' departure. But before he returned last summer, they were still a laughingstock on the court.
The bottom of the standings is littered with teams that have had multiple chances to turn things around with high lottery picks. The Golden State Warriors, who added much of their current core with high draft picks, is more of an exception than the rule. The Mavericks can't be absolved of ignoring the draft in recent years, but the team can't bank on turning things around soon with a handful of high lottery picks either.
And it's a lot harder to pitch free agents on a "winning culture" when you're intentionally losing games. Better to be the Utah Jazz and remain semi-competitive while committing to developing players acquired through the draft, than be outright bad like the Sixers or directionless like the Kings.
And if Dallas really wants to rebuild by grabbing a high draft pick, the team should aim do that for the more highly regarded 2017 class. At least, if you believe the folks who follow future draft prospects.
2017 NBA Draft is going to be a monster.— Fran Fraschilla (@franfraschilla) July 5, 2015
If fewer teams are outright tanking next season, as Cuban said, it's because 2016 will have a weaker draft class than 2017 and 2018.
3) The team has flexibility to add free agents next summer
One silver lining of the DeAndre Jordan debacle is that the team will still have significant cap space next summer when free agent centers like Hassan Whiteside, Festus Ezeli, Timofey Mozgov and Roy Hibbert hit the market. The Mavericks will be able to make the case to potential free agents that they can join a team with solid veterans like Matthews and Chandler Parsons, a capable point guard in Williams, intriguing under 25 talent in Dwight Powell and Justin Anderson and arguably the league's top coach in Rick Carlisle. And they'll still have the league's most invested owner to seal the deal.
After striking out for the third time on a major free agent acquisition, the Mavericks can still improve by adding decent talent a year from now. That might not mean a superstar like Kevin Durant, but the hallmark of Cuban's first decade with the team was constant wheeling and dealing in order to get better. The Mavs should embrace the kind of smart asset accumulation that got the Mavs to two NBA finals.
4) Dallas owes Dirk Nowitzki the chance to finish his career on a competitive squad
Were it not for the draft pick considerations, the decision to tank might be clear. Except that the team has Nowitzki under contract two more seasons. Dirk's not only the greatest player in franchise history, he's arguably the most accomplished athlete in Dallas sports history. With one title under his belt, he's shown no inclination to move elsewhere to compete for another one. And unless he asks for a trade, the Mavericks won't look to move him.
Nowitzki has taken millions less than he he's worth to give the franchise opportunities to add talent and chase big name free agents over the last half decade. Cuban should give him the chance to finish his career here on a competitive squad and fight for another playoff spot, if nothing else.