By far the biggest wild card as we head into this uncertain future of bad Mavericks basketball is Mark Cuban.
When Cuban bought the team in 2000, he inherited a great stash of talent. He had a franchise player (Dirk), All-Star level role players (Michael Finely, Steve Nash) and a Hall of Fame coach (Don Nelson). Cuban for his part, didn’t let that talent go to waste and the Mavs rolled off over a decade of more than competent basketball. It’s a stretch no team other than the Spurs has ever matched.
He’s never had a bad team though. He’s come close, but the combination of Rick Carlisle and Dirk Nowitzki blew away any offseason bungling. Now that we’ve arrived at the part where Dirk is too old to prop open the slowly closing contention window, I keep wondering how the hell is going to handle it, considering the Mavs’ history with the draft.
On Sunday, Cuban addressed the tanking concerns head on as the Mavs toil around at the bottom of the league standings with a (then) 3-13 record. He said a lot of things and it was a lot to digest. Let’s break it down by his two biggest points.
Cuban said the Mavs won’t tank and purposefully lose and that’s actually OK...
...because it doesn’t matter whether Cuban says the Mavs will tank or not — they are. They are a bad team losing lots of games. The method is different but the results are the same.
There is a difference though between what the 76ers did over the last couple years and what the Mavs are doing, and I agree with Cuban’s point. He said the Mavs will not purposefully lose because of how it affects young players’ development and the franchise culture.
I can get behind that. My biggest beef with the Sam Hinkie plan in Philadelphia was how toxic the situation seemed to get around the team. Losing sucks, for sure, but losing with no veterans to calm the team down, no veterans to tell the young guys what they’re doing — or to step in front of the microphones and shield them from uncomfortable questions — seemed weird.
Immature players had no guidance and did stuff like this. Young players that had no business playing 36 minutes a night did so and compounded bad losses into bad habits. Michael Carter-Williams would probably still be the same busted and flawed player he is right now, but it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where he went to a team that helped his rookie year with some sort of veteran point guard presence. Fantastic rookies wouldn’t feel queezy about being drafted there. That just seems like a bad reputation to have as a franchise.
I’m all for the basketball analytics revolution that we’re going through, but there’s still a human and social element to the game that’s needed. So I appreciate the Mavericks trying. It doesn’t matter, because they’ll still lose, but I feel like there’s something to instilling a sense of accountability and leadership even on a crummy team. It feels weird and hopeless when there’s no captain to go down with the ship.
Cuban said they don’t need to tank because there are no transcendent players in the draft
This is true. The 2017 draft has no clear-cut Tim Duncan, Anthony Davis, Karl Anthony-Towns, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, James Harden or Russell Westbrook.
But guess what? Who thought Stephen Curry, James Harden or Russell Westbrook were transcendent, franchise-carrying players when they were drafted? None of those guys were drafted with a top two pick. Hell, Curry was picked seventh overall.
That attitude scares me. It’s hard to know what Cuban really believes when he talks to the media (resists...urge...to make...political...comparison) but if we take him for his word...that sort of seems like he’s devaluing the draft right? The kind of thing the Mavs have done a lot. The kind of thing that propelled the Mavs to a championship but also got them into the current mess they are in.
There are a lot of good players in this draft. It’s not too hard to squint and see guys like Markelle Fultz, Josh Jackson, Dennis Smith and Lonzo Ball and see dudes that could make the kind of leaps that Curry, Harden and Westbrook made.
The Mavs are no longer in the position to pick and choose methods to improve the team. The cupboard has to be emptied and the Mavs have to treat the draft like the valuable team-building tool it is. They’re making progress! Justin Anderson looks like a real NBA player and Donnie Nelson does have an eye for talent. They are so close to doing this thing right.
Is Cuban completely ready though? If the Mavs land a top three pick and he doesn’t think a Fultz or Ball or Jackson can help lay the foundation for another successful decade of Mavs basketball...does he trade it? Does he package it for a veteran to try and get another run before Dirk’s clock ticks to zero?
There’s a difference between grabbing a guy like Anderson coming off a playoff season and picking second in the draft after one of the worst seasons in franchise history. Cuban has never endured this, so it’s reasonable to say we have no idea what kind of toll this losing will take on him. I’m not sure whether it will break him into submission or rile his loins to further keep the Mavs knee-deep stuck in a mediocre present and make a trade.
What kind of player would Cuban have to get to make a trade of such a high pick worth it? It’s a short list that most likely begins and ends with DeMarcus Cousins. I’m not sure how many ready-made franchise players are out there this summer.
All that indecision, all that unknown is scary. Let’s see how Cuban handles it.