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Whether they’re tanking or not, the Mavs need to think about the future

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The Mavs aren’t purposely losing. They’re just playing the hand they dealt themselves.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Dallas Mavericks Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

As the Mavericks have ridden the treadmill of mediocrity the last few seasons, unable to escape the first round of the playoffs but never quite falling off into “bad team” territory, there’s been a lot of talk of tanking. With the Sixers mired in “The Process” and the Lakers floundering in Kobe’s last years, some questioned whether it wouldn’t be wise for the Mavericks to embrace the lottery in an effort to rebuild.

Until now, that’s been purely hypothetical. But thanks to injury, offseason acquisitions gone wrong, and drop-off in the performance of some of their veterans, the Mavericks are unintentionally but undeniably bad. It’s still early in the season, and often bad teams are unwilling to throw in the towel. They won’t start jockeying for lottery position until much later in the year when the standings are closer to fixed. But unlike the past few years, the Mavericks seem to be “tanking” when no other teams are.

In recent years, of course, the Philadelphia 76ers have loomed large in discussion of tanking. Previously, the idea of intentional losing was something merely whispered about. But Philadelphia became one of the only teams to proclaim loudly and proudly that it was adopting a multi-year tanking strategy to amass draft picks — prompting a serious discussion about the ethics of tanking. Over the last two years, you couldn’t throw a dart at the basketball Internet without hitting a story about the problems with tanking or proposed revisions to the draft lottery.

But now that Jerry Colangelo has replaced Sam Hinkie and officially renounced The Process, that panic seems to have subsided. There are still bad teams to be sure (as Mavericks fans know all too well at the moment), but they’re by and large teams that are genuinely trying to win.

The Lakers, finally rid of their Kobe albatross, may not yet be a good basketball team, but they’re leaps and bounds beyond last year. They’ve attempted to put their draft picks to immediate use this year and while they may not finish above .500, they’ll likely be close. Similarly, the Knicks are relying on their second-year star Kristaps Porzingis to keep the team just on the right side of .500.

And the Timberwolves seem destined to continue their record-holding streak of missing the playoffs, but it’s certainly not for lack of trying. Karl-Anthony Towns remains one of the most promising and awe-inspiring players of his draft class, and discussion about how to build the team around him has not, so far, inspired any hand wringing over tanking.

Because as it turns out, it now seems that the moral panic over tanking was overblown. In the end, no one trusted The Process. And this season, that’s left the Mavericks as one of the very few teams that come up in discussions about tanking.

In a sense, talking about the Mavericks tanking is unfair. As anyone who’s watched a game has seen, the players on the floor are desperately trying to win, as is Rick Carlisle. But it also seems likely that veteran players with injuries (like Dirk) are perhaps being held out and reintroduced in a more conservative manner they would in a more typical season for Dallas. And we won’t know for sure until later in the season whether Dallas will try to trade for wins now or with their sights on next year.

But although this season is frustrating for Mavericks fans, this is actually how “tanking” was supposed to happen before Hinkie ruined it. Mark Cuban & Co have made some missteps the last few years, but they were all made in the name of genuinely trying to improve the team. But a combination of bad decisions, bad luck, and natural decline have brought the Mavericks to a point at which being conservative with veteran minutes and thinking more about the future than the present is the right thing to do. The Mavericks may be behind the tanking times, but that just means they were lucky enough to miss out on the moral outrage so that they can focus on the future of the team.