When Mark Cuban stated the team’s apprehension to tanking, we scoffed. They’re the second-worst team in the NBA with a 4-17 record and litany of injuries. Their path towards a top-3 pick, and a potential franchise player in a strong draft, is wider than an Ezekiel Elliott running lane. Just tank, lose 50 plus games, draft a top flight point guard and keep the machine moving. But tanking is not linear and it does not mow through an unbeaten path without leaving some carnage in its wake. After Wednesday’s atrocious home loss to the Sacramento Kings, the Mavericks were exposed to the harsh realities of tanking.
Tanking is not simply a matter of wins and losses; it’s an organizational shift. For over 15 years, the Mavericks — along with the Spurs — have been the premiere organization in the NBA from top to bottom. Cuban does not have a losing season to his name. Pulling the plug on this season is no longer a choice that lies in the hands of the front office, coaching staff or players. They all want to win games. They all want to make the playoffs. That was the goal when they were 0-0 and that is still the goal with a 4-17 record. That goal, the playoffs, no longer seems feasible to anyone watching this team, but what next?
Dallas isn’t Philadelphia or Brooklyn. They have good veteran players on this roster who know how to win, and at some point Dirk Nowitzki, J.J. Barea and Andrew Bogut will all be healthy and team’s level of play will stabilize. Just winning at a .500 pace after December could push them out of a top-5 draft pick, but not anywhere near a playoff berth. The Mavericks keep renewing their lease on the mediocrity treadmill. Do they have the stomach to jump off? I’m not sure anyone — front office, coaching staff, players, media, fans — is ready to watch Dirk lose on a nightly basis. He spoiled us for 16 years, and now that they’re bad, no one is quite sure how to watch or even talk about this team.
The fissures in the collective team psyche began to show during and after the loss to Sacramento. Losing to the Kings at home by 30 points would send a shiver down the spine of any team, but the particular nature of this loss revealed a potential ticking time bomb. Dallas threw the ball away with impunity on Wednesday night. They didn’t value possessions in a way that was uncharacteristic for even this year’s team. Even more troublesome, their effort waned in the second half after getting hit hard at the beginning of the third quarter. Harrison Barnes alluded to the issue after the game, saying, “We let go of the rope.”
Rick Carlisle tried but failed to jolt his team out of their competitive slumber. He ripped into Salah Mejri during one break in action, as soon as Mejri came off the court after picking up a technical on a questionable call and immediately afterwards when he was seated on the bench. If the tongue lashing was meant as a message to the team, the punch didn’t land. Carlisle burned through all of his timeouts before the end of the third quarter and called two more in the fourth quarter just for good measure, both earning technicals. The frustration bled through every animated timeout signal. After the game, Carlisle issued a 39-second statement to the press without taking any questions.
The locker room media session was short as well. ESPN’s Tim MacMahon reported that the Mavericks held an additional team meeting after media for 35 minutes with both coaches and players. It’s a further sign that Carlisle is committed to the winning culture in Dallas, injuries be damned. Even if the playoffs are out of reach, there are still 61 games left in the season. The nihilism cannot set in before the calendar turns to 2017, especially with Dirk making an eventual return.
Wes Matthews made an effort to be an extension of Carlisle on the court. He pulled the team together for player huddles a couple times to rally the troops, but it just wasn’t enough. This has to be a particularly tough season for Matthews to swallow. He signed with Dallas under the assumption that he would be playing in playoff games with Chandler Parsons and DeAndre Jordan. Parsons and Jordan are enjoying winning seasons on their respective teams, while Matthews toils away on a team spiraling towards the lottery.
The Achilles injury should have been a death sentence for Matthews, but he’s finally running around being the general badass he was in Portland. In his last ten games, Matthews is averaging over 17 points a game on 48 percent from three, and his resurgence coupled with Harrison Barnes has made for a dynamic wing duo over the last two weeks. The two of them are living up to lofty contracts that many though were extreme, just without team success to show for it.
After Wednesday’s loss, Matthews — maybe the most strong willed player in the league — did not have the typical unfettered confidence that we have become accustomed to. It was a rare moment of vulnerability for the Iron Man. Although a weary Wes rolled out answers he’s given a dozen times about this team, he did make one statement with gumption: “We’re never gonna lose faith.”
This is the precarious nature of tanking with veterans on the roster. It’s why Mark Cuban refuses to make a declaration. Eventually the sixth-leading scorer of all time will exchange his suit for a jersey. Eventually a diminutive Puerto Rican point guard will jitterbug through the lane. Eventually a grand wizard will unlock the nuclear codes for this offense. And what then? Do we expunge the Markelle Fultz YouTube clips from our internet history? Do we put our Lonzo Ball jerseys on back order? The answer isn’t simple. It’s one that Dallas is still wrestling with.
The Mavericks play the Pacers on Friday. It’s a game, for better or worse, they plan to win.