For the longest time, I thought Sam Hinkie was a loon. An intelligent loon, mind you, but a loon nonetheless.
Tanking is nothing new to the NBA — it’s been happening longer than you think. Teams have been dying to lose games to get a better draft pick for as long as the draft has existed, pretty much. What Hinkie did that was — “innovative” — was be so blatantly transparent about it. Teams have tanked before but did so by sitting “injured players” or easing up on the gas pedal and giving everyone a nice wink that everything was on the up-and-up. We all knew what they were really doing, but it was somewhat of a courtesy that at least the teams were pretending to care.
The conceit with sports is that once teams don’t care about winning, the universal pointlessness of sports shines through — the illusion is broken. Hinkie didn’t just break the illusion: he shattered it, burned the pieces and crop-dusted the ashes across the entire NBA fan base.
In the end, that’s what irked me. I’m no idiot — the mediocrity treadmill is real and in the NBA you either get busy winning or get busy tanking. It was Hinkie’s disregard for building any type of culture or developing any type of stable environment for all the young players he acquired that seemed toxic. He drafted Joel Embiid and Dario Saric in the same draft knowing full well the chances of either playing right away was slim to none, making a historically bad team even worse. Agents were miffed, future draft picks wanted nothing to do with them and one of their top-3 picks was getting in street fights.
I liked to point at Philadelphia and laugh from my high character and culture ivory tower. “Have fun sucking on the tailpipe of dreams and hopes! I’ll be over here enjoying my 40-win team get pummeled in the playoffs!”
Then Joel Embiid started playing. Welp.
The Mavs are bad. They’ve shown some life since the turn of the new year, but they are woefully out-manned and too overwhelmed by injury and inexperience to claw out of the hole they’ve dug themselves.
They need to keep losing. The 2017 draft class is stocked with elite talent at positions the Mavs desperately need. If the ping-pong balls fall right, Dallas could have their point guard for the next 10 years.
I know this is the right thing to do. My logic brain screams it at me every morning. The season is lost, let go, it’s for the best.
For some dumb reason, I can’t. I’m overjoyed for every Barnes mid-range jumper, every Seth Curry deflection and Wes Matthews bow-and-arrow. I still squeal when Dirk does Dirk things and continue to be shocked at the sudden development of Dwight Powell, elite rim-runner.
When these things lead to wins, I can’t help but getting excited. Basketball is entertainment and winning is fun. I understand there’s a huge part of the fan base that still feels the same about those types of plays I just listed but hopes it all happens in a loss. I’m just not there yet. Or, so I thought.
Because I look at the Mavs roster situation and it is bleak. The only rotation players locks to be back are Dirk (he wants those 20 years), Wes, J.J. Barea, Barnes, Curry, Justin Anderson and Dorian Finney-Smith. The rest is a mystery. Lots of non-guaranteed and expiring contracts dot the Mavs roster this season.
I get excited when the young Mavs do things but...what’s their core? Barnes is 24, so check. Dirk, Barea and Harris are all on the backend of their careers. Wiliams and Bogut are gone. Curry is young, experience wise, but he’s 26. Finney-Smith is an old rookie at 23 and Anderson is 21 but shaky. That’s three rotation players under the age of 25. That’s not a young core that needs a few more pieces.
I look at the roster situation in 2017 and beyond, the ages of the veterans and the young guys and then, my god, I look at Embiid.
On a per-minute basis, he’s the best center in the league. He’s the total package and just needs to iron out the smaller kinks in his game. Saric is there and showing out. The 76ers are fun as hell and they’re getting results now. They have under-25 players doing big things, with a clean cap and plenty of assets to unload on the veteran they finally decide is worthy. The Process — gulp — worked. Is there any team with a brighter trajectory than Philly? Even the Timberwolves, who stocked up on talent and didn’t shamelessly gut their roster at the same time, feel like they’re taking way longer. It’s funny that even though the Sixers shamelessly tanked, they pulled off a move that a lot of bad teams don’t do — they stuck with their head coach. I’ve railed the 76ers for years about not building a type of environment for young guys to thrive, completely ignoring the fact that their new, progressive and talented coach has been there since the beginning, installing his principles and teachings every year. Quietly, Brett Brown is tied for the fifth longest-tenured coach in the NBA.
I’m jealous and shaken. I’m not ready for the Mavericks to toil away at the bottom of the standings for years on end, but I guess they should. I want the Mavericks to win. I also want the next Joel Embiid. Maybe as long as the Mavs wink as they tell me Wes has the flu in March, I’ll be OK.