After 33 wins in 2016-17, the Mavericks took another step back this season and should finish with 27 or 28 wins. It’s been a bad season, but not bad enough to give the Mavericks a chance at a top lottery selection. A lack of clear strategy for the future could haunt the organization for years, because the NBA draft lottery matters.
It’s been maddening because over and over again, we’ve repeatedly heard one thing from owner Mark Cuban, but seen something else actually happen on the court. Let’s revisit some key moments from the season:
In November, following a horrifying start to the season, owner Mark Cuban told the Dallas Morning News “we ain’t tanking” until the team is eliminated from the playoffs. The Mavericks proceeded to hobble through the schedule, fighting hard but entering the All-Star break with a bottom-five NBA record. Cuban then used the break to openly admit the Mavericks were tanking, for which he got fined $600,000.
Since the break, the Mavericks have gone 4-6, effectively ending any chance at favorable lottery odds (if the draft lottery were held today, Dallas would have the seventh best odds at the number one pick, just 4.3 percent).
It’s true that the last two wins came against two other openly tanking teams in Memphis and New York, that doesn’t alleviate any frustrations. There are plenty of bad teams left on the schedule, and the Mavericks are actually projected to win nearly half of their 14 remaining games. The current incentive structure in the NBA is such that it benefits teams who are not playoff eligible to pursue the best odds in the draft lottery. The Mavericks have avoided taking the steps necessary to acquire those odds, going so far as to hold onto veteran players for sentimental reasons. Veteran players play hard and know what they’re doing. In short, they create more wins.
Mark Cuban has said one thing, while the players and coach have taken a different approach, citing platitudes and intangibles like “culture.” But what good has that culture done the Mavericks? They’ve won five playoff games in the six seasons since the title. The Mavericks cannot start to improve without another foundational piece, and those pieces are most readily available in the draft. The draft is more art than science, but any team confident in their scouting should want the best chance to select the best player.
What’s crazy about their lack of commitment to the best path forward is that the Mavericks are really good with player development. The myth of Rick Carlisle’s unwillingness to play rookies has been thoroughly debunked with the steady improvement of Dennis Smith Jr. The Mavericks got the most out of O.J. Mayo, Brandan Wright, DeJuan Blair, Al-Farouq Aminu, J.J. Barea, Dwight Powell, Seth Curry and a host of other players.
And while that’s occasionally offered as a defense of the Mavericks’ unwillingness or inability to maneuver themselves to the top of the draft order, if the Mavericks were able to turn NBA castaways into actual contributors, imagine what they could do with a top-tier rookie like DeAndre Ayton. It’s true that good players are available throughout the draft, but that’s not a good reason for not pursuing better lottery odds.
It’s also important to consider what Cuban’s said about the team’s plans beyond this season:
“[W]e’re not going to tank again. This is like a year and a half of tanking and that was too brutal for me.”
That means free agency, which means revisiting a strategy which, to be kind, has failed the Mavericks since the enactment of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2011. There’s ample reason to re-litigate past free agency pursuits, but suffice to say, had any of these moves worked, the Mavericks might be in a wildly different and more positive situation.
It’s important to understand that the best players in the league rarely make it to free agency before their second contract is over. The best players are primarily acquired through the draft or through trades. If they do make it to free agency (think Kevin Durant), they certainly aren’t interested in lottery teams. Free agency generally serves to make very bad teams only marginally less bad, and it does little to improve the overall timeline without a few core players to build around.
We’ve yet to discuss how rarely teams make double-digit win progressions year over year. That means even if the Mavericks were to improve their roster significantly this offseason, they would still be unlikely to make the playoffs next year, which is their unstated goal. That means another year of lottery selection, only this time with even worse odds. This road to relevance doesn’t make sense.
The Mavericks do have a plan, of that I’m sure. I’m also sure that plan involves not committing to any one path. But there are no half measures in a competitive endeavor. There are no short cuts in a rebuild. We’ve been told for far too long that the Mavericks have a plan, are smarter than the competition and that we need to simply trust them. However, this slow march towards irrelevance means the time for patience is over. Unfortunately, given the tanking throughout the league, it may be too late to make a difference. The Mavericks may well be stuck in basketball purgatory and simply not realize it yet.
But they will, and they’ll regret the obvious decisions which led them there.