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Clutch tanking or bad basketball?

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While the Mavericks battle at the bottom of the standings, the organization has to determine what’s “good” losing, and what is just being plain bad.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Portland Trail Blazers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Rick Carlisle called a timeout with 3:10 left, trying to stop a 12-3 run that put the Chicago Bulls up 100-96, last Friday night at the United Center. Dennis Smith Jr., Wesley Matthews, Doug McDermott, Harrison Barnes and Dwight Powell couldn’t stop the bleeding, so Carlisle replaced McDermott and Powell with Yogi Ferrell and Dirk Nowitzki. The following two and a half minutes saw Harrison Barnes hit a baseline jumper right out of the timeout and two free throws with 1:12 left, but the Mavs also gave up eight points on three possessions. Chicago outscored Dallas 30-15 in the fourth. The Mavericks lost 108-100.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Chicago Bulls Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

The Mavericks have been the center of plenty of off-court attention over the last three weeks, in part because of Mark Cuban’s tanking comments on Dr. J’s podcast. Cuban, never shy to speak his mind, wasn’t necessarily wrong when it comes to seizing NBA draft opportunity. But when the league needs to sell a quality product, especially with the possibility of legal gambling reaching the NBA, commissioner Adam Silver and the league office don’t take that kind of talk lightly.

For fans watching the game in Chicago last Friday night, many could point to the complete fourth quarter collapse as elite level tanking. The Mavericks led from the tip, then nosedived late. When fates change like that between two teams near the bottom of the standings, it’s hard to not toss it aside and say that all went according to plan.

But if that’s true, what does it say that your “tanking lineup” is 80 percent of your starting lineup?

Losing with your best players

It has been well recorded that the Mavericks have plenty of clutch time experience this season. One of only four teams to play in 40-plus clutch games, the Mavs have fared the worst, with a staggering 9-31 record. Taking a look at the team’s advanced clutch stats per NBA.com, you see that the five players who took the floor Friday night with three minutes left are the five who have made the most clutch appearances (though if you use minutes played, JJ Barea and Dwight Powell rank ahead of Dirk).

At the writing of this article, in 130 minutes of play, the group of Smith Jr., Ferrell, Matthews, Barnes and Nowitzki have a net rating of minus-18; the worst rating of the five most used lineups for Rick Carlisle this season. There are a number of factors that play in to that: a rookie point guard learning as he goes, at least two players playing out of position, and zero rim protection.

With new attention on the tanking Mavericks, articles at ESPN and Bleacher Report have both credited the Mavericks’ purposeful losing to a combination of sitting vets, or not using Dirk. Tim MacMahon and Brian Windhorst at ESPN point specifically to the use of a four-man group of Smith Jr., Ferrell, Maxi Kleber and Salah Mejri (though in reality they’ve only played 41 minutes together).

It’s a much easier pill to swallow when losses come from that group of young or inexperienced players, but a little harder to digest when those “tank” losses feature parts of your future core. And while Dirk’s usage in clutch situations is suspicously low considering how hot he’s been from deep, the fact is if you replace Nowitzki in the lineup that closed out Friday’s game with Powell (a group that’s played just three minutes fewer together), the net rating turns around from a -18 to +12.6.

Look, this is not specifically a Dirk problem. The Mavericks have been bad in the clutch no matter who takes the floor. And Friday night’s display in the final five minutes, though excellent by tanking standards, should sound some alarms for all involved. One of two things happened in Chicago: either Carlisle wanted to go for the win so he kept four starters and their future sixth man in and they lost to the group of Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, David Nwaba, Lauri Markkanen, and Bobby Portis (an inexperienced group all 25 years old or younger); OR the Mavs needed to seize an opportunity to passively tank and they knew they could comfortably do that with this unit. Either way, it doesn’t shed a pleasant light on the current and future Mavericks.

A light at the end of the tunnel

Hold tight MFFLs, for there remains some hope. In Tuesday’s contest at home against Denver, the Mavericks pulled away from the Nuggets in the third quarter, using a lineup of Smith Jr., Ferrell, McDermott, Barnes and Nerlens Noel, a unit with an average age of just over 23 years old. It was the same group that gave them their biggest lead of the night (16 points) late in the fourth.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

A young crew that utilizes an athletic driving point guard, two sharp shooting wings, a combo forward and a rim-running/rim protecting center; though they’ve only logged 18 minutes together this season, they’re a net plus-34.4 on the floor. As Ian Miller wrote in the game’s recap, three from this lineup will be free agents this summer, so while this specific group may not stay intact, it was easy to get excited by watching a blueprint for the future.

Lines often get blurred when a team is in a race for the bottom. The reality is that much of this roster will not be in Dallas a few years from now. But sometimes excusing poor play as strategic tanking ignores large questions that remain for the future core of this franchise. In the midst of all this losing, the trick for the Mavericks has to be keying in on the few things that do work while being honest with how far they still have to go.