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The case for a quiet, soft tank for the Dallas Mavericks

How losing can set the Dallas Mavericks up for a better future.

In the NBA, the last place you want to be is in the middle. Walking back through the crime scene that was the Maverick’s 2022 off-season is not something this will examine in depth, but the handling of Jalen Brunson, Javale McGee’s signing, and a disinterest in getting younger left both a flawed roster and a muddied plan going forward. If a team loses their second best player, it’s likely best to start gathering assets and plan for the future; if it wishes to stay all-in on contention, then they must keep him at all cost.

I’m sure if you asked Maverick executives why they didn’t commit to taking a step back, they would scoff and point to Luka Doncic. “Don’t you realize how close he makes you, even with roster issues?” In the context of this roster on paper, that feels like coded language for chasing 50 wins, ticket sales, and MVP votes. It’s been said on this site that the goal this year was for the team to take their medicine—wait out bad contracts, tread water until the final traded pick conveys, and keep the vibes strong. The problem is you can’t spit out the most bitter pills.

It’s not too late to swallow the whole bottle. For a man who once led a panel about avoiding the “treadmill of mediocrity”, that shouldn’t be so hard, right?

The panel was held at the famed Sloan Conference. Cuban declared that once Dirk Nowitzki retired, he wished to “lose and lose badly”. After winning the Finals, he executed a purposeful step back to (supposedly) extend Dirk’s title window. In light of the Maverick’s slow start and limited assets, the opportunity for something similar is right in front of the front office’s face, and it may be much more digestible now than it was then.

Maxi Kleber might be out for the year. Dorian Finney-Smith is injured. The defensive backbone this core was built upon last year is in shambles. Josh Green has used terminology like “revisit in a few weeks” concerning his vague elbow injury. There’s a concerning lack of clarity about Christian Wood’s future with the team. I somewhat doubt this team, considering Luka’s greatness, wouldn’t find some sort of regular season stride and make the play-in, but again, is respectability the goal? Only one team has ever won an NBA Finals without home court advantage in the first round. I’ve seen it suggested that with one big trade for a star next to Luka, in a wide-open West, they’d have a puncher’s chance. Only three teams in the last forty years have won without a top 10 defense, they were either 11th or 12th, and all were defending champs. Flawed teams don’t win in the NBA, and every year a “dangerous” team that hung around the playoff bubble makes less noise than expected.

Perhaps most importantly, this is an old team, and the asset cupboard is bare. It’s less about the results night-to-night; it’s the pathways to getting better than fans can’t realistically daydream about.

The alternative? Lose. Don’t make a big production out of it. Luka won’t fake an injury, but sit him and the vets liberally. Give Jaden Hardy and Josh Green agency they aren’t ready for. Don’t rush anyone back from injury. Enough teams are trying to win, and missing the play-in equals a top ten pick, which is the point at which our pick is protected.

A top ten pick alone is a huge prize, but by trading players now, Dallas kills two birds with one stone: ensure that you get your pick and build the asset pool. Christian Wood and Spencer Dinwiddie have flaws, but also have value. Reggie Bullock would net little, but has proven playoff “thee-and-d” bonafides. They could take back bad money for expiring contracts (Wood, Dwight Powell) and receive assets in return. If the Mavericks believe Dorian can be a part of the next great Mavericks team, or that Luka would want to hold on to at least one member of this core, keep him, though many teams would covet him. Kleber can’t be traded because of his extension. It’s difficult to execute tearing things down to the studs, but maybe that makes it easier to stomach for Luka and the front office.

None of these are star returns, but it’s about the cumulative effect. I’ve avoided any trade machine wankery here because the goal isn’t specific; it’s just stacking assets. There’s a great deal of chatter about a “star trade” in future for Dallas, but a reasonable goal is to have enough ammo to never be in this situation again, even after a sizable move.

Finally, this year’s draft is loaded at the top; the Mavs would likely miss on the tip-top blue chippers who make this draft generational, but crazier things have happened in the lottery system, and players of the Keegan Murray tier are littered throughout the lottery. A Marcus Smart/Jrue Holiday clone? An athletic, defensively gifted 6-7 point guard? A 6-8, 240 pound playmaking big? Across the board are versatile and modern athletes of a type the Mavericks currently don’t have. Maverick’s fans have fallen in love quickly with Josh Green and Jaden Hardy for a reason–this fan base is starved for the jolt of hope and upside that comes with youth, and these are much better prospects.

There are fair arguments against this. There’s little precedent for it with a player as good as Luka, but we’ve seen versions. Golden State held out Curry longer than they had to. Toronto tanked in an injury-prone year. Portland last year is a model. Would Luka be angry? Possibly, but sometimes it seems we treat Luka like an alien, without perception of the league at large. He surely knows the roster’s flaws, and how teams have used the talent boom to create loaded teams. I would ask him if he remembers how it felt to play the Cavs, and if he’d be willing to punt a year to never have to feel that way again. Could it really offend his sensibilities more than losing his second best player?

There’s certain characteristics which such a plan demands. The organizational humility it takes to admit and clean up mistakes. The boldness it takes to send a championship goal temporarily sideways. The confidence to undergo a rough patch with the knowledge of what’s on the other side. Then there’s the fact that the Mavericks play the Rockets three times in ten days, along with the flailing Lakers and Spurs. This might seem silly if Dallas builds up a mirage of wins against bad teams. But I don’t think this fan base would mind the risk, not with where we’re at; we know what Luka is, and he’s too good for the middle. I want to believe the franchise itself is too.