Since Mark Cuban bought the Dallas Mavericks back on January 4, 2000, they’ve been a constant presence in the NBA playoffs. It’s a point of pride for Cuban — and deservedly so — that his team has made the postseason in all but one of the 16 full seasons he’s owned the team, and has never had a below .500 record.
So it comes as little surprise that Cuban, in his usual post-StairMaster workout, pre-game meeting with reporters Sunday night, would say his team has no plans on tanking this season.
“Haters gonna hate,” Cuban said. “We think that you always compete. If you’re competing when the league is better, like it is this year, if you don’t do well, you’ll be in position to get a good pick. Which, remember, even if you have the worst record in the NBA, there’s a 75 percent chance you’re not going to get the top pick.”
Cuban is right – the odds are against a tanking team getting the No. 1 pick. Just ask the Philadelphia 76ers, a team that spent the past three years doing its best to finish with the top pick in the NBA draft and only once, this past year, actually getting it.
But as for Cuban’s claim the Mavericks aren’t going to be tanking this season? It really doesn’t matter. That’s because, whether Cuban likes it or not, his team is destined to finally bottom out.
The funny thing is that bottoming out is exactly what this franchise needs to do – and is the best way for it to finally land the franchise-changing star Cuban has been chasing the past five years.
Ever since Cuban made the controversial decision to break up the Mavericks’ championship-winning team in 2011 to try and land another superstar to pair with Dirk Nowitzki, the franchise has been stuck in neutral. First was Deron Williams, who in 2012 spurned his hometown team in Dallas to remain with the Brooklyn Nets. Then there was Dwight Howard in 2013, who chose to sign with the Houston Rockets over the Mavericks. Same with Carmelo Anthony in 2014, who re-signed with the New York Knicks, and LaMarcus Aldridge, who signed with the San Antonio Spurs in 2015.
This past summer, Dallas couldn’t even get a meeting with Kevin Durant before the superstar forward chose to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors. Of course that may not be too surprising considering Durant called Cuban “an idiot” in a postgame press conference during the teams’ playoff series after what he perceived was Cuban taking a shot at then-teammate Russell Westbrook.
As Cuban and his front office failed in chasing those stars, they then executed Plan Bs and Cs and Ds each summer, acquiring players on expiring contracts or cheap deals and then handing these hodgepodge rosters over to Rick Carlisle – one of the NBA’s best coaches – asking him to figure out a way to make it all work.
To the credit of both Carlisle and Nowitzki – the two constants in Dallas – they’ve always found a way. Even as the Mavericks have churned through player after player the past few seasons, they somehow always managed to remain competitive and slip into the postseason – even if that postseason trip has been destined to end with a first-round exit.
This year, though, it’s difficult – if not impossible – to see how that will happen again. Despite Sunday’s win over the New Orleans Pelicans, Dallas entered Wednesday’s home game against the Spurs with the league’s worst record of 3-13. And, with Nowitzki (Achilles soreness) having missed the past 11 games and J.J. Barea now out for several weeks with a calf injury – not to mention Deron Williams already missing several games with calf issues of his own and Devin Harris having missed the entire season thus far with a toe injury – the chances of the Mavericks actually getting this turned around are remote. That’s being kind.
The one positive from this season has been the performance of Harrison Barnes. When Cuban wasn’t able to get a big-name player to commit this summer, he acted quickly, offering Barnes a four-year, $94 million max contract to join the Mavericks after the Warriors needed to clear cap room to sign Durant. And while Barnes’s contract was derided at the time, he’s been a different player in Dallas, averaging 20.8 points per game and looking like a potential long-term building block. He’s also been more reliable than the man he replaced, Chandler Parsons, who has played just six games with his new team in Memphis because of recurring knee issues.
Still, despite everything that’s gone wrong for Dallas, the Mavericks are fortunate in that this is a perfect year to be bad. To Cuban’s point, there aren’t any teams at the bottom of the league trying to set themselves up for the lottery, making it easy – even if a team isn’t in fact “tanking” – to sink to the bottom. And, with a loaded 2017 NBA draft class on the horizon, there isn’t a better time to be there.
After spending the past several years striking out on star free agents, at the very least drafting from the top of the 2017 prospect crop should allow Cuban to find the star the franchise can build around as Nowitzki — who has a small guarantee on next year’s contract, giving him the option to keep playing for $25 million or take a retirement gift of $5 million — gracefully exits the stage. The fact that Nowitzki’s legacy is secure after lifting the Mavericks to a title in 2011, also will allow Dallas to use that pick without pressure to find immediate help to send Nowitzki off with a championship everyone knows isn’t feasible.
Players like Washington guard Markelle Fultz, N.C. State guard Dennis Smith, Kansas forward Josh Jackson and UCLA guard Lonzo Ball – the projected top four picks in next year’s draft, according to DraftExpress – have already drawn rave reviews in the early portions of the college season, and any of them would give Dallas the kind of young player it needs to pivot the franchise from Nowitzki. And, given the way things are going for the Mavericks at the moment, it seems exceedingly likely that a top-five pick will be theirs come spring time.
So, no, Mark Cuban’s team will not be willfully tanking its way into a top pick. But after years of successfully covering the cracks, Cuban and his staff have run out of duct tape. Now, failure – and the promise of a better future that comes with it – is inevitable, and necessary, to start turning things around in Dallas.