What the Dallas Mavericks have done in 2017 flies in the face of tanking rhetoric as established by Sam Hinkie’s infamous “Process” and popularized by fans just looking for a little hope. The Mavericks are competing with anyone and everyone they’ve played in the New Year. It hasn't really been the product of a conscious decision to hurt their chances of drafting a superstar. At least not as much as it’s simply the result of engraved habits.
Tanking culture is the perfect storm of our fascination with superstars, our enjoyment of projecting the future of NBA prospects, and the human nature of needing a silver lining. It also can’t be refuted as a viable strategy. Losing games increases your chances of landing a player like Joel Embiid who can save a franchise. The Sixers, as the most blatant case study of tanking, embodied it by ignoring the habits that lead to gradual improvement. It might be the most difficult paradox in sports: How do you apply tanking to an industry where every dynasty is built through a structure that enables thousands of positive steps towards success?
Small moves lead to small results. They rarely (if ever) have led to an Embiid-type impact. Signing undrafted Dorian Finney-Smith out of training camp to hopefully develop him into a two-way starting caliber player is a small move. As is making a low-risk investment in the potential of Seth Curry. Yogi Ferrell might have just completed the most impressive 10-day contract in NBA history before signing a multi-year contract with Dallas. That’s a grandiose way of saying the Mavs pulled off a nice little move.
Those players have been a few primary reasons the Mavericks have won nine of their last 15 games. They are paying immediate dividends to what will likely amount to a losing season. But you can’t deny they were savvy acquisitions. Talent evaluation shouldn’t exist in a vacuum of monumental decisions. If it does, then you better not botch those decisions. The Sixers had an opportunity to draft Kristaps Porzingis. They botched it. The accumulative signings of Finney-Smith, Curry, and Ferrell don’t amount to the significance of drafting Embiid (a good/big move) or passing on Porzingis (a bad/big move), but it was an example of evaluating talent based on their ability to operate in a current situation rather than a hypothetical future situation.
Finding cheap young players and throwing them into the fire isn’t exactly a win-now strategy. But all season the Mavs have refused to consider Harrison Barnes and Wes Matthews as anything but pillars of their identity. They play heavy minutes and provide playoff-caliber production. They are ahead of Curry and Finney-Smith in the pecking order of the team and are expected to mentor them. Ferrell too will maintain a role, but receive decreased minutes when J.J. Barea and Deron Williams return from injury. By starting Dirk Nowitzki at center Rick Carlisle has found a way to maximize the offensive potential of the entire roster. All of these things could pay small dividends in the future, but they’re implemented with the purpose of stringing together win streaks.
And yet the Mavericks need another All-Star caliber player before they’re competing for an NBA title, and their hot play is actively decreasing their statistical probability of nabbing one of those players in the lottery. So all this is to ask what are the Mavs doing? And is it worth a reexamination of the tanking philosophy?
Dallas is heading towards the territory that Hinkie feared most for his Sixers without a superstar: the NBA’s dreaded middle ground. Their ceiling is to be destroyed by the Warriors in the first round of the playoffs. In pro-tanking circles, this is how one enters the treadmill of mediocrity.
That thought process isn’t unreasonable, but it ignores two hard truths. The first is that there will always be a middle ground regardless of whether or not everyone is trying to avoid it. So if there is a race to the top and a race to the bottom, and teams are inevitably falling short of both, the question becomes what is the greatest consequence? In a lottery system, poor performance far from guarantees a game-changing prospect. Actively hindering your team’s short-term success and then failing to acquire that game-changer almost ensures another lost season, forcing you to double-down on the tanking route. Any level of competitive improvement while falling short of playoff success can still reasonably be carried over into the future.
The second ugly truth is that players as good as Embiid or Karl-Anthony Towns aren’t in every single draft. Foundationally great is an entirely different category than a really, really good piece. Jabari Parker can’t carry the burden of Embiid. His value will start to show itself as you surround him with other competent parts. The Bucks are starting to see those dividends.
If we break the formula of drafting into two broad categories we could simply say that a team, in some order, needs to draft or acquire a star and acquire players capable of surrounding that star. The accepted theory is that the former is the hardest part and therefore should be prioritized. A superstar is supposedly much easier to build around, but even the best young superstars can’t transcend a flawed roster. Minnesota is floundering in Towns’ second year, and the Sixers, 15 games below .500, are scrambling to trade their second and third best players without any leverage to net anything in return. In other words, the first step is never the final step, so what happens when the “hardest” step wasn’t the product of practiced success?
The Mavericks are building something slow with small parts. It’s entirely possible that the right amount of luck and precision tanking means a bottom of the barrel team could jump them by landing the right player in the draft. But while it’s easy to focus on Dallas decreasing their chances of drafting a future Hall of Famer, what’s overlooked is that they are building a foundation that lowers the required level of transcendence of their next important acquisition. The Mavs would love an Embiid or Towns, but one can imagine what a Myles Turner (11th pick), Rodney Hood (23rd pick) C.J. McCollum (10th pick), or Steven Adams (12th pick) could do when implemented into their core.
The same can be said of the Miami Heat who have inexplicably won 11 straight games and are gunning for the right to lose to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs. The playoffs are becoming more likely than the number one overall pick for both teams. But it’s hard to accuse the Mavs or Heat of shortsightedness when no teams this side of the Spurs have enjoyed more long-term success. Since 2003-2004 they have won the second and fourth most games in the NBA.
The lesson here is not a statement on how to rebuild a team. It might just be that even good habits die hard. The Dallas Mavericks aren’t going to prove or disprove the effectiveness of tanking. They’re just going to keep trying to do what they always do.