Dallas is Losing, Not Tanking
There is a difference between tanking and losing in sports, particularly the NBA. Much hay has been made of the tanking phenomenon in recent seasons, but this year the only suspect team is the Dallas Mavericks. This has happened for two reasons, first that the team is already a practically eliminated from playoff contention, and second that they have a high-profile owner who has in the past spoken in a way that implies he would tank if it made sense.
Here’s the thing about this Mavericks squad, though—it could be pretty good if things went the team’s way. Dirk Nowitzki, the engine of the offense and leader of the team, has missed 19 games (at the time of writing). 60% of the starting lineup in his absence was not with the team last year, so Rick Carlisle has been incorporating new players into his rigorous scheme as time allows. Between this complication and injuries to Nowitzki, J.J. Barea, Deron Williams, Devin Harris, and Andrew Bogut, it’s no surprise that the team has struggled to score outside of Harrison Barnes and Wes Matthews. Every single one of their creators and their holdover point guards has been injured and sat out a number of games this season.
The 2007-08 Chicago Bulls
The Mavericks are losing, yes. But they’re doing so in a fashion reminiscent of a few other teams, the most recent of which we’ll focus in on. They’re losing due to new players getting up to speed and familiar faces missing time. A team that lost in a similar manner (an injured star, key contributors aging, new players gelling) was the San Antonio Spurs, who lost David Robinson, saw Avery Johnson and Vinny Del Negro drop off in performance and play less minutes, and ended up with a little lottery luck and an all-time legend in Tim Duncan. The last team which profiled in the same way was the 2007-08 Chicago Bulls, who went from a 2006-07 season where they earned a 49-33 record good for the 5 seed (in a time when the top 4 seeds all went to division winners) and a second-round playoff exit to a 33-49 record and the 9th best lottery odds. That team was led by Luol Deng and Ben Gordon on offense with Ben Wallace anchoring the defense in their playoff season, but then Deng missed 19 games, Gordon missed 10 games, and Wallace missed 32 en route to a disappointing finish.
That Bulls team also started off the year 2-8 in their first ten games against a tough schedule, and they ended the season with a 1.7% chance at winning the lottery—a month later at lottery night that 1.7% panned out, the Bulls landed Derrick Rose, and a franchise wondering how far they would drop bounced right back into the playoffs. As Rose improved over his first few seasons, the team caught fire under Tom Thibodeaux and Rose would be crowned the association’s youngest MVP. These Dallas Mavericks are strikingly similar. Guards and bigs have both missed time, they had a horrendous early season schedule, and now that players are starting to return (Williams and Harris have each looked good in recent wins), we have to ask whether the oddsmakers were right, and the Mavericks are truly about a 39-win team. If they win at that pace the rest of the year, they’ll end up just like those Bulls did, at 33-49. That’s definitely not a playoff team in the West, but it should be enough for a top 10 pick. If Dirk Nowitzki and Andrew Bogut remain out, any guard is reinjured, or something else happens, those odds will only improve.
Lo and behold, to complete the comparison, a transformative point guard is projected to be the #1 overall pick in the upcoming draft. Markelle Fultz, the six-foot-four, 18-year-old freshman for the Washington Huskies, is a playmaker who shined with the 18U USA Basketball team this summer and dazzles scouts on a nightly basis in spite of subpar talent surrounding him.
The Mavericks Future
All is not bleak for Dallas, then. The team retains the rights to its upcoming first-round draft pick, and the core of Harrison Barnes, Wesley Matthews, Justin Anderson, and Dwight Powell are all signed through at least the 2019 season (two more seasons after the current season). The only unrestricted free agents of note are Andrew Bogut and Deron Williams, both of whom have expressed a desire to remain in Dallas. Dirk Nowitzki will be back for at least one more season, and Salah Mejri will be a restricted free agent if Dallas extends a Qualifying Offer.
The potential to add Fultz, or another highly touted prospect like Lonzo Ball or Josh Jackson, should give the Mavericks organization a chance to make this season from hell worth something. If time can be spent developing Barnes into an All-Star, and developing Powell, Anderson, and Finney-Smith into real NBA rotation players or starters, then Dallas will have a core ready to nurture a high draft pick until he is ready to lead the next championship contending team alongside Barnes.