DB.com contributor (and Mavs fan) Andy Tobolowsky wonders: 'Are the Mavs “Free Agent Tanking”? And does that make sense of what has sometimes seemed a preposterously stubborn and confusing strategy?'
I’m pretty sure the words “Free-Agency Tanking” have never been used before, so I’ll explain what I mean by it in a second. First of all, however, let’s talk about regular old tanking. The term, in its typical use, is inseparable from the draft: you jettison all your assets, dramatically compromise your ability to win, and sacrifice several seasons on end to try to get a franchise cornerstone in the draft.
The Mavs front office is wholly on-record as being against that kind of tanking. Dirk hates the idea, Carlisle hates the idea, and Mark Cuban hates the idea, but it’s not clear they hate it for the same reason. Dirk, as a guy with little time left in the league understandably wants to close it out on a competitive team, and Carlisle, who can have a heavy hand with rookies, has never indicated interest in working with a team that doesn’t have a shot at the playoffs.
As a group, they essentially talk of "tanking'' as "not being in our DNA.''
Cuban, on the other hand, seems more annoyed by the inefficiency of the process than anything else. He’s on record here and here (in a "No-We-Won't-Tank post-DeAndre Fish report that went national) as being very aware that trying to get the top pick is risky business. And, after all, you have to get in line to do it– start tanking now, and how far behind the Wolves and Lakers are you already? As a shrewd businessman, Cuban understands market efficiency very well. And with so many teams racing to the bottom, taking advantage of the guys they’re shedding to do has been, for the Mavericks, a way of life.
But what if the Mavs have invented a whole new kind of tanking? What if instead of sacrificing seasons on end, ignoring results, until they manage to get a Karl-Anthony Towns in the draft, they’re doing the exact same thing but to get a Chris Paul in free agency? Might that make sense of what seems to any sane, logical, not thoroughly stubborn person a process that, to date, hasn’t made very much sense?
To answer that question, think first of all about what they’re not doing. They must know, can’t possibly be unaware, that failing to keep any of the guys they get through exploiting the market inefficiencies they’ve found seems insane. You could fill a team that might be better than the Mavs will be next year just through guys they’ve lost over the last few by refusing to commit big-time money and big-time years. And they must also know that trading down in the draft to save money is in many ways counter-productive. After all, if you do get Hassan Whiteside and Mike Conley – or whoever – and you don’t have young guys on small contracts to play around them, you better have Richard Jefferson on speed dial to be able to afford a 15-man roster. ... otherwise all you're really left with is cute DB.com nicknames like "Double-Pipedream.'' Not, of course, to say that they seem to respect the draft as much as they really should.
So if they are not merely being suicidally obstinate, and if they are not merely refusing to learn what the last half-decade could have taught them – and if they are not merely wildly overconfident in their ability to attract the big fish next year - what could be true? Maybe that they don’t really care what happens between now and scoring that big fish, just like the Wolves didn’t particularly care what happened in the brief interim between Kevin Love and KAT. (And then the next thing you know it's Saturday dinner time and DB.com is reporting that Dallas is offer-sheeting Harrison Barnes, whom the Mavs didn't even like a week ago, so who knows?)
Anyway, the essence of what they've done is why I’m calling what they’re doing “Free-Agency Tanking”. They’ve done it for five years now and we’ve just gotten word, via Fish and Tim MacMahon, that they want to do it again next year, for the sixth time in a row:
From Fish, in his piece, written with Jeff "Skin'' Wade, on BLOAT trades: "Skin smartly notes the importance of that final-year thing. (Why? Because next year's free-agent class is outstanding, and teams like Dallas and everyone else will want ... wait for it ... Dry Powder. I know you hate it, but it's true.)''
From MacMahon: "The Mavs would prefer to pay a higher salary on one-year deals than make multi-year commitments to veterans after missing out on their top targets in free agency, a source said. Dallas will explore trade opportunities with teams seeking to dump salary but values flexibility moving forward with next year's free agency class considered a much better crop than this summer.''
It’s probably not because they don’t realize what everyone else realizes, that this is an extremely inefficient way to get good and a worse way to stay good, it’s that they think – rightly or wrongly – that it’s no worse than “draft tanking” and it has the advantage that no one else is trying it.
Plus, and far from irrelevantly, unlike draft tanking, they can free agent draft while trying to win each year. Their strategy of getting guys on one to two year deals with options that are always declined may or may not have poisoned their reputation around the league and cost them a lot of fan favorites but it also makes Dirk happy enough and Rick happy enough while they go after, again and again, that one big score. (In the meantime, let's get Dirk PAID!)
It’s not fun, it has serious negative consequences year to year, and just because it’s never been tried before doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. For one thing, if it’s the case, as many assume, that you get farther away from the big FAs the worse your team is, it may, in fact, be a horrible mistake. But it makes sense of what in many ways has seemed a nonsensical process, and I wonder if this philosophy hasn’t been articulated quite clearly at the highest levels of the Mavs organization.
Or maybe what they're doing is simply nonsensical.