Mavs 'Tanking' By Any Other Name: Mark Cuban And 'The Race For The Bottom'

Mavs 'Tanking' By Any Other Name: Mark Cuban Tells Me, 'We Will Try To Win - Always!' - But What's 'The Race For The Bottom'?

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has experience the pinnacle. The exuberant words he used in 2011 to describe winning an NBA title: “We Ain’t Done Yet!’’

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Mark Cuban has experienced the NBA’s muddled middle. In these very pages, the dreaded phrase he coined years ago to describe Nowheresville: “The Treadmill of Mediocrity.’’

Mark Cuban now faces the possibility realities, the ups and downs and risks and rewards of tanking. The shrouded words he used to describe the controversial purposeful pursuit of the basement:

“The Race For The Bottom.’’

Cuban has long believed that among the many problems with tanking is that if too many teams are doing it, the race is too full of contenders and therefore that much more un-winnable. 

“When six teams are racing to the bottom, you don’t want to race for the bottom,” Cuban said the other day. (See his comments discussed here on Boards.)

”The “win,’’ the pot of gold at “the bottom,’’ of course, is to be so bad that you get the ping-pong balls necessary to capture the NBA Lotto in the spring, and then strike it rich in the NBA Draft. You simply select  The Next Tim Duncan and, voila, your franchise’s problems are solved for the next 18 years.

I’m being sarcastic, of course. There are other issues that come with tanking. One of those is that the miraculous availability of a Duncan or a Shaq or a LeBron is actually quite rare. Another is that even if you get a good player, it doesn’t necessarily equal a turnaround. And a third: Losing on purpose invites a cancerous element into a franchise. The players feel like losers. The fans feel like losers. The aura carries a stench with it that can be unbearable.

But what if you don’t “Race For The Bottom’’ on purpose? What if it just sort of happens … organically?

“When teams aren’t racing to the bottom, which is more like this year, then you play your heart out and you win as many games as you can,’’ Cuban said. “Your young guys learn how to play to win, and you’re still going to have a chance at a good pick if things don’t work for you.’’

Aha! I came up with the phrase “Organic Tanking’’ in application for last year’s Dallas Cowboys, a contending team that lost two stars to injury (Tony Romo and Dez Bryant) and at some point realized there was no real advantage to winning. By the time they played at Buffalo in December, the Cowboys were being QB’ed by non-prospect-but-good-young-soldier Kellen Moore, they were benching good starting players (like defensive end Jeremy Mincey), and they were playing end-of-benchers. 

I was in Buffalo that day and afterwards asked Mincey why he sat out.

“I took one for the team,’’ he told me with a knowing grin.

Actually, he took one for the franchise. Those Cowboys finished 4-12, which meant they got to draft fourth overall, which gave them rookie Ezekiel Elliott, the running back who is now an NFL MVP candidate on an 8-1 team.

All of that wasn’t mapped out by the Cowboys, exactly. It happened “organically.’’

The Mavs are 2-10 and sinking. Their near-record 64 points in a Friday loss to the Grizzlies, as I write here, is a “Stain That Will Remain.’’ As proof: They’ve lost a pair of games in OT and we don’t even remember those now. We just think of the stink. They’ve lost a bunch of guys to injury … and … lose games and lose guys and …  it’s just happening. (Tonight they play at the Spurs in a 7:30 tip. Then come the Clippers, Cavs, Pelicans and Spurs again. Yeah, it's happening.)

I had a one-on-one conversation with Cuban on Saturday night, while the Mavs were in Orlando in the midst of losing yet again, with Chinese League standout Jonathan Gibson, a 29-year-old rookie, serving as Dallas' best player.

Cuban's comment to me regarding "Organic Tanking''?

"We are going to try to win,'' Mark said. "Always.''

And I suppose the two concepts are not in conflict. Not if you start Dorian Finney-Smith and Seth Curry, give Gibson 30 minutes, give Justin Anderson and Dwight Powell 20 minutes each, and make sure Nico Brussino gets to get his uniform sweaty.

Fine. Try. Hard. And lose.

Next June’s NBA Draft looks loaded with Lotto talent. Dallas is justified in having that in its sights now. Coach Rick Carlisle loves to talk about the Mavs as “a championship franchise,’’ but “We Ain’t Done Yet!’’ is done. Cuban still dreads his infamous “Treadmill of Mediocrity,’’ but the Mavs aren’t on that treadmill — they’ve thrown themselves under it.

This is not going to be fun and this is not going to be funny. A bad team playing in an empty gym with D-League-level guys getting minutes while Dirk Nowitzki limps along, often in street clothes, biding his time for a hoped-for brighter day in 2017-18, is going to be excruciatingly painful. This is 11-win-season territory, 13-win-season territory, or something a meaningless notch above that, and if you think those days were fun or funny or even promising, you are as dead-wrong as this team is dead, period.

As I wrote over the weekend:

Hey, maybe instead of the Mavs putting placards in all the seats with photos of Deron and Devin and JJB, the placards can feature photos of Kansas’ Josh Jackson, UCLA’s Lonzo Ball or Washington’s Markelle Fultz.

And while we’re at it:

Hey, maybe instead o the Mavs putting placards on the seasons with all their semi-decorated vets like Wesley and Bogut and whomever, maybe they should try to trade them.

The Mavs are almost always “buyers’’ at the deadline, in large part out of deference to Dirk, the thinking being that a Nowitzki-led team is always “one guy away.’’ Sometimes that “guy’’ was a Kidd, sometimes it was a Rondo. But it was always a “buy.’’

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Not now. 

Sell. Strip. Lose.

Get young, Get room. Get bad.

Sure, "try to win -- always.'' But also get fully invested in “The Race For The Bottom.’’

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