Mac Engel

Languishing Mavs can tank while they try to win

In their three decade-plus history, the Dallas Mavericks dedicated an entire era to the art of tanking. It just came under the header of a different verb: trying.

The high point of that Mavs’ movement came on the backs of NBA greats such as Walter Bond, Stephen Hodge, Doug Smith, Sean Rooks, and the next Karl Malone — Randy White.

That special 11-win team of 1992-93 was followed up by the memorable 13-win group the next season.

As bad as the Mavs are — and they are bad — there is another floor of basketball hell and irrelevance that this franchise is well acquainted with. They are kidding themselves if they think they will not have to return there for at least a little while.

With the exception of the Dave Campo-era Dallas Cowboys, no team ’round these here parts has ever been in as much denial as our Mavs are.

But the Mavs do lead the NBA in charges drawn ... which is nice.

As predicted when the season began, the Mavericks cling to appeasing Dirk Nowitzki and as such are relevant for an irrelevant playoff spot. They are one of eight teams within reasonable distance of the eighth seed in the West and the right to be destroyed in the first round by Golden State.

Because this version of the Elite Eight is so mediocre, the Mavs can “go for the playoffs” while tanking, too. No one will know the difference.

The Mavs should be willing to trade everybody from Andrew Bogut, Dwight Powell, Wesley Matthews and maybe even a Cuban, too. Every Mav should be available but Harrison Barnes. He’s young and good enough to warrant a commitment. Throw in Dirk only because trading him is mathematically impossible.

If Mark Cuban is as smart as he thinks — and tells us — he is, rebuilding the Mavs won’t take as long as it did during the laughably bad 1990s because of what he has established throughout his organization.

He has said there is more emphasis on the NBA draft than ever before, which should scare us all to death. No NBA team hates the draft more than the Mavs.

With all due respect to Satnam Singh (their second-round pick in 2015), the last time the Mavs selected a real player was in 2003: Josh Howard.

If you want to know why the Mavs are not all-in on raising the white flag on this entire wasted season and jumping head first into the NBA draft lottery, let Mr. Barnes offer this insight:

“You hear that, but at the same time you have a lot of people who show up every single night,” Barnes said when I asked him the player’s perspective on tanking. “Our fans, even when we were struggling — 0-5 — they were showing up every single night. For those fans, you always have an obligation to play hard for them. Regardless of what everyone else is saying, these people are paying good money, who are taking their families out, who want to see basketball, so you leave it on the court. The wins and losses, it’s a tough situation.

“But ‘tanking’ is a mindset that is hard to get out of. You can’t just flip the switch and say, ‘Oh, now we’re trying to win games or trying to lose games now.’ It becomes part of who you are and part of habits, and it’s hard to shake that.”

There is something to be said to trying to avoid the “loser mentality” that can plague good players who grow accustomed, numb and then indifferent to L’s every single night. Losing can be infectious — ask the the 1990s Mavs.

There is also something to be said for recognizing the obvious. There has never been a wider gap between the prosperous and the middle class in the NBA, and the Mavs’ best player will be 39 in June.

The fans Mr. Barnes speak of simply are not showing up in the home arena or watching much on the television, either.

The Mavericks report the sellout streak at the AAC continues at 618 regular-season games and counting. Even the blind eyeball test says there are not 1.5 million people showing up every game (sorry, Mr. President — I can’t resist) and that this streak is embarrassing marketing.

The TV ratings have been trending down for the last few years. For good reason.

Neither Cuban nor any Mavs fan wants to let go of Dirk, yet they’re not watching when he plays. He is finding out that aging in pro sports can be brutal.

Dirk has been hurt for most of the season, and has played in but 20 games. He has scored over 20 points twice. Even when he knew the team around him was vastly inferior, it was his choice to play.

This type of season is the price to appease a 38-year-old Hall of Famer in his wish to keep playing NBA games that might have some meaning. The meaning is playing a handful of games that could push the Mavs to the eighth seed, and then four playoff games.

But the West is so bad, and the Mavs’ remaining schedule so weak, that the team can deal some of their veteran players, be it Deron Williams, Andrew Bogut or Wes Matthews, in preparation for a “playoff” run as well as doing something more meaningful.

That way they would be trying, which is what they want to do, without looking like they are tanking, which is what they need to do.

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