The Mavericks trading Andrew Bogut was primarily about acquiring Nerlens Noel‘s matching and Bird Rights, but that deal had greater complexities. Let’s put it aside for a moment.
Dallas also waived its starting point guard, Deron Williams. That transaction is far more simple, with no return coming to the Mavericks.
Why would they do that?
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:
“The goal always is to get to be a championship contender and get another ring,” Cuban said Sunday on ESPN Radio’s NBA Insiders show, his first extended public comments on the Mavs’ latest personnel decisions. “As well as Deron was playing and even Andrew, defensively … we had to match up to our criteria of trying to position ourselves to get a lot better. Then you combine that with the fact that I’ve always said, when a lot of teams are tanking, you don’t want to tank. And when there aren’t many teams tanking and everybody’s trying to compete, that’s the best time to consider trying to go for a draft pick. You can try to play as well as you can and still be in competition for a great pick.
“We obviously haven’t played well enough to be in the playoffs right now, but we’re playing a lot better. One loss here and there, we’re all the sudden in the top five for draft contention, but we’re also playing to get better and trying to win, which I think is a good thing.”
“It’s painful, but I’m also realistic,” Cuban said. “Look, if I wasn’t realistic about the value of a draft pick, we would have kept D-Will, we would have kept Andrew. We would be playing an older lineup, but now we’re playing our young guys.
“That supposedly is the definition of tanking: You play your youngest players to give them experience without the expectation you’re going to win. In our case, we’re playing our youngest players, but we’re playing them with the expectation that they’re going to win. I think that’s the best type of experience. And if that means we get the eighth pick or the 10th pick instead of the fourth pick, I’ll live with the consequences.”
I define “tanking” as any decision a team makes that is at least partially driven by a desire to improve draft position by losing more. It doesn’t matter how much or little draft position factors into the decision. As long as a desire to lose more is part of the equation, it’s tanking.
Even if the draft order weren’t tied to record, losing teams would still emphasize developing young players late in the season. But because draft order is tied to record, losing teams give more more opportunities to raw players than they would otherwise.
So, there are obviously degrees. Some teams tank harder than others.
But, by my definition, Dallas is obviously tanking. Cuban admits waiving Williams and trading Bogut was about improving the draft pick.
The Mavericks could tank harder by having Rick Carlisle use a substandard game plan or establishing a culture where players realize winning isn’t important right now.
Dallas isn’t going that far, for both philosophical and practical reasons.
It can be hard to reverse a losing environment, and teaching winning habits to young players is important. Plus, there are limits on how far a roster with veterans like Harrison Barnes, Wesley Matthews and Dirk Nowitzki can sink.
That has the 24-36 Mavericks caught in the middle — 3.5 games out of playoff position and 5.5 games from a top-three seed in the lottery.
Reaching the postseason is impractical, so trying to move up a few spots in the draft is probably Dallas’ best approach. Maybe the Mavericks should have embraced that plan when they were closer to the bottom of the standings, but it seems Cuban has them on the right track now.