Mavericks owner Mark Cuban repeatedly used the word tanking to describe his team’s plan during last season. After the season, he put it even more bluntly: “Once we were eliminated from the playoffs, we did everything we could to lose games.”
NBA commissioner Adam Silver at today’s Board of Governors press conference:
Yes, it’s not what you want to hear as commissioner. I will say that Mark has a long track record of being provocative, and it was something that we spoke to him directly about. I think he acknowledged it was a poor choice of words. When we looked at what was actually happening on the floor, which is most important to me, there was no indication whatsoever that his players were intentionally losing games. And so we were satisfied with that, and again, and we moved on.
Silver denies tanking occurs by defining it in its most narrow scope – players on the court actively trying to lose. That doesn’t happen, not so directly at least. So, it’s easy for Silver to brush off Dallas waiving its starting point guard, Deron Williams, as an issue unrelated to tanking.
I take a much broader view, defining “tanking” as any decision a team makes that is at least partially driven by a desire to improve draft position by losing more. In that sense, the Mavericks were definitely tanking – as many teams do annually. Cuban was exceptional – though not unique – by admitting it.
Is this strategy problematic? I think it’s bad for the product when teams prefer to lose. I also think it’s good for the product when bad teams at least receive the hope that comes with a high draft pick. Ideally, Silver struggles with the issue of tanking more privately than he does publicly, where he just glosses over it.
Silver is right that Cuban was exaggerating for attention. If the Mavericks were doing everything they could to lose, they would have gone worse than 2-5 after being eliminated from the playoff race. (Cuban’s initial tanking comments came more than a month before official elimination.)
But Cuban’s underlying point – even if Silver found reason to convince himself everything was fine – is also correct: It became beneficial for the Mavericks to lose, so they did.