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The NBA Doesn’t Like The Way The Mavericks Tanked

Mavs owner Mark Cuban gestures
Tim Heitman/Getty Images

The NBA top brass can stomach tanking. They know it's coming; the present incentive structure makes it inevitable. But the tanking can't be too loud, too long, or too gauche.

The Dallas Mavericks offended the delicate sensibilities of the league office by leaving too much of their mess out in the open on Friday, when they hosted the Chicago Bulls. Before the game, Dallas was tied with Chicago for 10th place in lottery odds. The Mavericks owe the Knicks a top-10 protected draft pick as the final strand of the 2019 Kristaps Porzingis trade. As any sane observer could attest, the Mavericks flagrantly threw the game. The following day, the NBA announced that it would be investigating the "facts and circumstances surrounding the Dallas Mavericks' roster decisions and game conduct."

The Mavericks were thorough in win-proofing their squad by throwing most of it on the injury report. Before the game, Kyrie Irving (right foot injury recovery), Tim Hardaway Jr. (left ankle soreness), Josh Green (rest), Maxi Kleber (right hamstring injury recovery), and Christian Wood (rest) were ruled out. "Rest"! Beautiful. Mavs coach Jason Kidd said before the game that he would be pulling superstar Luka Doncic after the first quarter (left thigh injury recovery).

As planned, Doncic played 13 minutes, logging 13 points, five rebounds, and three assists, and hit the bench early in the second quarter. It was Slovenia Night at the arena. Led by such luminaries as Frank Ntilikina, Dallas lost, 115-112. In the process, they became the first team in a decade to fail to hit the rim on three three-point attempts in the final 15 seconds of a game. Sometimes the gerrymandered stats are fun.

Doncic, who said earlier in the week that "as long as there's a chance [of making the postseason], I'll play," also sat out the team's season-ending loss to the Spurs on Sunday. The Mavs concluded with a 38-44 record, 11th in the West, two games behind the Thunder. They missed the play-in tournament, while securing the 10th-best odds in the lottery. By the perverse and broadly shared standards of an NBA franchise, this could be called an organizational success: Despite an audacious trade to land Kyrie Irving, this roster was deeply flawed, and it was better to miss the playoffs entirely—improving their chances of holding onto a first-round pick—than let their 24-year-old superstar grind his way through a fourth consecutive playoff appearance. "Strange, strange times," said a grim-looking Doncic, in Slovenian, of the situation in Dallas.

If I had to guess, here's where it went wrong: Jason Kidd said the quiet part out loud. He said before Friday's game that the general manager Nico Harrison and owner Mark Cuban made the decision to rest the whole rotation (i.e., tank). Kidd lightly distanced himself and the players from that decision, and, after the game, even spoke about how it served the franchise's larger interests: "We're trying to build a championship team. With this decision, this is maybe a step back. But hopefully it leads to going forward.

"We were fighting for our lives, and understanding this is a situation we're in, but the organization has made the decision to change," Kidd said. "So, you know, we have to go by that and that's something that happens."

Asked if he agreed with the decision made by Harrison and Cuban, he said this:

It's not hard to find a contemporary instance of tanking that the NBA accepts without protest. The Portland Trail Blazers, already tanking for months, shut down Damian Lillard with nine games left on the schedule. He was having one of the finest seasons of his career and hurtling towards an All-NBA team, but the lottery odds were more precious than watching him ball out for a few more games, so his team scribbled down "calf injury" and called it a day. Where the Mavericks fell short, in the league's view, was the social niceties department. (Mark Cuban has previously been fined $600,000 in 2018 for publicly admitting that the Mavericks were tanking. “I’m probably not supposed to say this, but I just had dinner with a bunch of our guys the other night,” Cuban said at the time in an interview with Julius Erving. “We weren’t competing for the playoffs. I was like, ‘Look, losing is our best option.’")

In this profoundly stupid enforcement environment, NBA teams are supposed to publicly behave as if they are not doing what everyone in the world understands them to be doing. Kidd could have offered some vague shit about the severity of these injuries, how hard these guys are working in the gym, how they're excited to fight with the guys they've got. While that still would've required him to conjure up some reasons for "rest" in the final two games of the regular season, that's just an opportunity for him to spill his soda all over the dais and splutter his way out of the room.

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