So, it will be the Mavericks and Bulls tonight at the American Airlines Center, two teams in amazingly similar straits. The Mavericks began the year 2-14, and are now at 13-26, but since November 18 they find themselves ranked in the top ten in every major category on both offense and defense in the NBA. The Bulls began the year 3-20, have gone 10-5 since then, proceeding to become the first team in NBA history to rip off a seven game winning streak after having produced a ten game losing streak.
Both teams are undergoing a significant rebuild, although the Mavericks less so than the Bulls, who after trading away All-Star guard Jimmy Butler to Minnesota became the youngest team in the NBA. But with the Mavericks now having a finishing lineup that features a rookie in Dennis Smith, Jr, a second year player in Yogi Ferrell, a fourth year player in Dwight Powell, a fifth year player in Harrison Barnes, along with a nine year veteran in Wesley Matthews, the Mavs are putting their present in the hands of their future. And in having won four of their last five games, the only loss coming, barely, to Golden State on Wednesday, it would appear that a corner is being turned.
And yet there seems so much discontent from the fan base, a base that might as well have Ricky Bobby as their leader. You know, “if you’re not first, you’re last.” There’s an obsession with the idea that somehow losing games with regularity – indeed tanking – to get a higher draft choice is the only way to go in the NBA. Last year was the year of the point guard with five being selected in in the first nine picks. The Mavericks had that ninth pick, that turned into Smith, and while there is a long way to go for him to master the art of the NBA’s most important position in this new age of play, there are tantalizing signs that he indeed might be that next star player every team must have to contend.
This year, it appears, that it will be the year of the “Big,” with the likes of Duke’s Marvin Bagley, Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton, Missouri’s Michael Porter (sidelined all season after back surgery), Mo Bamba of Texas, and Luka Doncic, a 6-8 wing from Croatia presently tearing up the ACB in Spain. Being the apple of everyone’s eye, fans feel that if you don’t get one of those players, then somehow the draft will have been a waste of time, and indeed your poor prior season will have been nothing but a waste of time.
Team “Tank,” if you will, insists on playing the probability game. The higher you draft, the better your chances are of finding that next difference making player. That is undeniably true, but what is also undeniably true is that every year players in the top five flame out, just as they do at every other point in the draft.
If we were re-drafting last summer’s draft, knowing what we know now, Utah’s Donovan Mitchell wouldn’t have been chosen 13th and Kyle Kuzma of the Lakers, definitely wouldn’t have been picked 27th. Indeed, playing the probability game is what has allowed Las Vegas to build the hotels and casinos they do. People are suckers, and in the NBA’s case, teams are suckers for playing this game. At what point do you actually stop playing this game? Mark Cuban has often spoken of the Treadmill of Mediocrity, but the Treadmill of Awfulness, presently occupied by the likes of Sacramento (last playoff appearance 2006) and Phoenix (last appearance 2010), and escaped this season by Minnesota after 13 straight years of ineptitude is far, FAR, worse.
How the Mavericks and Bulls are handling this situation is the correct way. You respect the game, the game respects you back. You teach your youngsters how to play, with guidance from veterans who have seen it all. You take your lumps, but you come out on the other side better for it. You can’t tell players not to play hard and try to become winners in the hope that the next player you bring in will be the one who makes them winners. Your coaching staff and front office evaluates where the team is at the end of the season and then acts accordingly, through the draft, free agency and trades. Rinse and repeat, until one day, the flag is planted, you have a parade, and everyone demands “Do it again next year.”