With the Dallas Mavericks’ winning streak meeting a thrilling end at the hands of the Golden State Warriors, fans were divided. Some were heartbroken when Steph Curry’s game winner splashed through the net, while others were in a more celebratory mood. The Mavericks find themselves at something of a crossroads in the 2017-18 season. Should they continue to play for wins or should they continue developing their young players at the cost of wins?
The San Antonio Spurs tanked once and were rewarded with Tim Duncan and 20-plus years of greatness. The Philadelphia 76ers famously adhered to their process and now look like a team headed for a bright future. Other teams haven’t fared quite so well. The Sacramento Kings are perpetually stuck on a treadmill, unable to find just that right player to build around.
Last season, the Mavericks fully committed to the tank once they were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. With this season’s terrible start, many fans were happy to commit to the tank right away. Dreams of another strong draft class, headlined by players such as Luka Dončić, DeAndre Ayton and Marvin Bagley, have many hoping for the highest possible pick -- and, thus, the worst possible record.
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Earlier this season, Mark Cuban seemed to support adopting last season’s strategy. Only once they are eliminated from the playoffs will the team tank. Before a game against the Washington Wizards, Cuban said, "Not until we were eliminated. And until we're eliminated, we ain't tanking here, either.”
There’s more bad news for those in team tank: the Mavericks are entering a stretch of home games against sub-.500 teams. Given their performances against current playoff teams, Dallas may gain ground on that elusive 8-seed. And now injured players are making their way back to the team. The Mavs’ mystery man, Josh McRoberts, hasn’t seen the court but is no longer in street clothes on game day. Seth Curry, the Mavericks starting shooting guard in the preseason, continues his rehab, and even Nerlens Noel is making progress after surgery on his left hand. How much a difference, if any, they’ll make is a undoubtedly a question mark, but having available bodies is better than the alternative.
Take heart, team tank. The Mavericks have a history of selecting their best players not at the top of the draft, Jason Kidd notwithstanding, but at the ninth pick. And last year’s strong draft might have had its best player selected at 13 with Utah’s Donovan Mitchell. No. 7 pick Lauri Markkanen, never projected at the top of the draft, is outperforming expert opinions, too.
The NFL Draft has been subject to various studies showing that people overrate their ability to evaluate talent, and that top draft picks aren’t necessarily better than later picks. Of course, the NFL and NBA drafts are different for many reasons, but it’s entirely possible that NBA draft evaluators are similarly overconfident. Anthony Bennett and Darko Milicic are proof enough.
As the season rolls along, fans will likely continue celebrating or agonizing over each win or loss. Perhaps watching Dennis Smith Jr. take control of games like he did in Oklahoma City on the reigning MVP’s floor will be worth lost draft lottery percentage points.
Follow Jeff Mapua on Twitter @JeffMapua.
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