Sometime in the fourth quarter of Mavericks games, the mind starts to wander. The brain has a way of knowing what it should and shouldn’t be seeing, and after enough onslaught, it begins to daydream. I call this coping mechanism “The Dallas Drift.” On Wednesday, for example, I began to think of the day when Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis will be spacing the floor together. That thought came to me with two and a half minutes remaining in the Mavs’ 132-123 loss to the Wizards, as Jeff Green hit a second consecutive 3-pointer. Dallas called timeout. So did I.
The Mavericks are trying. Yes, they’re now 27-37 and 13th in the Western Conference, and yes, they have fallen short in nine of their last 11 games, a brutal February-March stretch that was somehow worse than the Lakers’. Before the nine-point loss to the Wizards, there was a 39-point loss to Nets and a 30-point loss to the Grizzlies. That was the worst two-game stretch in franchise history. But Dallas isn’t intentionally tanking—they’re starting Dorian Finney-Smith out of necessity. They aren’t tankers; they’re losers. Yet despite that, the franchise is in an enviable position.
Doncic is playing beyond his years at 20; against Washington, he was Dallas’s ringleader and its main act, finishing with 31 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists, and four steals. Soon, he’ll be joined by another budding superstar in Porzingis. And thanks to the trade that brought him, Dallas has also cleared $30 million in cap space for this summer. On top of all that, the organization’s recent losing has given the team a great chance at ending up with a top-five draft pick.
Dallas gave up its 2019 first-round pick to Atlanta on draft night as part of the trade that secured Doncic. The pick is top-five protected, meaning that if it lands anywhere from pick 6 to pick 30, it’s Atlanta’s. But if the lottery balls fall in Dallas’s favor and the pick lands in the top five, the Mavs get to keep it and hand over their 2020 first-round pick to Atlanta instead. (The 2020 pick would have the same protections.) Because of the NBA’s lottery reform in 2017, which flattened the lottery odds among the worst teams in a league attempt to disincentivize tanking, and because of Dallas’s recent slide, the Mavs are creeping closer and closer to keeping their draft pick.
With the loss to Washington, Dallas is now tied for the seventh-worst record, giving the team a 29.4 percent chance of landing a top-four pick (teams can only move up into the top four). They’re two games back from the sixth-worst record, which currently belongs to Memphis. Atlanta is in the fifth lottery spot and, at 22-44, is virtually unreachable for the 27-37 Mavs. But finishing sixth is a possibility for Dallas and would bump the odds of keeping its pick to 37.2 percent. This is a huge boost compared to the old system, in which the sixth slot had only a 21.5 percent chance of moving up.
But Memphis won’t go down easily. Or, it will go down easily, which is the problem for Dallas. The two teams have about the same level of schedule difficulty from here on out: Memphis has the 12th-toughest remaining schedule, and Dallas has the 14th. Only four of Dallas’s remaining games feature opponents with an incentive to lose; unfortunately, two of those games are against Memphis—the two play each other back-to-back in the last four games of the season. That early April stretch could be the difference between the Mavs having the lottery balls that give them their pick or not.
Last season, Mavs owner Mark Cuban was open about the fact he wanted the team to tank. “Losing is our best option,” he claims he told members of the team. For as open a secret as tanking is, it usually doesn’t cross the line between front office and roster. The players aren’t told to intentionally throw the games, because we like to think players aren’t wired that way. Cuban was given a fat fine from the league for his honesty, but he also said in the same sitting that the organization wouldn’t be tanking in the future. The “year and a half” of it was “too brutal” for Cuban’s competitive side. His comments illustrated part of the reason the NBA reformed its lottery system. I guess honesty can be rewarding. The flattened odds are part of the reason Cuban and the Mavs have a chance at keeping their pick, after all.