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The Luka-Kyrie Disaster May Force the Dallas Mavericks to Tank

Dallas has completely fallen apart after going all in for Irving at the deadline. Just how bad have things gotten? It might be time for the Mavs to cut their losses and try to salvage the future.

AP Photo/Ringer illustration

Let’s take a little flashback to some controversial comments made by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban during the 2017-18 season:

“I’m probably not supposed to say this, but I just had dinner with a bunch of our guys the other night. And here we are. We weren’t competing for the playoffs. I was like, ‘Look, losing is our best option.’ Adam [Silver] would hate to be hearing that. But at least I sat down and I explained it to them. And I explained what our plans are going to be this summer, that we’re not going to tank again.”

Cuban’s tanking confession earned him a whopping $600,000 fine from the NBA. But hey, the strategy also netted Dallas the fifth pick in the 2018 draft, which was used to trade up and snag the franchise-altering Luka Doncic.

Fast-forward five years, and Luka’s Mavs have made it to the playoffs in three consecutive years, including the Western Conference finals in 2022. But their playoff dreams are fading fast this season after they pushed all in at the trade deadline for Kyrie Irving. The move was supposed to propel them ahead in the standings, but instead they’re stuck in roughly the same spot. While the offense has remained elite, their defense has gotten even worse. The Mavericks are now just 7-13 since the Irving trade, including their current four-game skid, which has included back-to-back losses to the lowly Hornets.

With only seven games left and high lottery odds still up for grabs, the Mavericks have an unexpected decision to make. Is it time for Cuban to rev up the ol’ tank again?

At 36-39, the Mavericks have the league’s 10th-worst record. They’re currently one game back from a play-in tournament spot and 2.5 games back from a guaranteed postseason seed. Sure, the playoffs aren’t out of reach, but they’re also only 3.5 games away from having the sixth-worst record, which would give them a 37.2 percent chance at a top-four pick and a 9 percent chance of snatching the first pick in a draft featuring another tantalizing international prospect, the 7-foot-4 Victor Wembanyama.

The Mavs face a dilemma. They’ll lose their 2023 first-round pick to the Knicks if it’s not in the top 10—a leftover debt from the 2019 Kristaps Porzingis trade fiasco. If it does land in the top 10, they’ll eventually send a top-10 protected first in 2024 or 2025 to New York instead. If they send their pick to the Knicks this year, then they’ll subsequently be able to trade their 2025 first starting this summer instead.

So, in a nutshell: The Mavs will likely have limited future first-round picks to operate with this summer (2023 or 2025, plus 2027), plus 2026 and 2028 pick swaps. They also have two young players, Jaden Hardy and Josh Green, to sweeten any potential trades, but they don’t have that much to offer after that.

At last month’s trade deadline, the Nets reportedly said no thanks to four first-round picks for Mikal Bridges, and the Raptors refused three for OG Anunoby. The landscape of NBA trades has shifted dramatically in recent years. Two firsts don’t get you as much as they used to.

Missing the playoffs and keeping their 2023 first, no matter where it lands, is probably the best path forward for the Mavericks. Dallas is running out of ways to improve Luka’s supporting cast after a series of unfortunate errors since the Porzingis deal. Namely, last summer, when they let Jalen Brunson walk for nada, compelled them to trade some of their best players plus a future first to get Irving, with no promises that he’ll stick around beyond this season.

Irving has taken blame for the team’s struggles since he was acquired, but those takes are misfires. Irving has missed some games due to injury, but he’s excelled as a scorer, shared the ball, and by all accounts been a model teammate since arriving in Dallas. Defense remains the team’s most pertinent issue, just as it was before the acquisition of Irving.

Trading for Irving meant losing Dorian Finney-Smith, the team’s best defender. Without him, no one else on the roster can offer much help when rotating into the paint, so teams don’t fear attacking the basket, which leads to layup lines or drive-and-kicks for open 3-pointers.

Since the deadline, the Mavs rank in the bottom five in defensive rating. Dwight Powell offers limited rim protection as a big, and while Christian Wood is a shot blocker, he lacks interior strength and a feel for proper positioning. None of their guards offer much resistance at the point of attack, either.

Doncic has about as much enthusiasm on defense as Cuban does for a colonoscopy. Luka’s closeouts? Sluggish. Help defense? Helpless. And when moving laterally, he looks like he’s dragging cinder blocks. For the Mavs to get more stops, Doncic must get in shape, stay healthy, and, for the love of all things basketball, start caring about defense. Otherwise, he’ll never realize his full potential.

“It’s really frustrating. I think you can see it with me on the court. Sometimes I don’t feel it’s me. I used to have fun, smiling on the court, but it’s just been frustrating for a lot of reasons, not just basketball,” Doncic said after Friday’s loss.

Doncic has played through various issues he’s dealing with, but if he were to take the rest of the season off, the NBA probably wouldn’t even bat an eye. In the load management and tanking eras, that type of move is common during the stretch run. With their season already toast, the Blazers are reportedly contemplating doing the same with Damian Lillard.

The truth is, a long break could benefit both the Mavs and Doncic. The guy’s been running nonstop: a playoff run last year, playing for the Slovenian squad in August, EuroBasket in September, and then diving headfirst into Mavs training camp and the season, during which he’s possessed the ball for more minutes than anyone else in the league. He’s clearly running on fumes.

Sadly, so are the Mavs’ title hopes, thanks to their heinous defense, a lack of depth, and Jason Kidd as their head coach. Dallas might’ve made the West finals just a year ago, but now the team has been surpassed by a number of Western contenders. To make matters worse, Irving could walk out the door as an unrestricted free agent this summer. But even if he stays, he’s got a track record of burning bridges with his previous franchises. What makes Dallas think it’ll be the exception? Especially after this kind of start?

With limited ways to bolster the roster, it’s crucial that this year’s pick turns into a real asset. If it moves into the top four, it could be the lifeline the Mavericks need, whether they keep a prized prospect or flip him in a bigger deal. This next target is a big one. Porzingis was strike one, and Irving might be strike two.

Doncic has only three guaranteed years left on his contract, and all he’s seen so far is a franchise fumbling to build shaky rosters around him, a coaching carousel, an ever-changing front office, and an owner tangled in controversy. Time is ticking before Luka realizes losing in Dallas isn’t his best option.

This piece was updated after the NBA rescinded the technical foul called Sunday night on Doncic.