Mark Cuban’s getting his troll on again. The owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Cuban has long made headway with the people who write the headlines by virtue of his willingness to idly speculate on more or less anything on the record. That gets him into trouble occasionally, like when he made a pretty terrible analogy about black kids in hoodies and white guys with facial tattoos, but for the most part Cubes is sort of a benevolent Puck figure among the majority of the NBA ownership, who are not nearly as fun. At least in the public eye. So, when he suggested that the Oklahoma City Thunder, who have been totally ravaged by injuries this season, keep their star players out for the rest of the season and tank for a draft pick, we giggled right along with him.
“The question I don’t think anybody has asked is, why don’t they pull a David Robinson and try to get Tim Duncan?” Cuban asked, somewhat rhetorically, before the Mavericks played the Heat on Sunday, referring to the way the San Antonio Spurs, who had been a 50-69 win team with The Admiral before sitting him for the majority of the season to help his back heal — and to have a shot at the number one overall pick, who was to be Tim Duncan. Basically, the Spurs cheated, ethically speaking, by going from a 50- and 60-win team to a 20-win team for one year, winning the draft lottery, and then going back to the land of winning a bunch of basketball games.
The Thunder, who also built their championship caliber team through tanking, did it a different way, bottoming out, staying bad, and drafting well. That’s how they wound up being a top-loaded team that actually tanked too well, in that they couldn’t stack their contracts far enough apart to keep everyone together, and wound up losing James Harden to Houston. So, could the Thunder consider taking a quick dip back in the lottery pool for some immediate help? And why would Cuban suggest it?
For one thing, Cuban has a vested interest in watching the Thunder stay out of the NBA playoffs. As an owner who’s building a team around an aging superstar in Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavericks are clinging to the last vestiges of their championship window. If there’s no Oklahoma City in the playoffs, then Dallas wouldn’t have to go through them on the way to a hypothetical Finals appearance. From a competitive angle, it’s good for Dallas to encourage the Thunder’s return to the lottery.
On the other hand, Cuban maintained that the league “already specialize[s] in a race to the bottom,” and that “[m]ore participants won’t change anything. They’re all high-profile participants.” In other words, there’s nothing stopping the Thunder from dipping down into the dregs of the league because they’re one of the best teams that the NBA has to offer. What Cuban doesn’t bring up, though, is that the league office is very fine-happy, and if they exist in a world where San Antonio can be fined for sitting players unnecessarily in one game, the fine for keeping an otherwise healthy Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook out of the lineup in order to secure a better draft pick would be massive. If the Timberwolves were fined $3.5 million for circumventing the salary cap, you can only imagine what the fine would be for “disrespecting the integrity of competitive play” or the like.