The Dallas Mavericks were clinging to a two-point lead with 80 seconds left in the game when Maxi Kleber leaped in the lane, cocked the ball back with two hands and dunked it hard over Los Angeles Lakers forward Julius Randle.
The highlight finish by the 26-year-old undrafted rookie power forward caused the Mavs' bench to erupt in instantaneous celebration. Longtime face of the franchise Dirk Nowitzki was on his feet with a huge smile, high-fiving and hoorahing, along with maximum-salary starters Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews as they served as crunch-time spectators.
Kleber puts Randle on a poster
Mavericks big man Maxi Kleber throws down the dunk over Julius Randle.
The Mavs haven't had many clutch moments that brought joy during this miserable season, much less one as surprising as this. But coach Rick Carlisle didn't exactly seem caught up in the excitement when asked whether he had fun after the 130-123 victory on Feb. 10, which temporarily broke a tie with the Atlanta Hawks and Sacramento Kings for the fewest wins in the NBA.
"Listen, I love winning," Carlisle said with the sort of enthusiasm that might come from someone selected for jury duty. "I love winning. You know that."
It just isn't in the Mavs' best interest right now, as owner Mark Cuban recently admitted on Julius Erving's podcast, comments that cost him $600,000 when the NBA fined him for public statements detrimental to the NBA.
"Here we are, not competing for the playoffs, and I said, 'Look, losing is our best option,'" Cuban said on "House Call with Dr. J," recalling a recent dinner conversation with key Mavs veterans. "They hated hearing that."
"It'll be like 'Mission: Impossible.' The coaches will get the data on paper that will self-destruct right after they read it."An NBA executive on teams using analytics in their tanking methods
The truth hurts. And the Mavs have a lot of company in their misery, which is one factor in the possible tanking epidemic that the NBA faces as the regular season enters its final quarter. A perfect storm is brewing for the NBA's race to the bottom, to borrow a phrase from Cuban, being intensely competitive in ridiculously noncompetitive ways.
Eight teams -- a pack that has a combined losing streak of 44 games heading into Monday night's slate -- sit within two games of having the league's worst record (and best lottery odds). All but the Brooklyn Nets, whose first-round pick is owed to the Cleveland Cavaliers via the Boston Celtics because of the disastrous Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce deal, have extreme incentive to tank. All-Star Kristaps Porzingis' season-ending knee injury means the New York Knicks have motivation to join the tank party, too.
NBA scouts project June's draft to feature five to seven elite talents, depending on individual opinion. Also, this is the final year before changes to the lottery system are implemented, leveling out the odds. In the future, the teams with the three worst records will each have 14 percent odds of winning the lottery. The odds for the teams with the three worst records this season: 25, 19.9 and 15.6 percent, in descending order.
The result, multiple league executives told ESPN, is a formula for perhaps one of the most widespread tanking efforts the league has ever seen.
The politically correct way to put it is that several teams, with the Mavs as only one example, are committed to making "player development" a priority over winning for the remainder of the season. The brutally honest and painfully obvious -- not to mention extremely pricey -- way to put it is that the Mavs have at least tinkered with tanking.
Just look at the lineup that Carlisle put on the floor for the final 5:19 of that tight game against the Lakers.
The veterans who kept the Mavs in the game took a seat down the stretch despite Nowitzki, Barnes, Matthews, guard J.J. Barea and center Dwight Powell combining for 85 points on 66 percent shooting from the floor that night. Small forward Doug McDermott, making his Mavs debut after arriving in a trade deadline deal, joined 20-year-old rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr. and a trio of undrafted players on minimum contracts (Kleber, guard Yogi Ferrell and center Salah Mejri).
That foursome played a total of 12 minutes together in the first three and a half months but has recently become the Mavs' closing lineup of choice. It's a group that had blown a 10-point lead in the final 4:42 of a loss to the LA Clippers a couple of games earlier and was minus-38 in 24 February minutes before managing to close out the Lakers.
"Hopefully the new draft lottery rules will change the approach to player development," Cuban wrote in a recent email reply to ESPN, although he expressed his doubts on the issue after abstaining from the vote in October.
Cuban's controversial comments might have changed Carlisle's approach to player development, which wasn't the priority down the stretch of Saturday night's 97-90 loss to the Utah Jazz. Matthews and Barnes subbed back in with 4:04 remaining. Barea and Nowitzki re-entered play with 49.1 seconds remaining and Dallas down three points despite both vets exceeding 30 minutes for the night, a rarity.
But Carlisle bristled at the notion that Cuban's big fine affected his crunch-time rotation.
"It's a coach's decision," Carlisle said. "It's not an ownership decision. It's not a league decision. It's a coach's decision."
NBA executives describe two types of tanking tactics: active and passive.
Passive tanking is often done under the guise of player development. One classic method is putting healthy veterans on the inactive list, as the Bulls have done with center Robin Lopez and small forward Justin Holiday since the All-Star break, inserting Cristiano Felicio and David Nwaba into the starting lineup. It's sitting core players for key stretches in games, as the Mavs have recently made routine.
"Our young guys are going to have a great opportunity to be in important, crunch-time situations," Carlisle said before the All-Star break. "As you saw in the Clipper game, it was a monumental struggle. On the other hand, as you saw in the Laker game, they did a great job and finished and won the game. I've got to believe that some of the struggles in the Clipper game contributed to us winning the Laker game. There's no way to simulate this kind of experience. You can set up situations in practice, etc., but unless you're a young guy in a real NBA game, you're not getting the same effect. It's an important opportunity."
Yet if player development were truly the top priority, wouldn't 25-year-old Barnes get as much experience as possible in clutch situations? After all, he is younger than McDermott and Kleber and in only his second season as an offensive focal point after serving as a complementary piece for four years with the Golden State Warriors.
"Look, those are going to be coach's decisions, but we have a pretty good idea of what Barnes can do," Carlisle said when pressed on the issue, before shifting the subject to experimenting with Powell as a power forward.
"Those are conversations that have been had," Barnes told ESPN. "At the end of the day, you just have to trust the coaching staff. You can get into a thing of, 'This is what I think my development should be,' but at the end of the day, I trust Coach Carlisle that he has the team's best interests in mind [and] that he'll help me continue to develop as a basketball player. In terms of that, I try not to waste too much energy wondering, 'What's the long-term plan? What's the vision?'"
Passive tanking can also take the form of extreme caution with injury management. The Bulls, who have lost 11 of 13 games after a 15-8 stretch, have mastered that this season. Shooting guard Zach LaVine believed he was ready to return from a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered the previous season a month before Chicago management allowed him to make his Bulls debut. Point guard Kris Dunn sat a few extra games after being cleared to return from a concussion.
Kings hand Bulls seventh straight loss
After scoring only nine points in the first quarter, the Kings come from behind to defeat the Bulls 104-98.
An unusual potential example of passive tanking: Earlier this month, the Bulls told standout rookie power forward Lauri Markkanen to abort trying to get to Sacramento for a game after a commercial flight was canceled. Even though there were other flights available and it was more than 24 hours before tipoff.
The Kings, who are in lottery competition with Chicago, won a close game, their only victory in a five-game stretch.
Active tanking is more complex and, therefore, more rare. But in a race to the bottom so intense, it's something that some have started to notice. One executive told ESPN that he suspects the use of "reverse analytics." Instead of using data to determine which lineups may be most effective in a certain matchup, coaches may be provided with data that could yield the opposite.
"It'll be like 'Mission: Impossible,'" the executive said, tongue partially planted in cheek. "The coaches will get the data on paper that will self-destruct right after they read it."
Cuban's tanking comments an issue for NBA?
The SportsNation crew discusses whether it's approrpiate for Mark Cuban to tell his team to start tanking.
Franchises tank. Players do not.
Players auditioning for their next contracts aren't motivated by their teams -- which may or may not include them in their future plans -- being positioned for a higher draft pick. Established players have too much competitive pride to be active participants in the tanking process.
"It's aggressive," Nowitzki told ESPN -- meaning offensive -- when asked what he thought of the tanking term. "I like to think every player competes. I'm not obviously a fan [of tanking]. I don't want to hear it. When I play out there, I play my minutes hard. I play to win, play to compete and whatever happens, happens."
Added Matthews: "I mean, I'm going to go out there and play every possession to win. That's just me; it's how I'm built. I'm never going to disrespect the game in that way, in regards to how I play. The franchise has to do what the franchise has to do."
The funny thing about the focus on Dallas playing unproven players in clutch situations is that the Mavs' veterans had been doing just fine losing close games. Dallas has been by far the NBA's worst team this season in clutch games this season, as officially defined by a game in which the score was within five points in the final five minutes.
The Mavs have the league's fewest clutch wins (eight) and most clutch losses (29). Their clutch point differential (minus-90) is the worst in the league by 31 points. Their clutch net rating (minus-31.2 points per 100 possessions) is the worst in the league over the past decade aside from two exceptions: the 2015-16 Philadelphia 76ers, who earned them the right to draft Ben Simmons with the first overall pick; and the 2010-11 Minnesota Timberwolves, whose reward was drafting bust Derrick Williams at No. 2 overall.
The Mavs' clutch misery is extreme enough to wonder about the chicken-and-egg effect, whether it caused them to consider that tanking was their best option or whether it was part of the process.
Carlisle, however, is adamant that the Mavs arrived in this position honestly.
"I don't like excuses, but I can give you reasons," Carlisle said, citing the growing pains of a rookie point guard, the NBA's toughest early-season schedule and an injury that has sidelined projected starting shooting guard Seth Curry all season, among other factors.
"Bottom line, we just haven't been good enough," Carlisle said.
The question now: Can the Mavs be bad enough the rest of the season considering all their noncompetitive competition?
ESPN's Nick Friedell contributed to this story.