The NBA wants to know why the Dallas Mavericks held out several key players in their next-to-last game of the season, even while the team still had a mathematical chance of making the play-in tournament.
NBA officials opened an investigation Saturday into the Mavericks' decision-making surrounding Friday's game against the Chicago Bulls, in which Dallas sat Kyrie Irving for the entire game and Luka Doncic for most of the contest. The Mavericks blew an 11-point fourth-quarter lead and lost, getting eliminated from postseason consideration.
That outcome also could help ensure that Dallas has a top-10 draft pick this summer — and with it, potentially a 4.5% chance of winning the lottery and getting the opportunity to select French phenom Victor Wembanyama.
“The NBA commenced an investigation today into the facts and circumstances surrounding the Dallas Mavericks’ roster decisions and game conduct with respect to last night’s Chicago Bulls-Mavericks game, including the motivations behind those actions,” league spokesman Mike Bass said.
Potential penalties are unclear, though Commissioner Adam Silver made clear before the season began that the league wouldn't tolerate any obvious attempts at tanking.
“I know that many of our NBA teams are salivating at the notion that potentially through our lottery that they could get (Wembanyama), so they should all still compete very hard next season,” Silver said in October.
Dallas coach Jason Kidd said before the game that the decision to sit players was made by “the organization,” and referenced it being made by his bosses — owner Mark Cuban and general manager Nico Harrison — after the game as well.
Dallas had Irving, Tim Hardaway Jr., Maxi Kleber, Josh Green and Christian Wood all out for Friday’s win-or-else game, and it limited Doncic to about one quarter of play before pulling him for the remainder of the contest. Doncic played briefly on a night that paid tribute to his native Slovenia, with the Mavericks handing out souvenir Slovenia-themed scarves to the first 3,500 fans in attendance. He came out less than a minute into the second quarter.
The Mavs cited right foot injury recovery for Irving, right hamstring injury recovery for Kleber, left ankle soreness for Hardaway and rest for both Wood and Green. All five of those players — plus Doncic — played Wednesday in Dallas’ win over Sacramento.
“The organization, they made this decision,” Kidd said before Friday’s game, later adding, “we have to go by that.”
Postgame, Kidd added: "This is maybe a step back, but hopefully it leads to going forward. ... These are decisions that are made from my bosses and we’ve got to follow them and we trust that Cuban and Nico are going to put the pieces together to put us in a position to win a championship. And that’s just starting the process today.”
This isn’t the first time the Mavericks have caught the NBA’s eye when it comes to tanking.
The NBA fined Cuban $600,000 in February 2018 for comments about tanking during a podcast with Basketball Hall of Fame player Julius Erving, which Commissioner Adam Silver called “public statements detrimental to the NBA.” The Mavericks were well on their way to what became a 24-58 season when Cuban spoke to Erving and discussed tanking.
Later, Cuban acknowledged to The Associated Press that he “earned” the fine. “I got excited talking to Dr. J and said something I shouldn’t have,” he told the AP at the time.
Dallas, in fairness, was in an uphill spot for the last play-in berth in the West anyway entering Friday, and beating the Bulls would have extended postseason hopes but would not have guaranteed anything. It needed to win Friday and Sunday and hope that Oklahoma City would lose to Memphis on Sunday — just to get the No. 10 spot and still need two more road wins in play-in games to make it to a Round 1 series against Denver.
Not making the play-in tournament helps Dallas’ chances of claiming no worse than the No. 10 pick in this summer’s draft — which is important. If the Mavs’ pick is between No. 1 and No. 10, Dallas keeps it. If it is No. 11 or deeper in the draft, it conveys to New York as part of the compensation agreed to in the Kristaps Porzingis trade in 2019.
The NBA investigation comes just days after the league denied a protest by the Mavericks over a confusing sequence that led to an uncontested basket for Golden State in a two-point win by the Warriors in a game last month.
That loss was part of a freefall by the Mavericks, who were fourth in the West in mid-February and figured to become a title contender after trading for Irving to play alongside Doncic in a suddenly starry backcourt.
But the Mavericks have gone 7-17 in their last 24 games, with only Sunday's now-meaningless finale against San Antonio remaining.