Is Mavs' Benching of Dirk in Clutch Time a Tanking Move?

Tom Haberstroh@tomhaberstrohContributor IMarch 5, 2018

Dallas Mavericks' Dirk Nowitzki reacts on the court in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Kim Raff)

Dirk Nowitzki is so far out of the play that he's literally standing out of bounds.

It's late November, and this is the play that Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle has drawn up with 23 seconds left in a tie game against the surging Boston Celtics. Harrison Barnes begins at the top of the key, and goes one-on-one against Boston's top-ranked defense. As the isolation unfolds, Nowitzki barely moves. The 7-footer doesn't trot up for his signature pick-and-pop. He doesn't even ask for the ball. Instead, Nowitzki idly watches. Barnes dribbles to the left elbow and fires up a fadeaway 18-footer that clanks off the rim. Nowitzki hardly goes for the rebound, as the buzzer sounds. Overtime. The Mavericks would go on to lose the game 110-102, plunging their record to an NBA-worst 3-15.

On first inspection, this was just one of the many instances in which Dallas has blown a close game this season. But the sequence also tells a much greater and potentially damning story about the Mavericks in crunch time: When it comes to winning time, the Mavs have either ignored Nowitzki—the best and most clutch player in franchise history—or just sat him altogether.

The details are puzzling, especially when you consider that the only reason he's out on the court is to score. In 40 minutes of clutch situations—games that head into the final five minutes with a point margin of five or less—Nowitzki has taken just nine shots. His usage rate—the percentage of team plays used by a player—in clutch situations is a ghastly 12 percent, which ranks ninth on the team behind rookie Maxi Kleber and Yogi Ferrell. For some additional perspective, Dirk's usage rate is the same as Bismack Biyombo, the least-used NBA player among all active veterans (minimum 300 games played).

That's right: the Mavs have turned Dirk Nowitzki into Bismack Biyombo.

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

It's hard not to see how this fits into the larger picture of losing games on purpose. This is the final year under the current draft lottery system in which the worst team in the NBA receives a 25 percent chance at the No. 1 pick. (Next season, the worst three teams will each have an equal 14 percent chance at the pick.) The Mavs front office seems aware of this. In February, Dallas owner Mark Cuban was fined $600,000 after he admitted on the House Call with Dr. J podcast: "I said, 'Look, losing is our best option' … Adam [Silver] would hate hearing that ... This was, like, a year-and-a-half of tanking." 

Tanking has always been framed as an upstairs issue. Front offices tank, but coaches and players do not. But it's difficult not to interpret the marginalization of the greatest Mavs player as evidence of on-court tanking. The Mavs currently hold a 9-31 record in clutch situations, by far the worst in the NBA.

Last week, USA Today obtained a memo in which Commissioner Adam Silver forcefully outlined his position on tanking: "If we ever received evidence that players or coaches were attempting to lose or otherwise taking steps to cause any game to result otherwise than on its competitive merits, that conduct would be met with the swiftest and harshest response possible from the league office."

The commissioner then turned his focus to the Mavs: "We have no basis at this time to conclude that the Mavericks team is giving anything less than its best effort on the court, and Mark has assured us that this is not the case."

Nowitzki is 39, and some have suggested that he is simply too old—that he just doesn't have it down the stretch. After 20 years in the league, maybe one of the most unblockable shooters ever has suddenly become easier to deny. But Nowitzki is still spry enough to start for the Mavs, and advanced metrics consistently rate him as an above-average player. His 25 minutes per game are just about the same as last season. He wasn't frozen out then; in 46 minutes of clutch situations, Nowitzki took 22 shots. When compared to this season, the former Finals MVP has magically seen his role in winning moments sliced in half.

Maybe the Mavs have found a better option than Nowitzki in the game's closing moments. When he has been used during clutch time, the future Hall of Famer has only converted on three of his nine attempts, a less-than-stellar 33 percent field-goal percentage. Dennis Smith Jr., the Mavs' Rookie of the Year candidate, has taken five times as many clutch shots as Nowitzki while shooting 32 percent. Maybe the team wants to give the youth the ball in the name of "player development" as Cuban now calls it? If that's the case, then why has 31-year-old Wesley Matthews taken 34 more clutch shots than Nowitzki (while shooting an abysmal 25 percent)?

The uncomfortable answer is likely this: Nowitzki is too good to get the ball if you're trying to lose.

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

He is one of the best tough-shot-makers in the game's history, if not the best. Since 2000, Nowitzki has made 135 shots to go ahead or tie in the final minute of a game, which is more than the next three highest Mavs players combined. For a Mavs fan—many of whom show up to games clad in No. 41 jerseys—there may be nothing cooler than watching Nowitzki try to win it in the closing moments.

And yet, he has taken just one of the team's 25 field-goal attempts in those do-or-die scenarios this season. (Dennis Smith, Wesley Matthews, J.J. Barea and Ferrell have shot a combined 0-of-15 on such attempts.)

This did not happen with Kobe Bryant, whose final act was somewhat of a dream come true for Lakers fans. Even as the team tanked, fans still got to see Kobe go out on fire. In his final season, Kobe's usage rate in clutch situations was a blistering 47 percent, the highest in the NBA.

By contrast, Nowitzki—a fellow 30,000-point-club member—ranks 255th in the same category this season, nipping at the heels of Andrew Harrison and Bojan Bogdanovic. And that's if Nowitzki is playing at all. As outlined by ESPN's Tim MacMahon and Brian Windhorst , the Mavericks have curiously benched Nowitzki in critical moments; he has played just 40 of the team's 138 minutes of clutch time this season. And most of those came early in the season. In the last two months, as the race to the bottom has intensified, fans in the audience have watched Nowitzki sit on the bench for 54 of the team's 60 nail-biting minutes.

The Mavericks' plan was going smoothly until Cuban hopped onto Dr. J's podcast. The team lost close game after close game, and no one had put the national spotlight on Carlisle's substitution patterns. But in the second game following Cuban's fine, Carlisle played Nowitzki down the stretch for two critical offensive possessions in the final minute against Utah. After last Monday's win over the Indiana Pacers, Nowitzki was asked about Cuban's comment that the best option for the Mavs is to lose games. "You play your minutes hard and you play to win," Nowitzki told reporters.

But it's tough to win if Nowitzki doesn't get those minutes.

On Wednesday's game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Nowitzki drained a deep three to put the Mavs up seven with 6:44 left in the fourth. Less than a minute later, Carlisle subbed out Nowitzki and never put him back in. The Mavericks were held scoreless for almost all of the game's final four minutes, and went on to lose 111-110 in overtime. Nowitzki finished with a team-best plus-10 in the plus-minus category.

So why was he forced to watch from the bench? The loss put Nowitzki's Mavs a half-game away from the worst record held by none other than Biyombo's Orlando Magic.


Tom Haberstroh has covered the NBA full time since 2010. He joined B/R Mag after seven years with ESPN as an NBA insider and analytics expert. Haberstroh is also a co-founder of Spotlight Media Ventures and regularly hosts The Basketball Friends podcast for the Leverage The Chat multimedia network. Follow him on Twitter: @tomhaberstroh.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats from NBA.com and Basketball Reference, and are current heading into games on March 5.


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