So, the Mavs are garbage. They’re an uncomfortable, mismatched mix of declining, late-career veterans and a small handful of interesting young guys, no combination of which is anywhere close to good enough to elevate the whole thing into something competitive.

That is not to say that certain of their individual players, from one or both groups, couldn’t be perfectly serviceable in other combinations on better rosters, where they wouldn’t need to elevate an otherwise sad sack squad in order to be part of a competitive team. Andrew Bogut, for example, would probably make a fine backup center on a decent team in need of a few minutes of solid rim protection and offensive savvy per night. Like, for example, the Trail Blazers, whose collection of misfit centers is a large part of why their defense has been awful.

Now. The Mavs have probably noticed that their team is bad, and are probably pretty close to accepting that, as constructed, they will not be good enough to compete for the playoffs, let alone a championship. They have probably also noticed that they are not set up to get much better next year, when they are a year older, and their declining, late-career veterans are a year closer to being full-blown tomato cans. They are probably in the process of taking an honest look at their future and realizing that it does not look so much better than their sad sack present.

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So, a thing they can do, in this situation, is deconstruct this garbage team, send its most useful veteran pieces off to places where their usefulness will be more useful, and devote the remainder of this season to fully sussing out which of their interesting young guys can realistically be part of a future that is better than their sad sack present. Happily, via this same process, they can return some assets that might accrue to the benefit of their goal of having a more positive future. A team like, say, the Trail Blazers might be happy to part with a not-especially-valuable-but-nonetheless-useful draft pick for the services of a center who can help improve their awful defense.

Doing this kind of thing will probably not make the Mavs better right away. Part of what makes a useful veteran appealing as a rotation player is what separates them from most interesting young guys: their readiness to contribute in meaningful ways that largely offset whatever their specific vulnerabilities might happen to be. Dirk Nowitzki may not be much of a defender at this stage of his career, but he can very dependably rain hellfire from the midrange and won’t make many mistakes. Justin Anderson, by contrast, has explosive athleticism and intriguing potential, but no one knows what he’ll be able to do on any given night, least of all him.

Stripping a roster of its useful veterans and giving their playing time to a bunch of interesting young guys serves the purpose of giving the team and the interesting young guys a chance to figure out what they can dependably do, and whether it will largely offset their specific vulnerabilities. That is why this process—traditionally called “rebuilding”—is a positive, proactive one: its central aim is tangible improvement, and the very mechanism that makes it appear to be destructive is what allows it to be constructive. Rebuilding is designed to accelerate the development of interesting young guys and the scouting and appraisal of the interesting young guys by the organization, with the aim being a stronger future. Rebuilding is the recognition that the roster as currently constructed cannot succeed, and so the roster needs to be rebuilt.

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No sane person has ever had a problem with roster rebuilding, as a concept. Not ever. That is because we have all had the experience of having an idea for a thing, putting some action behind the idea, realizing that the idea needs a lot of revision and the action is for naught, and sweeping away the early work to start over again. We have all ripped the page from the notebook and crumpled it up and thrown it away and started all over from the beginning. Sometimes—often, in fact—the thing you were starting to build isn’t good enough to support further building, and so you knock it down and start again.

The NBA uses its draft lottery system to help rebuilding teams along—teams that lose a lot have a better chance of getting the best draft picks, which are important for navigating the way from bad to good. Draft picks can be used to draft more interesting young guys, or they can be traded for useful veterans. The higher the draft pick, the more valuable it is for drafting the most interesting young guys or trading for the most useful veterans.

If the Mavs cut loose their current crop of [potentially] useful veterans, they will buy themselves some time to evaluate their current crop of interesting young guys. If they determine that some of their interesting young guys are good enough to be part of a better future, they may choose to keep those interesting young guys and use their upcoming draft picks (including any they might gain by trading their useful veterans) to acquire other interesting young guys or useful veterans to build the roster around them. If they determine that their interesting young guys should not figure into their future plans, they may choose to trade away those interesting young guys for other interesting young guys, or other useful veterans, or more draft picks.

This is not separate from rebuilding. This is rebuilding. Rebuilding, you will recall, is the positive, proactive process of aligning your team for future success. Ridding your team of players who cannot help it to become good is just as much a part of that alignment as is finding the players who can. Any action that deconstructs a bad team with the specific aim of building a good team is rebuilding.

Now. If the Mavs start rebuilding with these steps, there is a good chance they will lose more games this season. Rebuilding a roster takes time, and constructing a roster mid-season is rarely a recipe for short-term improvement. As they lose, the value of their own draft pick will rise, as it moves toward the top of the draft. Complicating matters is this: other teams also lose games, and some of them even lose lots of games, and some of them may even start their own rebuilds. And one of these teams that loses lots of games—maybe even the Mavs!—is going to wind up snagging the very top pick in the upcoming draft! That is the most valuable draft pick there is, and can be exchanged for very interesting young guys or the most useful veterans of all.

Some teams view this circumstance—several teams losing a lot but only one of them getting the most valuable draft pick of all—as a kind of competition: by gum if we’re gonna do all this losing we darn well ought to get the best dang prize! Sometimes the teams that view this as a competition will do something mildly dishonest, that falls outside the spirit of a competitive enterprise like professional basketball: sometimes they will lose on purpose. Not the sometimes inevitable short-term losing that follows the deconstruction of an already-not-very-good roster, but deliberate, calculated losing that outpaces even that which is expected from normal rebuilding. Horrible!

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This can take many forms: sometimes these teams will trade away interesting young guys even though they know them to be good and useful; sometimes they will trade away useful veterans who might otherwise fit with their future plans; sometimes they will even pretend their players are injured in order to construct lineups that cannot realistically compete with other teams—even bad ones! Sometimes they will even go so far as to fill their rosters with players who are neither useful nor interesting, whose true “value” lies in their stark inability to play successful basketball. All of these actions are known as “tanking.” When you take actions to lose on purpose, you are said to be “tanking.”

Tanking is different from rebuilding in that it is not positive. Tanking is, however, sometimes done by teams that are in the process of rebuilding. In very rare circumstances, tanking is done entirely without rebuilding. Hard as it may be to believe, there are some teams that believe that only two stable states exist in basketball: being good enough to win a championship, or being bad enough to receive the most valuable draft pick of all, and that any time spent trying to methodically progress from bad to good is bad and dumb. These people are obviously deeply troubled. They are known as “Philadelphians.” Their god is a shifty accountant with a sad combover.

You can see, then, that not all tanking is rebuilding. The more important point, by far, is that not all rebuilding is tanking. In fact, tanking makes up the smallest part of rebuilding, and is only undertaken by a tiny minority of teams, and only very rarely. Every team except for the San Antonio Spurs will rebuild at some point, but very few of them will ever tank, and the vast majority of those that do will only do it for very brief periods under very specific circumstances.

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But what are those circumstances? Well, sometimes, near the very end of a losing season, a team that is already rebuilding will make the decision to deliberately construct lineups that cannot realistically compete with other teams in order to accrue losses beyond what they might otherwise suffer, because they see themselves as potentially in range of the very best draft pick. Sometimes a team engaged in a rebuild will make a difficult decision to trade away a useful player when the potential return—both in terms of traded-for assets and improved draft position—is enough to push them into tanking. These tanking episodes usually last for only a brief stretch of games at the very end of a lost season, after the point when rebuilding has already begun.

While we have established definitively that no sane person ever has had a problem with rebuilding, many perfectly sane people have significant problems with tanking. Tanking—in the brief, rare, minimally destructive form it normally takes—is a violation of the spirit of competition, and there are many people who oppose it on those grounds. Many other people believe that the destructive elements of losing on purpose, and the ground lost on other facets of rebuilding, make tanking at best a calculated risk, and at worst a heavy bet on a coin flip. This is because, by and large, losing is thought to be bad for the development of interesting young guys, and for morale, and for the reputation of the people involved, and for the status of the team. Some of those consequences potentially negate the internal value of rebuilding, and some of them potentially limit the scope of the rebuilding project. Tanking is risky, and losing is bad, and so even the people who accept it do so grudgingly.

Except for the Philadelphians. Going forward, we will limit our discussion to the feelings of sane people, and exclude Philadelphians altogether.

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Wherever you stand on the merits of tanking, we must all agree that rebuilding and tanking are not the same thing. They share similarities, but inevitable losing is not the same thing as deliberate losing, in the same way that retaking an exam because you did poorly the first time is not the same thing as using the exam to wipe your butt so that you will be sent to remedial courses, where the exams are easier.

Thank you, and happy holidays.