Did Cedric Ceballos Make Up A Story About The Dallas Mavericks Tanking In The Late ’90s?

Cedric Ceballos

As the star-studded 2014 NBA Draft draws closer, the subject of tanking has become an even hotter topic of debate among league media. Wednesday night, Jason Smith of Fox Sports Radio, asked former NBA baller Cedric Ceballos — a regular contributor to the show — if he had any first hand experiences with tanking. Here was Ceballos’ response:

I remember the first time I was involved with a team (that) put me in a tanking position. It’s not a happy situation for a guy who’s been an All-Star and really wants to win, and thinks they have a chance to turn around a team that wants to make the playoffs. It’s tough, but, you know, it’s a business, and you gotta understand you’re there for X amount of time that you have your playing career. That company, that business, that team (has been there) a long time before you, and will be there a long time after.

Ceballos then provides a specific example:

When I was in Dallas, (there was) new ownership with Mark Cuban, and we had a chance — maybe about 20 games to go — to put ourselves in the last position, the eighth playoff spot. It was an opportunity for me and (fellow All-Star) Michael Finley (to keep) playing hard. One game, playing the Utah Jazz…we had an opportunity to win, up by a good amount of points in the fourth quarter. You pull the two All-Stars out, but the game was not over with yet, and you put guys in from the CBA, and you wanna try them out, see what’s going on. Obviously, they’re not competing when Jerry Sloan had their full lineup in. They got Hall of Famers in there. Obviously, the lead was diminished, and (they) tried to throw me and Michael back in with a minute to go to try to save the game. Obviously, it didn’t happen. Utah ended up winning.

Ceballos described the post game conversation with then Mavericks coach Don Nelson:

Don Nelson pulled me in the weight room and gave me a speech, like, ‘hey, we got a lot goin’ on here. We got a future comin’. If you feed in, you’ll have a great future here.’ I was just kind of stunned. I’d never heard this coming out of somebody of his stature. I came out of the weight room with a sad face. Michael Finley looked right at me, and he said ‘he gave you the speech, huh?’ I was really shocked: ‘he gave it to you, too?’

Ceballos goes on to say that he voluntarily went on injured reserve with a fake injury (with encouragement from Nelson), and that both he and Finley were disappointed with how the season played out. The plan, according to Nelson, was to bring in some guys who “may or may not make the team next year”, and they just want to “take a look at ’em”. Ceballos goes on to imply that the tanking strategy ultimately led to Dirk Nowitzki landing in Dallas.

It’s a nice story — except for the part where Ceballos is probably lying. Or, at best, cherry picking moments from his two and half years with the Mavericks. We’ll start with why he couldn’t possibly be referring to Dallas’ 1997-98 season (Ceballos arrived in February 1998):

1. The 1997-98 Dallas Mavericks were awful. They headed into that Utah game (the only game against Utah it could have been) with an 18-52 record. There was no hope of making the playoffs, especially with only a dozen games to go. They finished 20-62, and headed straight to the lottery.

2. And, what about that Utah game? Ceballos claims the Mavs were “up by a good amount” in the fourth quarter. Not true. Heading into the fourth quarter of that game, Utah led 77-56. Also, Ceballos played his last game that season on March 15th. So, no, he wasn’t going to help them possibly win a game in which they were trailing by 21 points. And he most certainly did not re-enter the game in the final minute. Meanwhile, Finley played 45 minutes and led his team in scoring with 24 points.

3. But wait, Ceballos mentioned having new ownership. Could he be referring to Ross Perot? Perot bought the team in 1996, so he was new, relatively speaking. And tanking, then picking up Dirk Nowitzki in a draft day trade, makes sense! Unfortunately, it’s well-known the Perot wasn’t much of a basketball nut, so tanking probably wasn’t on his mind. Also, Ceballos specifically mentions Mark Cuban, who purchased the team in January 2000.

The good news: this lines up perfectly with Ceballos’ claim that the Mavericks had an outside shot at a playoff spot, as they did finish that season 40-42 — four games out of an eighth seed. The bad news: there are plenty of holes in that story as well:

1. If the goal was to tank the 1999-00 season, the Mavs did a shitty job of trying to do so. They went 15-5 over their last 20 games, which is highly ill-advised if you’re trying to pick up more ping pong balls. Ceballos says they weren’t trying, when they actually were trying.

2. Getting back to that Jazz game: which one is he referring to? Well, they faced off in Game 70 that season, except Dallas won, 113-105 (Finley played 47 minutes and scored 31 points — Ceballos didn’t play). I suppose we can go back to their previous matchup, Game 53, which Utah won 92-85. Ceballos played 33 minutes off the bench and scored 26 points. But Utah held a slight lead heading into the fourth. Thus, it’s possible that Dallas built a lead in the fourth, then Utah just came right back and won.

3. With a record of 22-30 heading into the Utah game, it’s conceivable (if not crazy) that Dallas would consider throwing in the towel on the season. But there were still 30 games left, and, as we already know, Dallas did the opposite, putting together a run to finish nearly .500. Ceballos did sit out for stretches of the final two months, but it didn’t matter. They kept winning without him.

4. Who on Earth would Dallas tank for in the 2000 NBA draft? It’s arguably the worst draft of all time. It would have been pointless.

Thus, Ceballos’ narrative contains some truths — they just don’t add up to a story that makes a whole lot of sense. Yes, it’s possible that Dallas tanked in 1998, but it wasn’t under the circumstances that Ceballos remembers (also, recall how unbelievably putrid the Mavericks were in the ’90s, and then consider that any “tanking” might not have even been intentional). Yes, Ceballos also missed time down the stretch of the 1999-00 season, but the evidence suggests they didn’t tank.

Also, Ceballos was in his second to last season in the league. He was out of the NBA by 2001. Maybe management really did want to see what other guys could do? That’s a tough pill to swallow for a guy who was an All-Star at one point, and played in conference championships.

Regardless, if you’re attempting to sell people on the idea that tanking is a widely-used strategy in the NBA, and claim to have experienced the frustration of going through the process, it helps to have your story straight.