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To win big, does a team need to lose big first?

Mar 5, 2011, 7:11 PM EDT

Dallas Mavericks v Denver Nuggets, Game 2 Getty Images

It’s tough spot to be — right in the middle of the NBA pack.

If you are the Indiana Pacers right now, or the Memphis Grizzlies, or a host of other teams, you are in a difficult spot. You’re good, probably good enough to make the playoffs but not really be a top three seed. So you get to the playoffs, get knocked out in the first round. Then comes the draft, where you will pick in the late teens — where you can land a guy who can develop into a nice rotation player in a few years but not a star. You’re a medium to small market that will have a hard time attracting or paying for an elite talent that comes up as a free agent.

In a MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference panel Sunday, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said that middle ground is something he wants the Mavericks to avoid, according to the fantastic Tim Varner writing for TrueHoop.

Cuban confessed that once Dirk Nowitzki retires he expects the Mavericks to lose, and, if he gets his way, they’ll lose badly. (Former Trail Blazer GM) Kevin Pritchard seemed to agree and introduced a new term into our lexicons: “the mediocrity treadmill.”

There is no championship future for a middling team that is stuck in the embattled space between those who struggle to make the playoffs and those that struggle and miss. Cuban has no desire for the Mavericks to be such a team. Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan recently defended trading Gerald Wallace to the Portland Trailblazers by saying, “We don’t want to be the seventh or eighth seed.” The Bobcats have been, at best, mediocre, and so perhaps we can interpret his statement as one owner casting his philosophical lot with Cuban and Pritchard.

Varner ties those comments into what Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck said earlier in the day at the same conference. When they bought the Celtics they did a study to see what worked, what teams needed to get an NBA title. The answer was three All-Star level players. And one of those stars needs to be a superstar, a “one of the 50 greatest of all time” kind of guy.

Think back to the title winners in recent years — Lakers, Celtics, Spurs, earlier Lakers, Bulls, and so on — and so on you see the patter Grousbeck sees (the 2004 Pistons are the obvious exception).

There is something to this. It takes a little bit of luck — if you are the Oklahoma City Thunder you need to luck into Kevin Durant in the draft, then still be bad enough the next year to get Russell Westbrook. If you’re the big-market Knicks you can see why you go after Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire. The Heat are in there. You can see those teams building toward a title. If you get stuck in the middle with one star, you can be good. You can be entertaining. But you likely will never be a champion.

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