In los­ing bat­tle, Rangers are win­ning

Mavs are also tank­ing, but Daniels’ crew is lead­ing from be­hind

The Dallas Morning News - - Sports Day - TIM COWLISHAW wt­cowlishaw@dal­las­news.com

For two months, the Mav­er­icks and Rangers waged a quiet bat­tle. Which team could tank its 2018 sea­son with a higher de­gree of sub­tlety? I thought the Mavs were win­ning early, but now the Rangers have es­tab­lished them­selves as the clear leader.

The Mavs lost their sea­son opener to the At­lanta Hawks, an aw­ful team that night and the club with the worst record in the NBA to­day. Rick Carlisle’s team did that sort of thing with fre­quency in the first 30 games. In fact, as re­cently as Christ­mas Day, Dal­las was 2-17 in games de­cided by seven or fewer points.

The team had done the im­pos­si­ble. En­cour­aged fans with the draft­ing of Den­nis Smith Jr., watched his growth

in the early part of the sea­son, com­peted with some of the league’s best for some­thing just short of 48 min­utes and, fi­nally, stum­bled into a way to lose.

It was re­build­ing with a wink, a way the club could rest as­sured of get­ting an even higher pick than the ninth se­lec­tion they used on Smith.

Carlisle ex­plained it dif­fer­ently. He cited three rea­sons for the close losses.

One was “by far” the tough­est sched­ule in the league for 30 games. Two was the chal­lenge of be­ing led by a point guard who be­gan the sea­son as a teenager. And No. 3 (my fa­vorite) was “we should have done some things bet­ter at the end of games.’’

That about cov­ers it. But two weeks ago the plan went hay­wire. The Mav­er­icks won back-to-back games against good teams — Toronto and In­di­ana — to ig­nite a fourgame win streak that was stopped only by Steph Curry’s 3-pointer at the buzzer. They won another back-to­back last week against Or­lando and Charlotte be­fore los­ing in over­time to the Lak­ers on Satur­day, a game that flipped LA and Dal­las in the stand­ings and left the Mav­er­icks — at least tem­po­rar­ily — with the league’s fifth worst record.

Don’t get me wrong, the Mav­er­icks are not good. But they’re not aw­ful enough to be stak­ing their claim at the top of the lot­tery.

Mean­while, the Rangers were one of the quick­est teams out of the blocks when the free agency doors opened on Nov. 2. I guess that’s another way of say­ing the Rangers are one of the few teams that did any­thing. As we sit here 10 weeks into the sign­ing pe­riod, most of the prime free agents re­main avail­able.

Of course, adding Jake Ar­ri­eta to the ro­ta­tion or J.D. Martinez’s pow­er­ful bat to the lineup wasn’t in the plans for GM Jon Daniels.

The last time the Rangers were really, really good (like World Se­ries good), they lost just three games in the ALDS and ALCS on their way to play­ing St. Louis. Two of the three pitch­ers to beat Texas — Doug Fis­ter and Matt Moore — are now Rangers.

(The third was Justin Ver­lan­der, and he seems to have set­tled in with a dif­fer­ent Texas team.)

If Fis­ter and Moore can turn back the clock seven years, this ro­ta­tion might be some­thing to see. But, well, seven years is a long time. In three dif­fer­ent stops (Wash­ing­ton, Hous­ton, Bos­ton), Fis­ter’s ERA has been above the league av­er­age the last three sea­sons. And Moore just broke the Gi­ants’ record for high­est ERA ever (5.52) for a 30-game starter.

So the names that Daniels has ac­quired sound bet­ter than the per­for­mance level they are likely to reach in 2018.

The club also added a Roy­als re­liever, Mike Mi­nor, who might be con­verted to starter. The Rangers hold sim­i­lar plans or at least thoughts for Matt Bush. I would keep Bush right where he is and try to make cer­tain the bullpen is rea­son­ably sound leav­ing spring train­ing, but one never knows about those things any­way.

As for the lineup get­ting bet­ter, if one can an­tic­i­pate a bounce-back year from Rougned Odor, con­tin­ued im­prove­ment from Joey Gallo and a solid rookie sea­son from Wil­lie Cal­houn in the out­field, I think it’s fair to ask if ca­reer years from Elvis An­drus and Robin­son Chiri­nos can be re­peated and whether Adrian Bel­tre will con­tinue to chal­lenge Dirk Now­itzki as the Su­per­star Who Played For­ever.

Re­al­is­ti­cally, I think Daniels and the man­age­ment team have made the right call. Af­ter fin­ish­ing 23 games be­hind the world cham­pion Astros, the best ap­proach for catch­ing Hous­ton is to look be­yond 2018. Hey, if some­thing crazy hap­pens early in the sea­son and the Astros’ great young nu­cleus suf­fers an un­com­mon rash of in­juries and the Rangers find them­selves com­pet­ing for first place on June 1, there are al­ways ways to up­grade the ros­ter. Daniels has been adept at mak­ing those moves through the years, but, for now, the Rangers have nei­ther a strong big league club nor top-level prospects poised to pro­duce.

Keep­ing a low pro­file makes more sense than pay­ing up­ward of $20 mil­lion per year to re­con­nect with Yu Darvish and bat­tle the An­gels for sec­ond place. The Rangers are no more com­pet­ing with the Astros this sea­son than the Mav­er­icks are with Golden State.

An off­sea­son of quiet tank­ing has helped as­sure as much.

Rose Baca/Staff Pho­tog­ra­pher

Rangers gen­eral man­ager Jon Daniels (right) has added a few prospec­tive start­ing pitch­ers this off­sea­son, in­clud­ing former Kansas City re­liever Mike Mi­nor (left).

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