The Dallas Mavericks have been a model of stability among NBA franchises.
Front-office executive Donnie Nelson joined the team in 1998, and Rick Carlisle had been the coach since 2008. Those are lifetimes for NBA executives and coaches. And Mark Cuban has been the owner since 2000.
That stability crumbled in less than a week as the Mavericks parted ways with Nelson and Carlisle decided to walk away from a team that features Luka Doncic, the 22-year-old MVP-caliber star.
Now, Cuban faces his most important decisions as owner: hiring a new basketball operation chief and a new coach while keeping Doncic happy.
Also at the center of the palace intrigue: Haralabos Voulgaris, a former professional gambler who the Mavs hired as director of quantitative research and development in 2018. He came to the Mavericks with a knowledge of analytics, strategic insight, detailed information on referees and a presence on NBA Twitter.
If there’s such a thing as a front-office depth chart, Voulgaris would have been listed fourth – behind Nelson,the GM and president of basketball operations; assistant general manager Keith Grant; and vice president of basketball operations and former NBA player Michael Finley, who may get a shot to replace Nelson.
A series of stories this week in The Athletic described a front office where Voulgaris had a growing influence on basketball decisions yet a tense relationship with Doncic, and Nelson had a waning influence.
The story even suggested Voulgaris was “initiating transactions, dictating rotations, and even frustrating Luka,” a claim Cuban denied on Twitter, saying it was “total (expletive).” Still, those within the Mavericks organization concede that Voulgaris’ role increased in the past two seasons. So much that Voulgaris even sat in on coaches’ meetings, though it is not clear to what extent he had a say over rotations and personnel moves, a person with knowledge of the situation told USA TODAY Sports. The person requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about internal operations.
Nonetheless, within days of The Athletic’s stories, Nelson and Carlisle were out. In a statement, Carlisle, who led the Mavs to a title in 2011, said he had “a number of in-person conversations with Mark Cuban over the last week.” Obviously, the nature of those conversations impacted Carlisle’s decision to walk away from coaching a generational talent in Doncic.
And yet, 13 years is a lifetime as coach of one NBA team. Even before this week’s events, frustration existed within the organization regarding Carlisle’s decisions and schemes, a person with insight into the Mavs’ situation told USA TODAY Sports.
Carlisle is regarded as an excellent coach and shouldn’t have trouble finding a top-notch job.
Voulgaris is also in the final year of his contract.
Voulgaris isn’t a household name unless you are enmeshed deep in the NBA. However, in 2008, ESPN conducted a Q&A with Voulgaris who shared his thoughts on a few topics (he says he turned a nice profit gambling on the NBA), including offensive strategy and ambition.
“If you look at the jobs I covet – GM or Assistant GM for instance, mostly all of these positions are filled with ex-players and/or sons of former/current GMs,” he said. “I am not sure if growing up around the NBA or playing in the NBA necessarily qualifies you to run a franchise.”
The Q&A concludes this quote from Voulgaris: “Look, I have been pretty fortunate to have done quite well for myself financially with regards to sports betting, and to a lesser extent poker. But at this point I would probably trade it for a low-paying or no-paying job with an NBA team – provided that I felt I’d be given the chance to prove my worth, and in a few years have the opportunity to eventually graduate to a higher position.”
Muddling the situation beyond the reported Doncic-Voulgaris discord is Doncic’s agent, Bill Duffy, who has had a rocky relationship with Cuban since Steve Nash, who Duffy represented, played for the Mavs.
In a lengthy 2004 blog post, Cuban gave his version of Nash leaving the Mavericks and wrote, “I don’t have the greatest relationship with his agent. I’m not a big fan of his and he knows it.” Since then, Cuban has conceded regrets for not retaining Nash and stressed it only had to with his fear his chronic back issues soon would end his career. That eventually happened, though long enough to last 19 seasons worthy of a Hall-of-Fame induction.
Still, the two found enough common ground that led to the Mavs reaching a deal with Atlanta to acquire Doncic in a draft night trade in 2018. After already landing on two All-NBA First Teams, making two All-Star appearances and winning the league’s rookie of the year award, Doncic is eligible to sign a super max extension worth $201.5 million. Doncic has indicated he will sign the deal, but keeping the Slovenian-born star happy is paramount considering the Mavericks envision he can have the same lasting power as former Mavs star Dirk Nowitzki did for 20 NBA seasons.
“I think you know the answer,” Doncic said, while cracking a smile in his exit interview shortly after the Mavs lost to the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs.
Doncic then turned serious about the Mavericks’ two consecutive first-round playoff exits.
“I’m really sorry to the Dallas fans that we couldn’t get them a win,” Doncic said. “They deserve it. They were amazing. But hopefully next year is the same thing, and we’ll go from there.”
So where do the Mavericks go from here? Cuban declined to answer questions via email.
The situation appears fluid, but a few developments have emerged. The Mavericks plan to conduct a wide-ranging search for Nelson’s replacement with Mike Forde’s Sportsology, a consulting firm that NBA teams often use to fill front-office roles.
Nowitzki has rejoined the franchise as a special advisor and will help the team with its search for a new coach and head of basketball operations.
“Mark Cuban approached me about a role as special advisor and I am happy to support my Mavs,” Nowitzki said in a team-released statement. “Donnie Nelson and Rick Carlisle were both mentors and played huge roles in my career and the success of this franchise, and I am going to miss them. It is important for time now to join Mark and contribute as much as I can as we move forward.”
The Mavericks are expected to fill this position soon because of imminent dates on the NBA calendar, including the draft combine (June 21-27), the draft (July 29) and the beginning of free agency (Aug. 2).
Doing so also will ensure Cuban and the Mavericks’ front office share the same vision with who they want to hire for their next head coach. Considering the Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers, Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans, Washington Wizards and Orlando Magic have head-coaching vacancies, the Mavericks might face competition on finding the best replacement.
The Mavericks have not had to worry about such challenges in the past decade given both their stability and consistent success. The Mavericks will soon find out if they can minimize their recent disruptions, while ensuring Doncic shares the same vision with their journey.