In the South, and Texas in particular, there’s an “old saying” for every event in life. This week, in Dallas, there’s only one “old saying” to describe what’s going on: “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” This week, the city of Dallas has had the same smokey fog over it as Los Angeles in the mid 90’s. On Monday, The Athletic reported that there was an internal issue with the Dallas Mavericks. By mid-day on Thursday? General Manager Donnie Nelson and Head Coach Rick Carlisle both left the franchise voluntarily.
The Athletic’s report cited strife between young star Luka Doncic and management, namely Haralabos Voulgaris. Voulgaris is a reformed gambling expert who has become famous for finding victories in the margins, but his trouble with the people side of the business has followed him. His rise to stardom is the kind of unique story that Mark Cuban loves- a guy that understands the numbers in a unique way and becomes a millionaire sports fan.
In gambling, as long as you pay your debts, this isn’t a problem. Voulgaris was placing bets on NBA games of well over a million dollars at the age of 25. This one-man show grew into a number of statisticians and a team of analytic self-proclaimed geniuses, but he was always at the center.
Why Would That Make Luka Mad?
Voulgaris was hired to help out the Mavericks as a Director of Quantitative Research and Development in early October of 2018, months after the franchise acquired Luka Doncic on Draft night. The Athletic makes it appear that, in reality, his role has been much bigger than that. All reports indicate that he is the second in command in Dallas. If he doesn’t clear something, the only person to override him is Mark Cuban.
That Voulgaris showed up after Doncic was drafted, and before he played his first game, is important. Voulgaris entered a franchise that very quickly realized they had their superstar and was quickly charged to build around him, but Voulgaris had nothing to do with that part of their success. Doncic and Voulgaris were rookies in the same season, but only one would go on to win Rookie of the Year.
Voulgaris’ first splash move came a few months later when the Mavericks traded DeAndre Jordan, Dennis Smith Jr., and Wes Matthews for Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Trey Burke, and Courtney Lee. Days later Dallas swapped Harrison Barnes for Zach Randolph and Justin Jackson to keep the books open to re-sign Porzingis in the summer of 2019. While these moves technically fall on Donnie Nelson, The Athletic’s aforementioned reporting indicated Voulgaris had a big hand in each move made. It stands to reason that Voulgaris was also involved in the more recent moves, namely trading Seth Curry for Josh Richardson or signing Boban Marjanovic.
Fast-forward to the 2021 NBA Playoff conversation surrounding the Dallas Mavericks: the local newspaper and the national media alike are calling for surrounding Luka Doncic with a better supporting cast. Getting Doncic in 2018 was the correct move, but the moves since? They resulted in a roster with much to be desired.
With the Mavericks and Donnie Nelson parting ways this week, and Carlisle jumping ship 24-hours later, it appears that Voulgaris has yet again dodged the sword. Reportedly, Doncic and Nelson had a good relationship. Doncic met Nelson as a 15-year-old when he was being scouted by NBA teams. Doncic found out about the firing as the public did… Which is never something a star wants.
Luka Doncic, from Slovenia with his national team, on Donnie Nelson's Mavericks exit:— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) June 17, 2021
"It was kind of tough to me. I really like Donnie. I know him since I was a kid and he was the one that drafted me. It was tough for me seeing that, but I'm not the one making decisions there."
As for Doncic’s relationship with Carlisle, reports are mixed. Some point out how much Doncic individually flourished playing for the 61-year-old head coach, some point out that their generational gap played out in some on-the-court antics from the Gen Z superstar.
If all reports are to be believed, Doncic favored Nelson to Voulgaris, but Voulgaris was favored by the organization and owner Mark Cuban. Cuban favored Carlisle, but the franchise was between a rock and hard place on what to do there. This, in conjunction with the rift between Doncic and Voulgaris that The Athletic’s reported centered on, is where the story gets “smokey.” Does this mean the young phenom is on the way out? Does all of this remodeling build a house Doncic wants to help build? Or is it all on fire, but the flames are in the background?
What Does it Matter?
Yes, as many have pointed out, Luka Doncic has indicated he will sign the $200+ Million Super Max extension with the Dallas Mavericks. Dallas has Doncic’s “Bird’s Rights,” and thus can realistically offer him more than any team. It doesn’t make financial sense for Luka Doncic to not sign with Dallas. The rules are set up to encourage younger players to stay with their franchise through a second contract. LeBron James left Cleveland for Miami after a second contract. Kevin Durant left for Golden State after a second contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Carmelo Anthony was traded to New York after there was speculation he wouldn’t sign a third contract in Denver.
What is different in the NBA in 2021 from when each of those stars changed teams is that the players have made one thing very clear: they can make things messy to make a move. Kawhi Leonard left San Antonio in a mess. Anthony Davis had to be forced to suit up in New Orleans before leaving the Big Easy. And James Harden? Who could forget that press conference in January? The exodus, for a true superstar, is never clean.
There’s another difference here: Luka Doncic is not a “normal” third-year pro. In many ways, Luka Doncic’s career will prove as the test case for a European superstar with professional playing experience. Doncic was playing in a professional academy at 13 and was playing for Real Madrid at the age of 15. He played three years of over 100 professional games per season before he was even drafted; “normal” NBA one-and-dones have a college season of fewer than 40 games preceded by some AAU circuits and High School seasons of between 30 and 45 games. His body has been through more hoops than that of a normal 22-year-old. He has more on-the-floor experience than a normal 22-year-old.
Doncic is not “new” to being a professional. He has been around one of the most successful basketball franchises in Europe and understands what building a contending team looks like. If the Dallas Mavericks aren’t doing it? He’ll be able to tell.
Every superstar feels like they will never leave until they do. There were think-pieces in 2008 about LeBron James being the hometown kid from Akron who would never leave Cleveland. After seeing the Heatles form in 2010, Kevin Durant was considered the “old school” superstar who was enjoying the small market of Oklahoma City. Kawhi Leonard was the perfect heir-apparent to Tim Duncan and the San Antonio legacy. Where did each of those stars end up?
Luka Doncic’s career has been accelerated and is thus different. He’s anything but a normal 22-year-old… So why are so many assuming he’ll be locked into Dallas as a normal 22-year-old would?
Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire
Something is ary in Dallas. The Mavericks, and local outlets, have continued to downplay frustrations within the franchise. To some degree, they’re right. Competition breeds frustration, and sometimes players, coaches, and management get angry with one another. But the undercurrent in Dallas feels different.
Perhaps it was because of how they ended the season. After winning two road games, Dallas lost four of their final five games of the season to the Los Angeles Clippers. The Mavs blew multiple double-digit leads and lost all three home games in the series. Doncic averaged 35.7-points, 10.3 assists, and 7.9 rebounds per game, but Dallas couldn’t get it done. The loss resonated and everyone knew change was coming… but this much change?
There’s also something that feels like Doncic is unhappy. Reports of his conflicts with Carlisle are only the latest. Per USAToday, Doncic’s co-star Kristaps Porzingis is also unhappy with his role on the Mavericks. For those keeping tally at home- Doncic had enough kerfuffles with his coach for Carlisle to leave, with the gambler in management, and his most talented teammate. Some of these issues feel worth investigating, especially for a guy that leads the league in technical fouls.
The Dallas Mavericks are exuding smoke from every orifice. When you rebuild major parts of your home, a lot of dust gets kicked up. Knocking down a wall to expand a room is loud and messy, but it’s intentional. And, if the Dallas Mavericks are a home, maybe that really is all that’s happening. Or maybe there’s a fire starting, but someone could put it out with a quick push of the extinguisher. There’d be minor damage, nothing crazy. Maybe the entire thing is on fire and there’s so much smoke we just can’t see it yet.
If and when the dust or smoke settles we’ll know more. Until then, all we can have is a hunch on what to make of Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks.
But where there’s smoke, there’s fire.