In the modern era, there have been times where we have seen players clash with front offices. For example, we've seen James Harden sit out games this season on the Rockets due to a disagreement with the front office about his trade request. Harden didn't want to be in a situation where he couldn't compete for the championship, and he eventually got his way and got traded to the Brooklyn Nets.
Sam Amick and Tim Cato have recently published an article where they claimed that Luka Doncic has a bad relationship with a front office member named Haralabos Voulgaris, the person that they have dubbed as the Dallas Mavericks' "Shadow GM".
Doncic, multiple league sources say, intends to sign the supermax extension — which he will be eligible for once named to this season’s All-NBA team — with Dallas, worth more than $200 million over five seasons after his rookie contract expires next summer. “I think you know the answer,” he said, smiling, when asked whether he would at last week’s exit interview. But a high-level power broker within the league says the Mavericks recognize that there’s urgency to build a contending team around Doncic after losing in the first round in each of the past two seasons. The clock is ticking.
Internally, there are concerns the front office’s dysfunction has hurt its ability to do so — and that poor relationships Doncic has with key members of the franchise, including Voulgaris, could impact his current desire to remain in Dallas long-term. The team’s most recent postseason defeat against the LA Clippers served as a direct indictment on the roster constructed around him. Can Mavericks management remedy that in time? Or, as some team sources fear, will they pay the price for the dysfunctional dynamics that exist in some corners of the organization?
Dallas announced Voulgaris’ hiring in the fall of 2018 with a title — director of quantitative research and development — that vastly understated his actual role. Multiple league and team sources tell The Athletic that Voulgaris has been the most influential voice within the Mavericks front office since joining the team, either initiating or approving virtually every transaction made over the past two seasons. Those same sources add that Voulgaris has frequently gone as far as scripting the starting lineups and rotations for longtime head coach Rick Carlisle.
That influence has spanned Doncic’s three seasons in Dallas. While he had been drafted prior to Voulgaris’ arrival — Donnie Nelson, the team’s longtime president of basketball operations, was the driving force behind trading up to acquire the Slovenian wunderkind, a process he described in detail to The Athletic last year — Cuban had sought out Voulgaris’ basketball advice in the years before putting him on the team’s payroll. As one team source says, “Mark Cuban is the most powerful person in the organization, but whoever he’s listening to is second.” Cuban was won over by Voulgaris’ vision: an analytics-driven spread pick-and-roll offense with Doncic as the focal point which he has tried implementing in the past seasons.
Voulgaris' analytics-driven approach was enjoyed by Mark Cuban, and the approach to team building seems solid enough. Analytics is a great tool with which to look at basketball. However, it definitely seems as though Voulgaris had more influence within the Mavericks than what his position suggests.
Because Voulgaris’ influence was greater than his official role, those within the front office — and executives around the league who interacted with them — were often confused about who actually held power. “We had two general managers,” a team source says. Nelson remained the team’s president of basketball operations, a role he has held since 2005, and other executives and agents continued largely communicating with him or Cuban regarding personnel matters. Nelson continued to spearhead major moves, including trades for Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr. in 2019, Josh Richardson in 2020 and J.J. Redick in 2021. But team sources say Voulgaris was supportive of the transactions — or explicitly approved them.
Multiple league and team sources point to the 2020 draft as a particularly egregious example of Voulgaris’ power, an evening one source described as “embarrassing.” Most members of the scouting department joined the team’s war room remotely through Zoom and were surprised when Voulgaris, attending in person, didn’t consult them for either of the team’s first two selections (Josh Green and Tyrell Terry) despite disagreements they held with at least one of the players he picked.
“What did (he) sell to Mark to make him believe (he) can do this?” asks one source with an intimate knowledge of the situation. “Nobody knows.”
While Voulgaris may be knowledgeable on basketball matters in terms of numbers, part of basketball is building good relationships with the people in the organization, from the players to the front office. The article seems to suggest that Voulgaris isn't a people person, and point to his strained relationship with Luka Doncic as an example.
It marked another throughline of Voulgaris’ tenure with the Mavericks: that his personality and decision making has steadily irritated and exasperated the team’s front office employees and players over the course of the three seasons he’s been employed. “He doesn’t know how to talk to people,” that same source says.
That’s best exemplified by Dallas’ franchise player disliking him. Doncic’s strained relationship with Voulgaris predated their incident in February, multiple sources say. It wasn’t the only incident, either. This season, Voulgaris attended his first game in mid January, frequently appearing courtside at home and also traveling with them on the road in the months that followed. In mid-April, during the final minute of a home defeat to the New York Knicks, Voulgaris was seen on the game’s broadcast footage standing up and leaving with about 45 seconds remaining. While the Mavericks were trailing by 10 points at the time, they cut the deficit to six and extended the game seven more possessions before eventually losing.
Doncic noticed Voulgaris’ early departure. In the locker room after the game, multiple league and team sources say he told teammates he viewed Voulgaris leaving before the game’s conclusion as him quitting on them. Voulgaris would not attend another game the rest of the year.
The article also focuses on Rick Carlisle, the current head coach of the Dallas Mavericks. Mark Cuban has publically backed Carlisle, but it is notable that Carlisle and Doncic have had arguments before.
Doncic’s relationship with his head coach, Rick Carlisle, has been publicly scrutinized since joining his team. It’s expected Carlisle will return next season, multiple league sources say, something Cuban publicly voiced support for last week shortly after the first round defeat.
Multiple sources were surprised to see Cuban’s prompt backing of Carlisle, however, even though Cuban’s support for Carlisle has hardly wavered over the past decade. During the season, it was believed Carlisle’s future could be reconsidered following the season, partly due to a belief Doncic had tuned him out.
Sources say some players have been frustrated with Carlisle after they lost playing time despite doing exactly what they felt he had asked of them, and for stiff rotation patterns, the latter of which they viewed — correctly, team sources confirm — as being dictated directly to him by Voulgaris. Early on, Doncic also disliked Carlisle’s timeouts and frequent calling of plays.
The championship took Carlisle’s credibility to another level in those coming years. He was, with good reason, virtually untouchable when it came to the job insecurities that most coaches face. Such is life when you reach the NBA’s mountaintop for a franchise that has never been there before.
But as Doncic started to look more and more like a modern-day Dirk Nowitzki these past three seasons — the kind of once-in-a-generation player who the Mavericks could build around for the next two decades — the landscape that surrounded Carlisle began to change. And Carlisle, quite clearly, decided to change along with it.
“You can’t win against the next Nowitzki,” one source said.
Luka Doncic will very likely sign the extension, and it seems unlikely that Voulgaris will be the make-or-break person that dictates how Luka Doncic views the franchise as a whole. It seems as though Doncic's concerns are mostly focused at the top.
Doncic has a healthy relationship with the Mavericks organization at large. League sources say he angled to be drafted by the team in 2018, and he has been particularly complimentary of his relationship with Nowitzki, whose final season coincided with Doncic’s first. Those feelings could change if the team’s postseason struggles continue, as the Mavericks haven’t advanced past the first round since their 2011 championship run. It’s not that Doncic’s situation with the team is at a critical inflection point right now. Multiple team sources simply fear that it’s heading that direction.
Those concerns mostly center on Cuban and the decisions he makes regarding who he trusts and imbues with power. Sometimes, it’s examples like Voulgaris, a sports gambler with no league experience being given near total control of the team’s roster. Other times, it’s the relationships he doesn’t sever: The Mavericks’ front office has come to be known around the league for its long-existing power structure that, Voulgaris aside, has barely changed.
While Sam Amick and Tim Cato may have just reported what their sources told them, it seems as though Mark Cuban seems to view this article as false information. Cuban put out a Tweet that suggested that the article from The Athletic is entirely false.
There is no doubt that the Dallas Mavericks have to build around Luka Doncic, as he is their future. Any unity in the front office should start with that common goal. Mark Cuban is widely known as one of the best franchise owners in sports, and he has been able to build a championship-level team before. Hopefully, he is able to achieve that again with Luka Doncic, and bring even more glory to his franchise.