When the Dallas Mavericks lost in Game 7 to the Clippers in L.A. in the first round, having seen a 2-0 series lead evaporate over the next five games, the frustrations were clear, particularly on the face of young superstar Luka Doncic.
Plenty has been written in the last week about what went wrong for Dallas, from Kristaps Porzingis not holding up his end of the bargain as the secondary star to others who posited that Doncic, for all his Herculean efforts, was doing too much and that contributed to the feast or famine efforts of the Mavs’ role players. From a long view perspective, the Mavs seemingly have time, with Doncic going into his fourth year and almost assuredly inking a $200-plus million supermax this summer, but NBA fans have grown increasingly aware of the realities of these moments, which is to say that young stars don’t have a lot of patience for waiting for teams to build a winner around them and the speculation on how many more early exits Doncic would tolerate has already begun.
On Monday, The Athletic’s Tim Cato and Sam Amick dropped a lengthy piece diving into exactly where the tensions lie between Doncic and the Mavs and the concerns within the organization about them, and the focus was on a figure few considered as the flashpoint for many of the young star’s issues with the team: former professional gambler and Bill Simmons podcast regular turned Mavs executive, Haralabos Voulgaris.
Per Cato and Amick, Voulgaris, while holding the title of director of quantitative research and development, wields an immense amount of influence within the organization, going as far as being someone who dictates lineups and rotations for Rick Carlisle and signs off on just about any move made by the front office. That’s quite the power for someone in an analytics role to hold, and his presence and influence has reportedly created frustrations up and down the Mavs organization, from players and coaches to others in the front office.
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.”
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.
They also detail Doncic’s issues with Voulgaris, focused on a pair of incidents involving him sitting courtside at games and drawing the young star’s ire — once for leaving a Mavs loss early and another time for giving Doncic a “calm down” motion from his seat. However, the biggest issues seems to be that latter point, which is that Voulgaris, who previously was self-employed and only had to answer to himself as a gambler, isn’t an effective communicator beyond having the ear of Mark Cuban. That’s all he needs to wield influence, but it also will lead to people not liking you and, whether fully true or not, makes him a very easy target for folks to pile on and point to as the chief agitator of Doncic within the organization. If no one likes you, plenty of people will be more than willing to talk about issues you’ve had with the team’s franchise cornerstone, even if those issues likely cut deeper than just Voulgaris.
The piece as a whole is a fascinating look into the ever-shifting power dynamics of a team that, for all the talk about culture and stability, seems to have been pretty easily knocked off course by one hire of someone who the man with all of the money is particularly intrigued by. Everything from bad rotations to bad free agent pick-ups to bad draft picks finds its way back to Voulgaris in this story, which raises some eyebrows but also seems to paint, as much of anything, the picture of an organization happy to pin him as a scapegoat for their current conundrum.
Doncic is a superstar who brings with him massive expectations, and the Mavs’ timeline is suddenly different than was even expected when they traded up to select the young Slovenian star in 2018. Playoff appearances won’t suffice anymore, and there is plenty of blame to go around for why they fell short this year. For now, they seem content to make Voulgaris the face of that blame, for which he surely deserves some, but what comes next is going to be fascinating in Dallas as they enter a critical offseason with tensions clearly high internally.