I like to think that Rick Carlisle and Donnie Nelson are several days into a boys’ trip to the wine country or the kind of vacation you take after a long breakup. After promising to not mention “his” name or talk about the past two decades — this trip is about what’s ahead, not behind — Carlisle has one too many sips of Viognier and breaks into an ugly cry.
“Bob Voulgaris,” he whimpers into the middle distance while burying his face into the cardigan wrapped around his neck. “Ugh. This would be so much easier if it were anyone but him.”
Nelson gingerly pats the erstwhile head coach of the Mavs on his shoulder, careful not to wrinkle his short-sleeved-linen Tommy Bahama shirt. “He’s not worth it, Rick. You’re twice the basketball mind and a thousand times the man.”
Like all long-term relationships, the triumvirate of head coach Rick Carlisle, owner Mark Cuban, and general manager/president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson had run its course. The trio helmed the team during its best-ever run as a franchise, netting an NBA championship in 2011 and a finals appearance in 2006. Over the course of their two-decade-plus partnership, those three benefited from having an all-world player to keep the team relevant (if you’re reading this, Dirk, please send me a lock of hair), but they also made some shrewd and sensible decisions along the way.
The three team managers also shat the bed far too often. Time after time, the team’s offseason strategy was to shed salary and lure a big-name free agent to town. It almost worked once — DeAndre Jordan backed out of his deal — but Mavs fans watched as countless free agents used Cuban for a free steak dinner before signing somewhere else.
The front office’s recent draft history, Luka Dončić notwithstanding, has been abysmal. Justin Anderson, Dennis Smith Jr., and too many others to name either couldn’t hack it in the NBA or weren’t given enough court time to develop. Almost none of the Mavs’ failed first-rounders have gone on to find success on other rosters. That, coupled with the numerous free-agent failures, is a harsh indictment of Donnie Nelson.
He had to go.
There’s plenty of blame for the Mavs’ many draft failures to go around. Carlisle, for all of his success in reviving the careers of retreads like Al-Farouq Aminu, Raymond Felton, Brandan Wright, and others, didn’t seem to have any patience for the younglings.
Maybe old-man Carlisle’s grumpy, controlling disposition was just too old-school for the new breed of NBA players. He famously feuded with Jason Kidd, Rajon Rondo, and other players who struggled to loosen the coach’s grip. According to various media reports, Carlisle had also run afoul of the team’s newest Euro sensation. The NBA is a star’s league, and you can’t alienate the only one on your team.
Carlisle had to go.
Now the Mavs have another shot at building around a generational talent. The team can’t afford to fall into the same patterns of missing out on free agents, drafting/failing to develop duds, and micromanaging players. Cleaning house was the right move for Cuban, but fans shouldn’t give him a pass for the Mavs’ many failures.
Last week, an article in The Athletic detailed a major rift in the front office surrounding the role of Haralabos “Bob” Voulgaris, a gambler turned stats man hired by Cuban. The story alleged that Voulgaris hijacked Cuban’s ear and went so far as to suggest Voulgaris was in control of everything from the draft to the team’s on-court rotation. He, like Carlisle, also finds himself on the wrong side of Luka’s circle of trust. On this team, that should be a death sentence.
Voulgaris, for the love of God, has got to go.
Cuban is the one who created the front office mess, and he did the right thing in siding with his star player and dismissing his professed buddies. Cubes is also the guy who allowed the business side of his operation to decay into a toxic cesspool of sexual harassment and rampant abuse. We shouldn’t forget that failure of leadership, though his (far too late) handling of that controversy actually augurs well for the team. He corrected that situation by hiring the right person, CEO Cynthia Marshall, and letting her take control. He needs to learn from that and do the same with his next GM.
This offseason will determine whether or not Cuban is the savvy, adaptable businessman he’s been portraying for years or just another egomaniac who got lucky and refuses to cede power to those better suited to wield it. (Sound familiar?)
Luka is, by all reports, set to sign his rookie max deal, which means he’ll stay in town for at least five more years. That’s not a lot of time to turn this around. The Clippers, for the second time in as many years, exposed the talent gap between a real championship contender and the collection of fringe rotation guys Dallas trots out onto the court every game.
Luka deserves better, and he’ll find it in another city if Cuban doesn’t deliver. Luka isn’t Dirk. We shouldn’t expect him to feel the same loyalty to Dallas as the soon-to-be Hall of Famer. The Slovenian star will be 27 when his next contract expires. Let’s give him a reason to stay.