Some of the most common sports debates are about some very complex ideas. One such idea is whether the player is responsible for success or whether the system is ultimately responsible. Discourse rages over who deserves more credit, is it the coach or is it the star? The most recent example is whether Brady or Bellechick was responsible for the dynasty. We all saw during the Michael Jordan documentary “The Last Dance” that Jerry Krause thought tha the championships were organizational and not due to the fact that they had #23 (then #45, then #23 again) march out onto the court every night. I will point out that the Bulls haven’t won a championship since.
However, as pundits and sports fans alike try to withdraw simple answers to complex questions the answers for all these debates are far more nuanced. The Dallas Mavericks who seem primed to build a potential dynasty over the young and exciting Luka Doncic are currently embroiled in one such classic debate.
In their impressive article last week, the Athletic and their writers Tim Cato and Sam Amick discussed the culture inside of the Dallas basketball team and their personnel guru Haralabos Voulgaris (mentioned henceforth as Bob Voulgaris). Voulgaris made his fortune in sports gambling by studying coaching tendencies but as the league began to change he, for a time lost much of his wealth only to dive into analytics (long before NBA coverage or even NBA franchises had) and rebuilt his fortune a second time. Teams quickly took notice and he would eventually end up working with Mark Cuban and the Mavericks.
Cuban has always been enthralled with Bob Voulgaris’ intelligence and has denied his involvement in setting rotations, evaluating player personnel and so on. However, it is clear based on sources within the team that his role is akin to Ernie Adams and the New England Patriots. Meadowlark media’s Amin El Hassan is a former NBA executive who knows and has talked with Voulgaris on several occasions. When asked about it on the Dan Le Batard Show with Stu Gotz, El Hassan commented that Voulgaris “is a really really smart guy; but the thing with smart guys is, sometimes they’re assholes”.
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this of Bob Voulgaris and it isn’t surprising. Given his intellect and his rise to prominence, there’s no doubt a lot of ego and arrogance that makes up part of the cocktail. The issue rises when the conflicts begin to rise between the mastermind, the players and the coaches.
Earlier this week we learned that Mavs Coach Rick Carlisle would end his 13 year tenure with the team. This came as a surprise as coaching a young superstar makes the job coveted and the team has been a playoff team for the past two years. Carlisle is one of the most respected coach in the NBA and him stepping down is something, I’m certain, that does not please many of the MAVs’ players. This has also come on the heels of the departure of team general manager Donnie Nelson. Nelson had been a Mavericks executive since 1998 and so his departure as well, appeared to be alarming.
Yet, when The Athletic article came out, Mark Cuban vehemently denied the notion that Voulgaris was involved in player operations and that there was a rift in the front office or with players. My reaction in reading the Voulgaris article as well as doing some research about the situation led me to believe that the article was well vetted, that the sources came from within the Mavericks organization and that the situation described is plausible.
The Mavericks have brought in Dirk Nowitski in a move that looks to try and settle the storm. Dirk is the team’s most famous payer and his position while titular in nature will hopefully serve to bridge the gap between the team’s brash analytics side and the player development that relies heavily on communication. Professional coaching is more about communication than it is about any other aspect of the job. Steve Kerr once stated that he couldn’t teach Steph or Klay anything about shooting but that his job was to put them in a position to succeed. Stripped away from PR spin, he was suggesting that his main responsibility was to get players to buy in and excel through their system.
So given the Zeppelin-esque communication breakdown in Dallas, what does this mean for the BeLuka Whale? Well, he will definitely sign the extension and become a super max player. There has never been a player in NBA history (since the rookie extension was added to the CBA) who ever turned this offer down. It’s simply too valuable. However, in an era of player empowerment, there is nothing stopping Doncic from asking for a trade and making a mess for his team in the process. In each NBA draft it is unlikely to get a generational talent that, if properly supported, can make you a realistic challenger to the Larry O’Brien trophy. Luka, appears to be one of those players.
Yesterday, comments emerged that indicated that Luka was disappointed to see Nelson removed from office. Tim Cato and Sam Amick of The Athletic (yes the very same) claim that while the reporting indicates tha tit was a mutual parting of ways Nelson was actually “fired unceremoniously”. This is something that apparently irritated many of the Mavs’ players, including their young superstar.
Mark Cuban is, generally a very progressive owner. That said, the organization has shown traits of “cronyism” in the past. When there were reports of sexual misconduct in the Mavericks office, the first reaction of the team appeared rather meek. It seemed as though the organization was quite set on protecting their people. This is a case that, while far less serious than the previous, is beginning to show similar traits. Cuban claims there is no rifts in the organization but let an executive with nearly a quarter century worth of service go, only days after his future Hall of Fame coach decided not to return to the team. In my estimation, the rift in the management is clear. Let’s hope this gets resolved before it reaches critical mass with their players.