“Mark came along when this franchise really needed a shot in the arm.” That’s what Donnie Nelson told Tim MacMahon about Mark Cuban back in 2010. And he was right. The Dallas Mavericks were a basketball joke in the 1990s. The Mavericks averaged 24 wins per season from 1990-2000. Their highest win total was 40 games in 1999-2000. They posted back to back seasons in which they won 11 and 13 games. They were bad.
Then Cuban bought the team in 2000, and everything changed. The stories are well known. He renovated the dingy locker rooms, making them the best in the NBA. He bought a private plane for the team’s road trips, something that’s commonplace now but was an innovation at the time. He upgraded to five star hotels instead of Holiday Inns. Cuban added to the coaching staff extensively.
But more importantly, the Mavericks started winning. It helped that Dirk Nowitzki came into his own at the exact same time Cuban bought the team. But Cuban’s modernizing of the moribund franchise felt like it contributed just as much.
The Mavericks made the Western Conference Finals in 2003, their second in franchise history and the first since 1988. Three years later, they made the NBA Finals, losing in six to the Miami Heat. The next year they won 67 games, tied for the fifth most wins in a single NBA season in history. They finally climbed the mountaintop and won their first championship in 2011. The Mavericks celebrated in a Miami nightclub, and Cuban bought a giant bottle of champagne that cost $90,000.
From 2000-01 to 2011-12, the Mavericks won at least 50 games each season with the exception of the strike shortened 2011-2012 season where they went 36 and 30, and made the playoffs 15 out of 16 years starting in 2000. Mavericks fans of a certain age grew up thinking that their favorite team was one of the best run in the NBA. Maybe they were, at the time.
After 2011, cracks started to show. Cuban decided to not bring back the team that won the franchise’s first and only championship, letting veteran center and defensive anchor Tyson Chandler depart in free agency. This was done in order to maintain salary cap flexibility to chase impending free agents Dwight Howard and Chris Paul.
Howard and Paul never signed with Dallas, but Cuban continued with the strategy. Every move was made with an eye on being able to quickly create cap space in case a marquise free agent became available. That usually meant ignoring the draft and passing up on middle class free agents, which in turn meant only aging veterans or project players were available to acquire.
It wasn’t a good strategy, bargain shopping for players while hoping that a lottery ticket in the form of LeBron James or Kevin Durant would cash. But at the time, most Mavericks fans were on board. I know I was. Stars are how you win in the NBA, and Cuban was trying to acquire stars.
But consistently coming up empty in free agency was just the beginning.
In July of 2013, the Mavericks hired Gersson Rosas away from the Houston Rockets to be their general manager. Never mind that Donnie Nelson performed all the duties of a general manager for the Mavericks. He was technically president of basketball operations, so Rosas was coming on board to...do analytics stuff?
“When we found somebody with that process and management skill like Gersson and also somebody who has experience working with an analytics group, working with a D-League team, working in talent evaluation, that was just an added plus that made him the perfect candidate,” Cuban said at the time.
But then surprisingly, Rosas was gone 90 days later. That’s weird. NBA teams don’t usually hire GMs on a trial basis. The reason for his departure was never publicly acknowledged by the Mavericks, but it’s widely rumored to be over issues of control over personnel. Which is, again, weird.
Then came 2018, when Sports Illustrated released an investigative report into the corrosive workplace culture of the Dallas Mavericks. In the wake of the controversy, the Mavericks made several changes to their organization, and Mark Cuban paid $10 million to organizations that promote women in leadership roles and combat domestic violence.
In 2021, The Athletic’s (and former Mavs Moneyball editor) Tim Cato released an article detailing turmoil within the Mavericks organization. The piece detailed a rift within the front office due to analytics guru Haralabos Voulgaris’ influence with Cuban.
Within a week of the article’s publication, Donnie Nelson was gone. Rick Carlisle, head coach for 13 years, left not long after. The Mavericks tabbed Jason Kidd to be the new coach, despite a poor record at his previous stops and the baggage that came along with him.
Months later, Voulgaris went on the ESPN Daily podcast with Pablo Torres and revealed more of the chaos inside the Mavericks’ front office. “It was a very gossipy workplace, very gossipy. It was like a sewing circle over there,” Voulgaris said.
Voulgaris went on to say that Nelson left the draft room during the 2020 draft, retreating to his office and leaving Voulgaris to make the pick, something he was completely unprepared for at the time. The Mavericks haven’t refuted this story.
Then, ESPN’s Tim MacMahon revealed on Brian Windhorst’s Hoop Collective podcast that former Mavericks swingman Chandler Parsons had “significantly more control over personnel than Donnie Nelson did for two years. That is simply a fact.” Windhorst and his other guest, ESPN’s Tim Bontemps, didn’t gasp in shock or immediately launch into questioning MacMahon on this statement. They merely agreed and moved on, like it was a widely-known fact.
That last piece of news is what finally broke me. For a long time I believed the Mavericks were one of the best-run organizations in the NBA. Sure, they weren’t on the level of the San Antonio Spurs, who churned out contender after contender for almost two decades. They didn’t have the ruthless efficiency of the Miami Heat. But they weren’t actively sabotaging themselves, like the New York Knicks, or under the weight of some dreadful curse like the Los Angeles Clippers.
But the collective weight of all these stories paints a picture of an organization in disarray for many years. Maybe in the early 2000s the Mavericks were a well-run team. That’s not the case anymore.
There’s a new front office in place. Nicco Harrison is president of basketball operations, and Michael Finley is vice president. Perhaps things will change for the better. But that’s up to the one constant in all of the previous 20 years’ success and failure — Mark Cuban. He’s the one who can right the ship, whether by stepping back from decision making, or by creating a more stabile and functional front office environment.
The stakes are high. Luka Doncic won’t be as patient as Dirk Nowitzki. If the Mavericks don’t turn from their recent dysfunction, they’ll risk losing Doncic to another team. Hopefully that doesn’t happen.