LUKA DONCIC AND Dennis Smith Jr. had become fast friends after the Dallas Mavericks selected the teenager from Slovenia third overall in the 2018 NBA draft.
Smith, whom the team had drafted ninth a year prior, had shown Doncic around the city and invited the new guy into his social circle. They lived in the same apartment building and had spent hours playing video games together.
If one was spotted during a Mavs road trip, chances are the other would be there too, along with young swingman Dorian Finney-Smith.
The Mavs were quick to market their new guard tandem. Doncic and Smith posed together during media day, smiling for pictures; they were promoted heavily on the team’s website. Along with soon-to-retire legend Dirk Nowitzki, the young lottery picks were the players featured on billboards around the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex.
While a friendship blossomed in Dallas’ newly formed backcourt, coach Rick Carlisle and the front office were planning to blow it up, sources involved with the franchise’s decision-making said, never really believing the duo had staying power.
The Mavs knew Doncic would need to be the primary ball handler to fulfill his immense potential, and they didn’t believe Smith, who they had determined was a high-usage, ball-dominant guard with a suspect jumper, could complement him.
Carlisle, for his part, doubted Smith could be a productive NBA starter, team sources said. He had wanted the Mavs to draft guard Donovan Mitchell, and had completely soured on Smith midway through his rookie campaign.
Seven months later, Smith was traded to the New York Knicks, an afterthought in a deal that brought Kristaps Porzingis midway through Doncic’s rookie season.
It might not have been a basketball fit, but Doncic and Smith had formed a bond. And Carlisle’s apparent determination to make Smith miserable during their brief time as teammates was appalling to Doncic, several former players and staffers told ESPN.
Multiple players were shocked during one early-season team meeting when Carlisle accused Smith of being jealous of Doncic, sources said. The players considered it incredibly unfair to Smith, who wasn’t playing well but was making an honest effort to mesh with Doncic on the court.
Doncic particularly resented what he perceived as Carlisle’s attempt to pit him against his friend and teammate, team sources said.
It’s an early chapter in the Luka Doncic story, an origin point for rising distrust and tension between the team’s young star and his coach — and an indication the relationship would have an expiration date.
“He brought a championship to Dallas,” Doncic said after a win in Memphis on Dec. 8, “and everybody respects him.”
Those are the most extensive comments Doncic, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has made about Carlisle since the coach’s resignation from Dallas in June. Carlisle, now the Indiana Pacers‘ coach, missed Friday’s Mavericks-Pacers game after testing positive for COVID-19.
New coach Jason Kidd and the Mavericks are 27 games into an effort to clear three seasons worth of dysfunction, disillusionment and blowups that cracked the foundation of a franchise built around a superstar who has yet to win a playoff series.
“It wasn’t really about how Rick treated Luka,” a Mavs player on the 2018-19 team said. “Luka hated how Rick treated other people.”
FORMER MAVS CENTER Salah Mejri, a player whose fiery emotions often weren’t appreciated by referees, picked up two quick technical fouls in the third quarter of a January 2018 win against the Washington Wizards. The second tech was a particularly quick whistle, and Mejri pleaded his case to Carlisle before leaving the court.
“You’ve got two f—ing points, get the f— out of here!” Carlisle shouted at Mejri, pointing toward the tunnel to the locker room, an exchange caught by television cameras.
After practice the next day, Carlisle told reporters he had a talk with Mejri and “apologized to him for behavior that was really emotional, uncalled for and unprofessional on my part.”
But people with the team didn’t consider the behavior to be uncharacteristic for Carlisle. Several Mavericks team staffers, from members of the coaching staff to non-basketball employees, told ESPN they felt intimidated and disrespected by Carlisle, who they said could be abrasive and demanding. The coach also had contentious relationships with several Mavs players throughout his 13-year tenure.
Mejri felt belittled by Carlisle, a team source said, believing the coach targeted him with unnecessarily harsh criticism — usually in front of the team.
And Mejri functioned as a big-brother figure for Doncic. Mejri had played for Real Madrid before signing with the Mavs in 2015. He looked out for Doncic when he was promoted to the Spanish club’s top team as an adolescent. Doncic was so close with Mejri that he agreed to an interview with a local television station as a rookie on the condition that Mejri, a fringe rotation player, would also be part of the sit-down.
The public exchange between Carlisle and Mejri happened the season before Doncic was drafted, but it was indicative of the tense Mavs’ locker room when he arrived.
“It wasn’t really about how Rick treated Luka. Luka hated how Rick treated other people.”
Player on the 2018-19 Mavericks
Early in Doncic’s rookie season, the players were in near mutiny in the wake of an especially heated, confrontational team meeting, players and members of that staff said. Carlisle apologized to the team a couple of days later and gave assistant coach Jamahl Mosley, who was popular with the players, increased responsibilities regarding the managing of player and coaching staff relationships. It was Mosley’s voice that the players often heard from the coaching staff, sometimes more so than Carlisle’s.
Mosley developed an especially close bond with Doncic. But over the next few years Carlisle came to consider Mosley a threat, team sources said, believing that Mosley was attempting to position himself to take Carlisle’s job. Instead, Mosley became the coach of the Orlando Magic in July, a couple of weeks after the Mavs hired Kidd.
Seven months before, the team had lost another valuable liaison in veteran guard J.J. Barea, who often had served as connective tissue between Carlisle and Doncic, as well as other players, the previous two seasons. Sources said the Mavs’ front office came to regret releasing Barea during the 2020-21 preseason.
Barea, a role player on the 2011 title team and a leader in the locker room even as his playing time decreased, helped bring Doncic and Porzingis together, playing cards with them on the team plane and facilitating communication between the franchise cornerstones.
That relationship began to erode last season, when the awkwardness that developed between them was so apparent that it was noteworthy when they exchanged high fives. Sources noted that Carlisle wasn’t positioned to manage it because he had poor relationships with both.
Porzingis was frustrated, feeling he was a strategic afterthought for a team that couldn’t get out of the first round, often utilized primarily as a catch-and-shoot 3-point threat to space the floor for Doncic. That was spotlighted during the Mavs’ seven-game playoff loss to the LA Clippers, when the 7-foot-3 Porzingis spent most of the series spotted up in the corner because Carlisle was convinced he was incapable of punishing LA’s switching defense with post-ups.
As he entered the offseason, Porzingis was so disillusioned, sources said, that he privately hoped he would be traded.
CARLISLE ATTEMPTED TO patch his relationship with Doncic. The coach heaped praise on his star in the media, often comparing him to legends such as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, and protected the Mavs’ young face of the franchise from criticism, even if it required stretching logic to do so.
An example: Doncic reported to last year’s training camp weighing more than 260 pounds, according to sources, and conditioning was clearly a factor in his slow start. Carlisle blamed the NBA’s pandemic-disrupted schedule beginning earlier than originally anticipated for complicating Doncic’s offseason routine.
But their relationship was too far gone, Doncic growing even more distant from his coach, and more defiant of him during the heat of games.
Doncic questioned Carlisle’s authority in front of the team on at least one occasion early in the 2020-21 season: “Who’s in charge — you or Bob?” Doncic barked on his way back to the bench during an early-season game. He was referring to then-Mavs director of quantitative research Haralabos “Bob” Voulgaris, whose rise in power played a role in Dallas’ front-office dysfunction and who many players believed dictated lineups and rotation decisions to Carlisle. Carlisle relied heavily on Voulgaris’ data but always had final say, team sources said.
In another instance, Doncic had just drawn his third foul midway through the third quarter of last season’s playoff opener and was upset that Carlisle had opted to substitute for him. Carlisle ignored the superstar’s gesture that indicated he wanted to play through foul trouble.
As Jalen Brunson checked in, Doncic briefly took his glare off of Carlisle, dropping his head and clenching his fingers, squeezing the air as if he were crushing something in his hands. Doncic barked at Carlisle as he walked toward the Dallas bench, shaking his head along the way.
Doncic didn’t stop at his seat at the end of the bench, stomping another 10 steps until he reached the short wall at the bottom of the arena’s lower bowl. He leaned against the wall, rested his head on top of his arms, turned his back to the floor and remained there for most of the Clippers’ ensuing possession. When he returned to the bench, Doncic stood and again shouted in Carlisle’s direction before finally taking his seat.
Nobody on the Dallas bench blinked. Players, staffers and coaches had become accustomed to Doncic cursing out Carlisle, the dynamic between the generational star and championship-proven coach deteriorating with each passing clash.
After Doncic cooled off, Carlisle subbed him back into the game. He finished with a 31-point triple-double, leading the Mavs to the Game 1 win. The blowup was business as usual.
Carlisle privately joked he had developed selective hearing, choosing to tune out Doncic yelling at him during games. Doncic was often bombastic in his disagreements with coaching decisions on the court, but refrained from sharing those criticisms of Carlisle in media availability.
“If we talk, we’re going to talk,” Doncic said following a close loss last season in Milwaukee, during which he angrily gestured that he thought Carlisle should have called a last-minute timeout. “It’s not going to be in the media. It’s between us.”
But, for all of the friction, the partnership between Doncic and Carlisle wasn’t fruitless.
Carlisle quickly gave Doncic, who many scouts and executives around the league doubted could play point guard due to his limited speed and quickness, the keys to the Mavs’ offense. The former Mavs coach spread the floor as much as possible and gave Doncic more creative freedom than he ever allowed any point guard, including Hall of Famer Kidd, who had won a title with Carlisle in 2011.
And Doncic thrived, winning Rookie of the Year and joining Kevin Durant as the only players over the past five decades with a pair of first-team All-NBA selections before turning 23.
DALLAS’ ORIGINAL PLAN was for Carlisle to return for the 2021-22 season, but it had become clear the coach would have been on the hot seat from the start.
After last season’s opening-round Game 7 loss, there were legitimate questions about Carlisle’s job security. For the first time, people in the organization weren’t sure Carlisle would be back, and Mark Cuban’s lukewarm vote of confidence shortly after the final buzzer confirmed the coach was on shaky ground.
“Let me tell you how I look at coaching,” Cuban told ESPN that day, after Doncic had 46 points and 14 assists, but the Mavs were blown out inside Staples Center. “You don’t make a change to make a change. Unless you have someone that you know is much, much, much better, the grass is rarely greener on the other side.”
Carlisle had intended to travel to Doncic’s native country several days later in June to observe the Slovenian national team’s camp and spend time with the Mavs’ star. Those plans, however, were canceled at Doncic’s request, sources said. Doncic, particularly in the wake of Cuban firing longtime Mavs president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson, wanted no distractions as he prepared for the qualifying tournament in which Slovenia clinched the program’s first Olympic bid.
Carlisle, who had two seasons remaining on his contract, broached the subject of an extension with Cuban around that time, sources said. Cuban shot down the idea, confirming Carlisle’s suspicion his job status was tenuous.
Later that week, the winningest coach in franchise history informed Cuban he was resigning.
Doncic, who hasn’t yet exercised his superstar privilege of influencing personnel decisions, never called for Carlisle to go, sources said. He ultimately didn’t have to.
“You never want to get to a point where you ever feel like you’re overstaying your welcome,” Carlisle told ESPN this summer, “and I just felt like this is the right time.”
Carlisle decided that he’d determine the right time — when he could immediately land another job. A week later he agreed to a four-year, $29 million deal with the Pacers.
“I have extreme gratitude for my 13 years with Mark Cuban and the Mavericks,” Carlisle told ESPN this week. “I cherish the memory of our 2011 title run and all I learned there as a coach. It’s been an honor to work with generational players like Dirk Nowitzki and Luka Doncic, and to see a long list of players develop with the Mavs organization.
“It was a privilege to witness Luka’s genius for three years,” Carlisle continued. “He does and will continue to do amazing things every night. I am excited and appreciative for the opportunity to coach in Indiana and wish the Mavs organization all the best.”
Carlisle, whose Pacers are 12-17, declined to comment further for this story.
Less than three weeks after Carlisle’s departure, the Mavs hired Kidd, who sources said was the only candidate seriously considered.
Doncic has not had any public outbursts toward Kidd, who has prioritized communication with his players, appointing Doncic, Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr. to serve as a three-man leadership council. At the council’s suggestion, Kidd played all 15 players in their home-opening win against the Houston Rockets, a rarity meant to highlight the Mavs’ improved camaraderie and connection to the coaching staff.
“The more you talk, the better,” Doncic said that night. “Talking solves things, so I think it’s a good idea.”
While Kidd has been generally upbeat and positive — an attempt to correct the cultural flaws from Carlisle’s tenure — he has publicly challenged Doncic throughout the season.
During the preseason, Kidd pushed Doncic to “trust his teammates.” After a recent loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, Kidd said Doncic needed to be more selective with complaining to officials, noting that the griping often prevented Doncic from getting back in transition.
Porzingis has felt refreshed after Carlisle’s resignation, team sources said. Kidd has made a point of giving Porzingis the green light to take the kind of shots Carlisle wanted to eliminate from his arsenal.
Porzingis’ overall offensive numbers are similar to last season — he has been more effective on post-ups but has slumped from 3-point range — but he’s noticeably happier. His chemistry with Doncic has improved, as both were eager to start the new season, part of the better “vibe” several Mavs have cited under Kidd.
“If you’re not having fun, then it’s tough to play and give your all,” Porzingis said after a recent win over the Clippers. “I feel like this year we have that kind of environment.”
But while the team culture seems to be on the mend, at least through a third of the season, the performance on the court has not.
Dallas, like last season, has gotten off to a disappointing start as Doncic again plays his way into shape. The Mavs (14-13) have lost nine of their past 14 games, a slump that started when Doncic missed three games with a sprained left ankle, which hasn’t healed. Doncic, who turned the ankle again in Friday’s loss to the Pacers, will miss a third consecutive game Wednesday when the Los Angeles Lakers visit the Mavs (7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN).
For the season, the Mavs are 17th in the league in offensive efficiency (108.4), a steep drop-off from ranking first and eighth, respectively, the last two seasons.
Kidd has referred to the Mavs, who didn’t make any major offseason additions, as a team that “isn’t built to play defense” and “a jump-shooting team that isn’t making jump shots” after recent losses. He has repeatedly noted that the Mavs tend to “hang our heads” when shots aren’t falling, publicly pushing his team to be more mature and mentally tough.
“We’ve got to stick together,” Doncic said after a lopsided home loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. “This is what real teams do in tough times, is stick together. It’s easy to stay together when it’s all good, you know? The tough times, that’s when you have to stay together.”