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Former Dallas Mavericks executive Haralabos Voulgaris compares franchise's dysfunction to 'high school drama'

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Former Mavs executive: Gossip within front office 'like a sewing circle' (1:19)

Haralabos Voulgaris describes the level of dysfunction within the Mavericks organization. (1:19)

Haralabos Voulgaris, the Dallas Mavericks' former director of quantitative research and development who became a polarizing figure within the organization as his decision-making influence increased, compared the franchise's dysfunction during his tenure to "high school drama."

Voulgaris discussed in depth the franchise's internal issues -- particularly the tension between himself and longtime Mavs general manager and president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson, who was fired in June -- during his first interview since he parted ways with the Mavericks. Voulgaris' contract expired before the season, and he said he had no interest in continuing in his role.

"I wanted to be a part of something. I wanted to win basketball games," Voulgaris told Pablo Torre on the ESPN Daily podcast. "Changing the organizational structure of the Dallas Mavericks was never something I was interested in unless I was going to be the guy in charge, and I wasn't even sure. I never actually wanted to be the guy in charge until it became clear that the guy in charge didn't want me around. And then I was like, 'Oh, OK, now it's competitive.' ...

"But when it became personal, like then the competitive part of me started to kind of kick in. Like, 'Oh, this guy wants me out of here.' It never became obvious that he wanted me out of there. You can just read between the lines a little bit. You can kind of see. Just to be very clear, the first two years or whatever, Donnie was very pleasant around me when I was there. It's just, you hear certain things, you learn certain things, you're told certain things. It was a very gossipy workplace, very gossipy. It was like a sewing circle over there."

Voulgaris began occasionally consulting for owner Mark Cuban in 2010, providing data that Cuban used as a resource for the Mavs' personnel decisions. Voulgaris started consulting for the Mavs on a full-time basis in 2016 and was hired as a full-time executive in 2018, when he said former coach Rick Carlisle "had to bless the hire."

"I sent [Cuban] an email where I was like, 'Hey, look, I'm just trying to fit in. I appreciate the opportunity. I don't want to ruffle any feathers,'" Voulgaris said. "And he was very clear, like, 'No, I don't want you to fit in. We're deficient in areas that you're good at. If it's hard, hard conversations have to be had.' Looking back on it, it was kind of like I was this missile to go in there and create the change and unlock some boulders that couldn't be moved before."

According to Voulgaris, he had very little interaction with Nelson despite technically reporting to him in the organizational structure. Voulgaris communicated directly with Cuban and, more frequently, with Carlisle, whose lineup and rotation decisions were heavily influenced by the data provided by Voulgaris.

"I didn't have a working relationship with other people in the front office at all, to the point where it was awkward," Voulgaris said. "But that's kind of the M.O. of the way that front office was run -- like, surround yourself with people who are not threats. You don't become an NBA general manager and hold on to your job for that long unless you are very, very good at keeping your job."

Voulgaris noted that the Mavericks had not had a front office employee get hired in a more prominent role by another franchise during Nelson's two-decade tenure as president of basketball operations. Voulgaris attributed that to Nelson not wanting any strong candidates working under him, citing Gersson Rosas' three-month stint as the Mavs' GM in 2013 as an example of Nelson eliminating a potential threat.

"I mean, I think Mark had this idea that maybe we could work together, [that] the stuff that he's good at I might be deficient at and vice versa," Voulgaris said. "[Nelson is] more of a, kind of like a wheeler-dealer, like when you shake his hands, you want to make sure your rings are still there. Not in a bad way, but he's that guy. He's a deal maker. He's a broker. My working relationship with Donnie Nelson was seeing him every once in a while and getting a fist bump. That was it. Whether it was a fist-bump text message or a fist bump in person, that was his thing. He was very nice and cordial to my face, [but] I think threatened by me."

Voulgaris denied some details in a June story in The Athletic focusing on the internal controversy surrounding him in the franchise, such as the claim that he dictated lineups and rotations to Carlisle. However, Voulgaris acknowledged his perceived arrogance -- "I'm an acquired taste," he said -- and the fact that he was "dealing with a bunch of people who are upset with the fact that someone else has the owner's ear and they don't" created friction in the front office.

"Yeah, I could have been smarter about it if my goal was to win the 'Game of Thrones,'" Voulgaris said, comparing the Mavs' culture to the HBO series. "My goal was to make the team better."

Voulgaris also confirmed that Mavs superstar Luka Doncic developed angst toward him. Doncic became irate that Voulgaris left his courtside seat with about 45 seconds remaining in an April home loss to the New York Knicks, which Doncic considered an indication of quitting on the team.

Voulgaris, who often retreated to his office late in games to get his computer before meeting with the coaching staff, was unaware of the issue until receiving a call from Carlisle late that night. Voulgaris considered it "nonsense" that could have been easily explained to Doncic and was "offended that nobody stood up for me," particularly an assistant coach who was close with Doncic.

"You have a great relationship with this player. Why are you not telling him that I didn't quit on the team?" Voulgaris said, making a thinly veiled reference to current Orlando Magic head coach Jamahl Mosley, who was the Mavs' defensive coordinator. "I just went to my desk to look at something on my computer or got up because I normally get up. There are plenty of other instances of me getting up in the middle of the game. I mean, why does it matter? It's not like I went home and started crying because we lost or threw a temper tantrum. I watched the game from my office on the TV.

"It was such a non-event that I didn't think it was a big deal, and the fact that it became a big deal led me to believe that this is just not worth it to me."

Voulgaris informed Carlisle that he no longer wanted to be around the team and would rather work remotely, which he began doing soon thereafter. Voulgaris said he had no problems with Doncic, whose arrival in Dallas on 2018 draft night was one of the primary attractions for Voulgaris to join the franchise on a full-time basis.

"If I'm distracting that f---ing guy. I don't need to be around," Voulgaris said. "Whatever the case may be, no matter how I see it, it doesn't matter at the end of the day. He is the fulcrum of the team. So I was like, 'Cool.' Plus, I was trying to find a way out of this job to begin with."