DALLAS — ONCE AGAIN, the Dallas Mavericks changed plans during a bizarre final week of what Luka Doncic described as “a very disappointing season.”

A few days after declaring he’d play so long as the Mavs had even the slimmest of postseason hopes, the franchise announced Doncic would sit out after playing the first quarter in Friday night’s home game against the Chicago Bulls, joining co-star Kyrie Irving and four other healthy core players on the bench.

Doncic had scored 11 points in the first quarter, chuckling with fellow European and foe Nikola Vucevic on several occasions, neither taking a game both franchises preferred to lose too seriously despite the fact that a loss would eliminate the Mavs from play-in contention.

But Doncic trotted back out onto the American Airlines Center court to open the second quarter. After going through the motions on a defensive possession, Doncic posted up on the right block, made a spin move and drove to the basket, pump-faking before laying the ball in for his 719th bucket of the season.

Seconds later, Doncic committed an intentional foul and checked out of the game, his season over, barring another sudden shift in the franchise’s strategy.

The intention was for Doncic to be showered with a standing ovation by the sellout crowd on “I Feel Slovenia” night as he walked off the court. That didn’t happen. Instead, there was a smattering of confused clapping.

It was an awkwardly fitting unofficial ending to a season in which nothing has unfolded as envisioned for the Mavericks, who took less than two months to morph from buzzing about a blockbuster trade — a risky win-now move considering Irving’s pending free agent status, among other factors — to blatantly tanking in the regular season’s final week.

The Mavs broke a tie with the Bulls in the lottery standings with the loss, standing alone with the 10th-best odds with one game remaining in the regular season. That’s a critically important distinction for Dallas, which owes the New York Knicks a top-10-protected pick as the final payment for the Kristaps Porzingis trade.

“It’s not so much waving the white flag,” coach Jason Kidd said after the 115-112 loss to the Bulls, attributing the call to essentially pull the plug to Mavs governor Mark Cuban and general manager Nico Harrison.

“Decisions sometimes are hard in this business, and you have to make hard decisions. We’re trying to build a championship team, and sometimes you gotta take a step back.

“Understanding with this decision, this is maybe a step back, but hopefully it leads to going forward.”

There’s a strong sense of urgency within the organization to expedite the process before Doncic loses faith in the Mavs’ ability to build a contender around him. He’s wrapping up the first season of a five-year, $215 million supermax contract with a player option for the final season.

Team sources have acknowledged to ESPN that fear exists that Doncic, who publicly and privately expressed extreme frustration this season, could consider requesting a trade as soon as the summer of 2024 if Dallas doesn’t make significant progress by then.

“He’d like to be here the whole time,” Cuban said earlier this week when asked about Doncic’s long-term optimism. “But we’ve got to earn that.”

CUBAN SMILED WIDELY as he stood in the Crypto.com Arena corridor outside the visitors’ locker room the night of Feb. 8. Dallas had just defeated the LA Clippers in Irving’s debut with his new team, and the Mavericks were the talk of the NBA, at least until news of Kevin Durant‘s trade to the Phoenix Suns broke soon after.

Cuban, who has avoided the media spotlight much more since Harrison replaced Donnie Nelson as Mavs general manager, was basking in the glory of making such a big splash at the moment. The victory bumped Dallas to fourth in the West standings, and the Mavs believed they had upward mobility.

Dallas had desperately been seeking a co-star to pair with Doncic since the superstar’s rookie season, when it took its first big swing on the Porzingis deal. Irving, an eight-time All-Star with a NBA Finals Game 7-winning shot on his resume, certainly fit the profile.

But trading for Irving — and giving up two starters (Dorian Finney-Smith and Spencer Dinwiddie) plus an unprotected 2029 first-round pick — was a big gamble. It was understood before the deal with the Brooklyn Nets was done that there would not be any discussions about a contract extension.

“We’ve got those Bird rights,” Cuban said before laughing and realizing that he said the same thing about Doncic’s former sidekick Jalen Brunson last summer after he starred during Dallas’ surprising run to the West finals.

“I know what you’re going to bring up!” Cuban said. “But I think it’s a different set of circumstances.”

The circumstances that led to Brunson’s departure to the New York Knicks in free agency are a sensitive subject in the Mavs organization. They are also subject to some dispute, as Cuban made a point on Wednesday to publicly deny the year-old claim by Brunson’s father, Rick, that the Mavs were informed in early January 2022 that the guard would sign the four-year, $56 million extension he was eligible for if it was put on the table at that time.

Dallas didn’t put the deal on the table until after the trade deadline, when Finney-Smith accepted an identical offer. By then, it was clear that Brunson would command much more as an unrestricted free agent. He ended up getting a four-year, $104 million deal from the Knicks, who had hired his father as an assistant coach, the third time Rick Brunson has worked for Tom Thibodeau.

Those Bird rights ended up being irrelevant. Cuban claims now they never had a chance to prevent Brunson from joining his father and Leon Rose, the Knicks president who is his godfather and former agent, in New York.

“We didn’t know what the bid was,” Cuban said Wednesday. “They never gave us a number. Knowing the numbers now, I would’ve paid it in a heartbeat, but he wouldn’t have come anyway. There’s just no possible way that it was about money.”



Mark Cuban vents frustrations amid Mavericks’ struggles

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban shares his frustrations with how the season has played out.

Cuban’s comments came one day after Doncic, after his declaration that he wouldn’t be shut down unless play-in hopes were completely extinguished, bemoaned how much the Mavs’ chemistry had declined this season and admitted that the team sorely missed Brunson.

“A lot,” Doncic said, shaking his head and gritting his teeth into a pained grin. “I mean, amazing guy, amazing player, for sure.”

Doncic had grown impatient with the Mavs’ mediocrity early in the season, when he was playing at an MVP-caliber level while carrying a historically heavy workload. For the first time in his career, Doncic enthusiastically engaged in personnel discussions with the front office, as sources told ESPN that he pushed for a major upgrade despite the Mavs’ limited trade assets.

The Mavs pounced after Irving made his February trade request following the fizzling of contract negotiations with Brooklyn, which was hesitant to fully guarantee a long-term, maximum contract for a player who missed more games than he played during his Nets tenure.

Kidd and Doncic made it clear they wanted the deal done. Harrison and Cuban made it happen.

“I don’t see any risk at all,” Harrison said days later. “I actually see the risk in not doing it.”

But Irving didn’t prove to be a difference-maker for Dallas despite averaging 27.0 points and 6.0 assists in 20 games for the Mavs. Dallas won only eight of those and lost five of six that Irving missed after joining the team.

“Just understand, we’re getting better,” Kidd said after a March 13 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, which Doncic and Irving missed due to injury, dropped Dallas to a game under .500. “It’s just a matter of, can we be healthy in time to make a stretch run? And if we’re not, that’s just the season. No one’s dying.”

The Mavs got healthy, but they still couldn’t win. Doncic and Irving formed one of the league’s most dynamic offensive duos, but the Mavs couldn’t consistently outscore opponents due to their awful defense and poor rebounding.

The Mavs went 5-11 when Doncic and Irving were both in the lineup, a .313 winning percentage that ranks as the worst by a pair of All-Star teammates since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976-77, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

“I’m getting traded to a new work environment, and it’s just a lot of newness,” Irving said after a March 29 loss in Philadelphia, part of a stretch of seven in eight games. “I’m trying to introduce myself to everybody, figure out, you know, who do guys go to on the team to confide in off the court? Who is our coaching staff as people? Upper management, who are they as people? What do they expect from me? …

“What does our future look like? I think that now, again, just where we are in the season, and where other teams are positioned already, it kind of looks like a bit of a clusterf—.”

The Mavs never fought their way out of it. Cuban also made it clear that he hopes Irving is a part of the future, saying that re-signing the All-Star guard will be the franchise’s top priority this summer despite the disappointing results after the trade.

“If I was a betting man, I guess I would say he would be back,” Kidd said Friday night. “Why would I say he wouldn’t?”

Can the Mavs be outbid?

“I don’t know,” Cuban said Wednesday, a couple of nights before Irving wore street clothes and sat next to him in the courtside baseline seats by the Mavs’ bench. “I guess there’s always too high a price, depending.”

THE HOME CROWD booed the Mavericks on March 25, when the short-handed, lottery-bound Charlotte Hornets built an 18-point lead midway through the third quarter. After the Mavs’ comeback attempt fell short, Kidd wondered why the boos didn’t come earlier.

The Mavs later proved that it hadn’t yet hit rock bottom, losing to the Hornets again 36 hours later as Dallas continued to lose its grip on controlling its own postseason destiny. But this was a new low.

It was that night that Doncic admitted that he’d never been more frustrated during his five-year NBA career, pointing to the Mavs’ struggles and unspecified problems in his private life.

“I think you can see it with me on the court,” Doncic said. “Sometimes I don’t feel it’s me. I’m just being out there. I used to have really fun, smiling on the court, but it’s just been so frustrating for a lot of reasons, not just basketball.”

He was wearing a black T-shirt with white letters that read, “ALL I NEED IS SUVO NESO AND RAKIJA.” It’s a Serbian slogan that loosely translates to, “All I need is dry meat and a local brandy.”

Doncic will get the chance for plenty of rest and relaxation, much sooner than anticipated, after the Mavs plummeted to 11th in the West and assured that their season will end Easter Sunday.

Doncic showered and changed into sweats at halftime Friday, watching from the bench as his teammates blew a 13-point lead to the Bulls in the last two quarters. He seemed loose and relaxed as the Mavs’ fate was sealed, covering his mouth and laughing before the game’s final possession, when Dallas’ pair of two-way players McKinley Wright IV and A.J. Lawson attempted three potential game-tying 3-pointers, none of which drew iron.

As the Mavs’ disappointing season essentially came to an end, Doncic appeared relieved. A member of the Mavs’ staff who knows Doncic well nodded when this observation was shared with him and said, “Good eyes.”

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