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Basketball

In the Mavericks’ Front Office, Nobody Wins

An attempt to understand the Donnie Nelson-Dallas Mavericks imbroglio.
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Donnie Nelson's lawsuit came down Thursday. The Mavericks' legal response was a day later. And there's little telling which side is telling the truth. Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The only thing I can tell you with absolute certainty about the latest Dallas Mavericks scandal is there are two very different sides to this story. I won’t pretend to know which one is the truth—or if neither is.

On Thursday, ESPN’s Don Van Natta—the dude has been very busy in Dallas lately—broke the news that former Mavericks general manager and president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson has filed a wrongful termination suit against the organization alleging that his dismissal last summer was retaliation for confronting the organization about a claim that Jason Lutin, Mark Cuban’s chief of staff for the Mavericks and alleged “right-hand person,” sexually harassed and assaulted Nelson’s nephew in Lutin’s hotel room during All-Star Weekend 2020.

Nelson also alleges that in January Cuban offered him $52 million in exchange for two things: first, withdrawing a claim Nelson had made to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in December for illegal retaliation and, second, signing a confidentiality agreement regarding the alleged incident involving his nephew and Lutin.

Cuban and the Mavericks have released a few statements in response, the most thorough of which was procured by Doyle Rader over at Forbes. The common thread? A total denial of wrongdoing by Cuban and the organization, with Cuban telling ESPN that “everything [Nelson] said is a lie,” and the team statement to Forbes reading, in part, “Nelson’s claims of being terminated because of retaliation are completely unfounded, and the lawsuit filed today is baseless and full of lies.”

Given all that, it wasn’t terribly surprising that the Mavericks’ legal response Friday alleged—well, drastically different stuff. As in “claiming Donnie Nelson tried to extort the organization for $100 million” sort of stuff.  

I have read Nelson’s filing. I have read the Mavericks’ response. I contacted the NBA for comments and clarification. I’ve spoken to an attorney specializing in employment law to better understand the operations of the EEOC and the Texas Commission on Human Rights (a second place where Nelson filed a retaliation charge). I googled a Yahoo listicle from 2009 listing Nelson as the third-best general manager of the decade, which Nelson’s attorney Rogge Dunn cited in the filing as an example of his bona fides as an NBA personnel man.

And, after all that, the only conclusion I’ve come to is someone in this mess—or everyone—is doing a whole lot of lying.

Nelson says he had a lifetime deal with the organization and was denied both severance payment as well as notice that his job was on the line (or any reason for why it might be). The Mavericks say he was an at-will employee who could be let go without any of those things.

Nelson claims Lutin assaulted his nephew. The Mavericks counter that not only did such an incident never happen, but Lutin is actually the victim in this story, with Nelson threatening to publicly out Lutin’s sexual orientation unless he was given a long-term, guaranteed contract.

Nelson argues that the Mavericks treated his nephew’s assault the way they have other incidents over the last decade: by covering it up. As Nelson tells it, he learned what had happened five months after the fact, after Cuban supposedly “quickly and quietly settled Nelson’s nephew’s claim.” The alleged $52 million in hush money would be more of the same.

By now, you might be wondering Cynt Marshall has been in this ordeal. She’s the CEO Cuban brought in to reform the organization after years of workplace misbehavior. According to Nelson’s filing, “it appears Cuban has kept Cynthia Marshall uninformed,” while speculating that Cuban might have paid the $52 million settlement out of his own pocket to keep it off her radar. If true, one of two things would follow: Marshall either can’t do her job well enough to ensure, in her own words, “the Dallas Mavericks organization will be setting the NBA standard” regarding workplace ethics, or she isn’t being allowed to do it.

The Mavericks, meanwhile, assert that the organization both informed the NBA and recruited an outside law firm to investigate the alleged Lutin incident, and that Nelson was the only person who declined to cooperate. (I reached out to the NBA for clarification on whether the team had, in fact, notified the league, whether the league had investigated, and whether Nelson was cooperating. I was referred to a public statement that read, “The NBA league office was aware of the complaint that was made against Jason Lutin and that the Mavericks conducted an investigation into the complaint. We were also made aware by the Dallas Mavericks that Donnie Nelson was going to be relieved of his duties.”) And shouldn’t the authorities be alerted if an assault had taken place? Yes, the team argues, except Nelson argued against doing so before saying that there was no assault in the first place.

On and on it goes, two former partners firing broadsides at one another with virtually no overlap in their accounts beyond the fact that Nelson was fired in the summer of 2021. And even that detail is in dispute.

Nelson argues that his dismissal was entirely due to catching wind of Lutin’s alleged assault of his nephew. Once he brought the matter up to Cuban, it supposedly derailed negotiations of a new 10-year contract. There’s a text exchange attached to the filing as evidence that supposedly bolsters Nelson’s claims, but the messages are so vague that they’re useless.

The Mavericks’ response to Nelson’s EEOC claim contends they dismissed him for poor job performance, and on that front, they’ve got a straightforward case. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of the past decade of Mavericks basketball can make it. Just do a year-over-year glimpse at each subsequent Dirk Nowitzki roster after the 2011 title team, familiarize yourself with various blown attempts to recruit a co-star in Nowitzki’s golden years, and then consider the chasm between Luka Doncic and the second-best player on the current roster. All of this is before considering the allegations by former Mavericks director of quantitative research and development, Haralabos Voulgaris, that Nelson went AWOL during the 2020 NBA Draft, which, if true, feels like a fireable offense on its own.

There are mitigating factors, of course. Voulgaris has cause to wield a grudge against Nelson, and no one will bat an eyelash at Nelson’s claim that Cuban’s own influence over personnel matters handcuffed Nelson from doing his job the way he often wanted to. Still, the Mavericks have not won a single playoff series since that championship season. General managers have been terminated for much less—with a far shorter grace period—purely on basketball merit.

I suppose this is the part where we parse what little evidence we know of thus far. Nelson’s attorney, Rogge Dunn, attached six exhibits to their filing. One of them is the aforementioned text message exchange between Cuban and Nelson. The other five include Nelson’s complaints to the EEOC and TCHR, the supposed settlement offer by Cuban for $52 million, and a sworn statement from Tony Cooper, a Black former Mavericks employee who discovered a hangman’s noose in his work area at the American Airlines Center and alleges that Cuban personally disposed of it and, in his estimation, “wanted to shut down and chill any discussion of this incident.” That’s a lot of paperwork considering Cuban claims none of this ever happened.

If any of this stuff were proven to have been falsified, Nelson could find himself in big trouble. The weight of a sworn statement speaks for itself, while an attorney who specializes in employment law tells me that both EEOC and TCHR forms likely come with some penalty of perjury (whether the penalty gets enforced is another conversation, but it’s there). Then there’s Nelson’s smoking gun: the settlement offer, about which the complaint wonders aloud, “Why in the world would Cuban, the Dallas Mavericks, or anybody offer Nelson $52 million to settle Nelson‘s legal claims?” Aside from it looking legit, the settlement is addressed to Dunn’s office—that’s Nelson’s lawyer—and lawyers who tack fake settlement offers onto their lawsuits are liable to wind up in serious professional shit. (That’s a legal term.)

On the other end, the NBA’s statement corroborates Cuban’s claim that the organization notified the league about the alleged incident, and the aforementioned firing of Nelson for basketball reasons passes all sorts of muster. Another factor the team cited in Nelson’s ouster, “the diversion of his time and attention to his numerous outside business enterprises,” had been scuttlebutt around town well before he lost his job. Ultimately, Nelson’s suit concerns wrongful termination, not what may or may not have happened to his nephew. That’s a steep mountain to climb even before considering the team’s improvement this season after Nico Harrison took over Nelson’s post.

All of this is so muddled, so murky, so deeply malicious. And until or unless it goes to court, there’s no telling which side is weaponizing horrible falsehoods at the other’s expense. Perhaps both are. You’ll have to excuse Mavericks fans for simply wanting to keep their attention focused on the great things happening on the court, because too often when the front office gets mentioned, the team looks like a mess.

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Mike Piellucci

Mike Piellucci

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Mike Piellucci is D Magazine's sports editor. He is a former staffer at The Athletic and VICE, and his freelance…

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