Mark Cuban knew precisely what was on the line when he pulled the plug on his team’s season in its second-to-last game. At the time the Dallas Mavericks owner ordered his top players benched, the team was clinging to a slim chance of making the NBA’s play-in tournament.

That’s significant now that the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat have gotten all the way to the conference finals through the play-in. Could the Mavericks, with one of the league’s five or so best players in Luka Dončić and a proven playoff performer in Kyrie Irving, have done what the Lakers and the Heat did?

Sure, it’s possible, but that’s almost beside the point. There’s something unseemly about an owner ordering a team still in contention to lose its final two games. The NBA said pretty much the same thing with its decision to fine the Mavericks $750,000 for “conduct detrimental to the league.” It’s also important to understand that Cuban had longer-range goals in mind than saving one season. As the Mavs’ dismal season reached its final days, the owner was focused on saving his franchise. That is, convincing a generational talent like Luka Dončić that he can win championships in Dallas.

“We have to earn that,” Cuban told reporters last month. That kind of statement would have been unthinkable a year ago, when the Mavericks played with grit and heart on their way to the Western Conference finals. What followed was an offseason in which the Mavericks dismantled a conference finalist with breathtaking speed. First, Cuban’s inability to sign guard Jalen Brunson will be remembered as the biggest mistake since he showed guard Steve Nash the door in 2004. 

General manager Nico Harrison focused more on size and rebounding in reshaping his roster. His thinking may have been sound, but the product wasn’t as good. He acquired Irving right before the trade deadline, but in doing so, he gave up two more-important pieces, guard Spencer Dinwiddie and forward Dorian Finney-Smith. Coach Jason Kidd was left with a mess that was undone by a variety of injuries and the inability of the pieces to fit together. 

Along the way, it was obvious to anyone watching that Dončić was one unhappy camper. Forget the four years and almost $180 million remaining on his contract. Star NBA players have the power to dictate where they play, and Cuban understands that his organization is the one on trial this offseason. In tanking those final two games, Cuban got the Mavericks into Tuesday’s NBA draft lottery, in which they have a 65 percent chance of landing a top-ten pick, which would be a positive first step in putting one of the franchise’s most disappointing seasons in its rearview mirror. Dallas could use that pick on a highly regarded rookie or, more likely, use it to acquire a veteran to play alongside Dončić.

Here’s the risk: if the Mavericks don’t get one of the top-ten picks—they have a 3 percent chance at number one—the Dallas pick goes to the New York Knicks as part of the 2019 trade that brought Kristaps Porziņģis. Did we mention that Irving is also a free agent and has given no indication that he intends to remain with the Mavericks?

In the end, though, it’s about Dončić. As long as the Mavericks have him, they’re a championship contender and a potential destination for free agents. “They have a building block who would be a top-seventy-five player in the world if he never played another play,” former NBA coach and ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy told me. “He’s that good. They have an unbelievable place to start.”

At times last season, even as Dončić had his best statistical season, averaging 32.4 points per game, his body language signaled unhappiness. He told reporters that basketball was only part of the issue, declining to be specific. So far he has given no indication of wanting out. Depending on whom you believe, the Mavs either made a string of lousy decisions or were the victim of circumstances beyond their control.

Through it all, even when he made his unhappiness clear, Dončić’s greatness was still routinely on display. For instance, in March, about two weeks before the end of the most disappointing Dallas Mavericks season in recent memory, he threw one of the more sensational passes of his career. With about three minutes remaining in the third quarter of a game against the Indiana Pacers, Dončić chased down a loose ball along the baseline.

When he reached it, Dončić found himself out of options—trapped in the corner where the court’s baseline and sideline meet, his back turned to the basket, a pair of defenders smothering him from behind. His teammates, some spread along the three-point line and one sprinting toward the rim, called for the ball, but Dončić had no way to deliver it to them. A step in any direction would lead him out of bounds. Tossing a blind pass into the middle of the floor could lead to an easy steal and a basket for the opponents. He was out of options. 

Or so it seemed. Dončić improvised a solution, jumping over the baseline, turning in midair, and whipping a one-handed sidearm pass along the baseline that found teammate Jaden Hardy wide open in the opposite corner. Hardy’s jump shot splashed through the net for three points. “I didn’t think he saw me at first,” Hardy told reporters after the game, “and then when he saw me, I didn’t think he was going to be able to get it to me.”

This is Dončić at his breathtaking best—the instincts, the awareness, the skill, and the derring-do to pull off something few other NBA players would be able to see, let alone execute. Mavs coach Jason Kidd, who threw more than 12,000 assists in his own Hall of Fame playing career, said: “I don’t know if anybody else can make that pass. . . . He threw the Nolan Ryan fastball.”

Dallas won easily that night in Indianapolis, and Dončić’s miracle assist might have given the team its last moment of uncut basketball joy in a season that ended with the 38–44 Mavericks missing the playoffs and dropping nine of their last eleven games. This was the season that began with talk of building on 2022’s Western Conference finals and ended with the Mavericks tanking games and Cuban noting that the franchise had to earn Dončić’s long-term loyalty.

Every night Dončić steps on an NBA court, he reminds fans, teammates, and opponents that, at 24, he’s one of the most gifted and entertaining basketball players on the planet. “He’s one of the best offensive players we’ve ever witnessed in the NBA,” Van Gundy said. “And that’s not hyperbole, that’s fact. His combination of size, vision, passing ability, finishing ability is truly otherworldly.” Only NBA championships separate Dončić from a stratosphere occupied by the likes of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Tim Duncan. This surely is part of the reason for his frustration.

In one late-season game, a fed-up Dončić walked off the court during a time-out, ignored the high fives of teammates, and settled into a spot down the bench, away from the huddle. That was unlike the Luka Dončić Dallas fans experienced in his first four seasons, when he played the game with so much joy and with emotions right out there for the entire world to see, whether he was celebrating a clutch shot or chirping at a referee he was certain had done him wrong.

In back-to-back March losses to the lowly Charlotte Hornets, the talk in Dallas veered toward hard truths. Were the losses dragging Dončić down, or was it something else? Reporters pressed him to explain. “Yeah, it’s really frustrating,” he said. “I think you can see it with me on the court. Sometimes I don’t feel it’s me. I’m just being out there. I used to have fun, smiling on court. But it’s just been so frustrating. For a lot of reasons, not just basketball.”

Wait, what?

“You know I don’t talk about my private life. There’s just a lot going on.” From that cryptic line, he slid back into the safe space of wins and losses. “We’ve got to show we care. It starts with me first. I’ve got to lead this team. Being better, play harder, it’s on me.”

Dončić’s complaining to referees, always a problem, got worse this season. He understands his griping does himself no favors, but so far he’s been unable to stop. If he’s getting a raw deal with the refs, it’s not apparent, since only three players shot more free throws than Dončić this year. 

The strife between Dončić and referees became such a topic of conversation in Dallas that Craig Miller of KTCK sports radio took the time to count every possession in which Dončić griped over a call during a game against the Lakers. The final tally: 33. In a few cases, Dončić was still arguing his case while the game was being played. (This tendency to continue haggling at the end of an offensive possession—rather than hustle back on defense—has contributed to one NBA scout declaring Dončić “the worst transition defender in the history of basketball,” according to ESPN reporter Tim MacMahon.)

Van Gundy said Dončić may be damaging the Mavericks more than he understands. “I’ve always felt like great leadership unites and inspires,” he said, “and I think those two things, he’s got to improve upon. I think that goes back to when he gets distracted with officiating. It may not impact his play, but it could very well negatively impact the play of those around him. When you’re a great player—like he is—everything is important. If he was just an average guy, no one would be looking to him for inspiration through adversity.”

Cuban has disputed reports that the Mavs missed an opportunity to extend Brunson’s contract before the end of last season, but the bottom line is that Brunson was the New York Knicks’ best player this season. The Mavericks had one of their most efficient offenses in franchise history this season, but they went from one of the NBA’s best defensive teams to one of its worst. “In the moves to try and replace Brunson,” Van Gundy said, “it has left them with not enough size or defensive ability or depth, and they’re gonna have to rebuild that over the summer.”

Trading for Irving in February was the gamble of all gambles. He’s a great player, but he often makes news for everything from demanding trades to posting about antisemitic conspiracy theories on social media to refusing the COVID vaccine. Injuries to both Dončić and Irving limited the duo to playing together in just sixteen games this season. Dallas lost eleven of them, but in his postseason exit interview with the press, Mavs general manager Nico Harrison said he still believes they can be the one-two punch that delivers an NBA championship to Dallas.

“I think when we have that talented of a player—that talented of two players—I think they work together,” Harrison said. “I really think it’s the players around them . . . kind of knowing their role with having those two guys out on the floor at the same time. I think that’s the thing that we need to work on.”

The even greater challenge the Mavericks’ front office, however, will be figuring out how to lift the spirits of the NBA’s most sourpussed superstar. “Our job really to keep Luka happy,” Harrison said, “is surrounding him by the right players to help him win. And I think Luka’s a talent that deserves that.” Tonight’s NBA draft lottery could determine whether the Mavs ultimately succeed at giving Dončić what he deserves.