Had you been invited to last year’s NBA bubble in Orlando, you frequently would have witnessed Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis lounging together near their hotel pool on a leisurely off day, sometimes with teammates and often with White Claws or mixed drinks nearby. The isolation brought teams and even opponents together in a manner that they couldn’t avoid each other, but Doncic and Porzingis actively embraced each other’s company. Their easy-to-spot friendship was on open display — and barely even noteworthy given they were the two players the Mavericks openly declared they were building their future around.
That easy camaraderie is harder to imagine after this past season filled with examples and GIFs of ignored high fives and off-putting body language. “It’s a good, solid business relationship like two coworkers in any other business may have,” Mark Cuban told The Athletic last month. “You may not go to happy hour with your peers all the time. You might go out to dinner with them now and again and you are work friends and get along great at work. That’s pretty much how they get along.” Days before our interview, Cuban had said on 105.3 The Fan, “That’s not to say there aren’t dust-ups, because there are.” He went on to compare their relationship to Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry’s, another partnership that initially simmered uncomfortably before the two learned to embrace each other. But according to Cuban, Nowitzki disliked Terry from his arrival. Doncic and Porzingis’ relationship, on the other hand, has seemed to deteriorate over time.
Perhaps that’s a natural reaction when Porzingis became subject to trade rumors, ones which made his status clear as a second-tier star next to Doncic. (Talent-wise, that obviously is correct; it still isn’t enjoyable for it to be publicly projected into the universe.) Many team, player and league sources, whenever asked, have consistently told The Athletic there is no unknown “incident” between the two players, no flash point to spark a change in their dynamic. In an email to The Athletic, Cuban clarified that his “dust-ups” comment referred to “a guy thinks a pass should come his way and it doesn’t (or) coach runs a play for the guy.” He added, “No more dust-up.” In a Spanish-language interview after Cuban’s comments, Porzingis said, “I’ve never had any problems with my teammates off the court, I’ve always gotten along very well with them. I don’t know what Cuban was talking about. I try to be as professional as possible.”
That Cuban ever felt it necessary to address these concerns legitimizes Doncic and Porzingis’ relationship as icier than before. He also said, “Over time, relationships improve, particularly if a team is winning.” Only Doncic and Porzingis could say why or whether their relationship has suffered off the court — why poolside drinks at a hotel less than a year ago already seem like a distant memory. But perhaps Cuban is right that winning cures all.
For that winning to happen at a level that could refortify their relationship, though, Doncic and Porzingis need to cultivate the sort of successful on-court partnership they still haven’t consistently demonstrated. It seemed inevitable that they would be perfectly complementary fits once Dallas traded for the Latvian big man two seasons ago. Based on all the on-court evidence we have since then, though, that hasn’t been the case. The coming series against the L.A. Clippers does, then, feel like a crucial inflection point for the two. It’s their chance to prove a combined partnership as the team’s future could work — or for the team to be validated in their reported belief, represented by the Porzingis trade rumors, that it doesn’t.