The Clock Is Already Ticking for Kyrie Irving and the Mavs
It’s the early days of the Kyrie Irving era in Dallas, but it’s getting late. The catch with a time-limited blockbuster trade for a player who can become a free agent in just a few months is that it saddles every ownership with franchise-changing imports. The fact that there are very few games left in the season (the Mavericks have only 19 left on the schedule, including the nationally televised fight against the 6ers on Thursday night) means that every interaction between teammates is particularly tense as new colleagues trying to make room. each other, call each other to account, and together make your case for the future.
Fail in any respect, and Irving, to whom the Maves had given up Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, and valuable black capital to acquire him, could walk away. Succeed and Irving can still leave. Either way, it would be a disaster, but those are the risks teams take when they’re desperate for talent and Dallas is desperate to improve the roster around Luka Doncic. Irving is the league’s biggest wild card. He put on a show telling the Celtics he will re-sign the contract in Boston, if they had him, before leaving for Brooklyn at the earliest opportunity. Then, after the Dallas exchange, Irving told reporters that in fact he wanted to leave the Nets in 2020, not even a year after joining the team.
“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay in Brooklyn for the long haul because of what was going on behind the scenes,” he said.
This is the business the Mavericks got into. Along with this, between now and July, there are ongoing questions not only about whether the Doncic and Irving couple are working, but whether they even have time to work.
Since the trade, the Mavericks are 3-5 overall and 1-4 when Irving and Doncic played. There is a lot to be figured out soon, including the mechanics of the coexistence of these two stars and the balance of rotation destabilized by trade. Doncic is still the main mover in Dallas, although his use of overdrive has waned when his new teammate is on the court. Irving, for his part, fitted in easily with Dinwiddie, repeating the attack at the request of the former Maverick, and then several others. But there is no direct replacement for a wing stopper like Finney-Smith, and no one hides the fact that a roster heavily leaning towards offense has lost one of its few staunch defenders. (To complicate matters further, Maxi Kleber is slowly returning to action from a hamstring injury, and head coach and professional observer Jason Kidd appears to favor veteran buyout Justin Holiday over third-year forward Josh Green on defense.) The fallout has only added to the growing pressure as the Mavericks now have to keep up with all the points lost.
What’s remarkable is that, for the most part, they do. With all due respect to the two best basketball players in the world trying to bow gracefully to each other, Doncic and Irving were absolute flamethrowers as teammates. Combined, they’re averaging 55.4 points per game – a figure that would make them the second-best scoring duo in the league – with neat team efficiency. Even without going into details, the strength of the attack through Luka when Kairi is just passing is obvious. And, to Irving’s credit, he has so far preferred to help out his incredibly talented teammate, anticipating his moments and willingly helping Doncic drop an attack whenever the playmaker’s prodigy gets stuck.
Kyrie never got the attention he deserves for his undemanding approach and low level of selfishness on the Brooklyn set – understandable given all the very high-profile and downright destructive things he’s done to throw this franchise off course. But from a purely basketball standpoint, he’s the kind of star who can make Doncic’s life easier without getting in his way as long as he manages to stay away from his own.
The usual superstar team debate seems almost bizarre when it comes to the Mavericks. There is no question whose team it is; this is Luca. In fact, there is not even an argument about who will deliver the finishing blow at the end of a close game; while there is some obligatory hot potato going on between the two stars at the moment, the decisive throw at the decisive moment will ultimately be whoever Luca decides. The only real learning curve is figuring out how best to adjust to this fact when Kyrie attacks in fits and starts (just like he once did with LeBron James) and digests bets every time the ball bobs his way.
The desire to conform is a natural human impulse. However, in reality it is also an exercise in challenging ourselves – in breaking down the essence of ingrained habits and changing not only our behavior, but also the way we see the world around us. Look closely at Irving and you will see how his wheels are turning, carefully considering the kinds of functions that he usually performs instinctively. Some moves seem natural, some too deliberate, so much so that Irving’s lively sense of play has become functional and tough over the past few weeks. It’s like one of the game’s great improvisers is reading from a book.
It’s all well-intentioned, showing through in every turning pass to Reggie Bullock or skillful entry into a dunker spot. This is also not enough, but Irving’s acclimatization should not be rushed. The part that can’t be missed is where Kyrie feels comfortable and fully integrated into everything the Mavericks do. These things invariably take time, probably more than Dallas has this season. Everyone involved — from Doncic, Irving and Kidd to the minor players at the end of the rotation — knows the score. They know how difficult it is to find real chemistry on the court even in the best of circumstances, and that some talented teams never find it at all. They know not to microwave something that needs to be cooked slowly, but they’ll try anyway.
Any team with Doncic and Irving will be dangerous in a seven-game series, but right now Dallas is playing less for the championship than for the sign. We hope this partnership Maybe work, and early returns to the court are encouraging. The reputation associated with this (especially with regards to Irving) is not that great, and a roster based around this core concept could require some pretty drastic changes as early as this summer. Even these issues seem too far away to worry about now. Today’s concern is a tough game against Philadelphia against the backdrop of a brutal, relentless playoff race. It’s a late-game solvency search after losing five out of six games, all in single digits. It’s the hope that the star and the team can find something in each other before it’s too late.