It’s early days for the Kyrie Irving era in Dallas, but it’s already getting late. The advantage to dangling a blockbuster at the deadline for a player who can hit free agency in a few months is that it burdens every possession with a franchise-changing import. The fact that there are precious few games left in the season (just 19 remain on the Mavericks’ schedule, including a nationally televised matchup with the Sixers on Thursday night) means that every interaction between teammates is highly charged as new colleagues try to make room for one another. for each other, hold each other accountable and make their case for a future together.
Fail by any measure, and Irving—who the Mavs gave up Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith and valuable capital to acquire—could be gone. Success, and Irving could be gone anyway. Either situation would be a disaster, but those are the risks teams take when they’re desperate for talent, and Dallas has been desperate in its efforts to improve the roster around Luka Doncic. Irving is the biggest wild card in the league. He made a show of telling the Celtics he would re-sign in Boston, if they had him, before leaving for Brooklyn at the first opportunity. Then, after the trade to Dallas, Irving told reporters that he had, in fact, wanted to leave the Nets as early as 2020, not even a year after joining the team.
“I wasn’t sure whether or not I wanted to be in Brooklyn long term because of the things that were going on behind the scenes,” he said.
This is the business the Mavericks have bought. With it comes lingering questions between now and July about not only whether the Doncic-Irving pairing works, but whether it even has time to work.
Since the trade, the Mavericks are 3-5 overall and 1-4 when both Irving and Doncic have played. There’s a lot to figure out in a short amount of time, including both the mechanics of how these two stars are supposed to coexist and the balance of a rotation destabilized by the trade. Doncic is still the main engine in Dallas, although his use of overdrive has decreased once his new actor has been on the floor. Irving, for his part, has welcomed Dinwiddie seamlessly, replicating the former Maverick’s on-demand offense and then some. But there’s no immediate replacement for a wing stopper like Finney-Smith, and there’s no hiding the fact that an offensively-leaning roster has lost one of its few defensive stalwarts. (To further complicate matters, Maxi Kleber is slowly easing his way back into action after a hamstring injury, and head coach and professional observer (Jason Kidd seems to favor veteran acquisition Justin Holiday over the defensive upside of third-year forward Josh Green.) The result has only added to the pressure, as the Mavericks now have to keep up with all the points they’re giving up.
What’s remarkable is that, for the most part, they do. All due respect to two of the best basketball players in the world trying to gracefully bow out of each other’s way, Doncic and Irving have been absolute flamethrowers as teammates. Between them, they’re averaging 55.4 points per game — a mark that would make them the second-highest scoring duo in the league — with a neat, team performance. Even without the details being worked out, the power to run an offense through Luka with Kyrie just one pass away is self-evident. And to Irving’s credit, he has so far chosen to facilitate his supremely talented teammate, biding his time and eagerly helping Doncic reset the offense whenever the playmaking prodigy gets stuck.
Kyrie never got much credit for his low-maintenance, low-ego approach to the floor in Brooklyn—understandable, considering all the very loud and overtly destructive things he did to lead this franchise away. But in pure basketball terms, he’s exactly the kind of star who can make Doncic’s life easier without getting in his way, as long as he can stay out of his own.
The usual discussions of superstar teams seem almost quaint when it comes to the Mavericks. There is no question of whose team this is. it’s Luke’s. There isn’t even a dispute over who gets the last shot at the end of a close game. While there’s currently some mandatory fodder between the two stars, the crunch time shooter will ultimately be whoever Luca decides it should be. The only real learning curve is figuring out how best to respond to that fact, with Kyrie attacking matchups and starting (as he once did with LeBron James) and punting every time the ball swings his way.
Wanting to fit in is a natural human urge. In reality, however, doing so is also an exercise in self-defying—to cut through the grain of hard habits and change not only our behavior, but also the way we see the world around us. Watch Irving closely and you can see his wheels turning, considering the kinds of operations he usually decides on instinct. Some moves feel natural, some a little too deliberate—so much so that the animation of Irving’s game has become functional and stiff in recent weeks. It’s as if one of the game’s great improvisers is reading from the book.
It all comes from a benevolent place, shining through every swing toward Reggie Bullock or a labored trip to the dunker spot. It’s also not enough, but Irving’s acclimatization cannot be rushed. There’s no getting around the part where Kyrie is comfortable and fully integrated into everything the Mavericks do. These things always take time, probably longer than Dallas has this season. Everyone involved — from Doncic and Irving and Kidd to the players at the bottom of the rotation — knows the score. They know how hard it is to find real chemistry on the field even under the best of circumstances, and that some talented teams never really find it. They know you can’t microwave what needs to be slow cooked, but they’ll try anyway.
Any team with Doncic and Irving will be dangerous on a seven-game streak, but right now, Dallas isn’t playing for a championship so much as a sign. The hope is that this collaboration is something like that can work, and early returns to the field are encouraging. His reputation (especially with Irving) is less, and the roster around that core concept may require some pretty dramatic changes as soon as this summer. Even these problems seem too distant to worry about now. Today’s concern is a tough matchup with Philadelphia in the midst of a brutal, relentless playoff race. It’s the search for late-game solvency after losing five of six games, all by single digits. It’s the hope that a star and a team might find something together before it’s too late.