Mavericks going all in with Kyrie Irving raises a host of questions … with Luka Doncic’s career hanging in the balance

February 06, 2023 in Sports

The best way to understand why Kyrie Irving is now a member of the Dallas Mavericks is probably by thinking about who isn’t.

Dennis Smith Jr. isn’t. The Mavs drafted him ninth overall in the 2017 NBA Draft, hoping that the spring-heeled NC State product would develop into their point guard of the future … until they landed Luka Doncic in the 2018 lottery. It wasn’t like the two young ballhandlers clashed or were at each other’s throats — far from it, by all accounts — but once Doncic showed up, it became very clear very quickly to Mavericks brass which prospect they needed to go all-in on.

Kristaps Porzingis isn’t. Dallas’ brain trust shipped Smith, DeAndre Jordan, Wesley Matthews and a pair of first-round draft picks to New York to pry Porzingis loose from the Knicks, believing that a 7-foot-3 unicorn — albeit one rehabbing a ruptured left ACL — could turn into the perfect pick-and-pop partner for the clearly ascendant Doncic. And, in fairness, the Mavs did have (statistically, at least) the best offense in NBA history during their first campaign together. But with injuries costing Porzingis significant portions of his first two seasons and after two straight first-round exits at the hands of the Clippers, a new front office decided that the Latvian giant wasn’t the second superstar Doncic needed to vault the Mavericks to contention.

Jalen Brunson isn’t. An undersized fire hydrant out of Villanova drafted 30 picks after Doncic in that same 2018 draft and deployed mostly as a steady hand off the bench in his first three seasons, Brunson didn’t look like that second banana, either — especially not when he struggled mightily during the 2021 playoff loss to the Clips. Perhaps rattled by that postseason performance, the Mavs elected not to offer Brunson a four-year, $55.5 million contract extension or engage in any negotiations on a new deal before last season. Brunson went on to earn a spot in Dallas’ starting lineup, teaming beautifully with Doncic during the regular season, averaging 32-5-5 through the first three games of the opening round with Doncic sidelined and playing a vital role in Dallas’ first Western Conference finals trip since winning the 2011 title. When he joined the Knicks in free agency — on a deal nearly twice as big as the one Dallas declined to offer him — the Mavs got nothing for him in return.

And now, Spencer Dinwiddie isn’t. When Mavericks general manager Nico Harrison sent Porzingis to Washington for Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans, it seemed like he was essentially just trying to break up Porzingis’ larger salary into two smaller ones, seeking more flexibility as he tried to position Dallas to find Doncic’s next co-star. Dinwiddie flourished next to Doncic, though, averaging 17.1 points and 4.9 assists on career-best .605 true shooting in parts of two seasons as a Maverick and, like Brunson, playing a big role in the 2022 conference finals run. But with Brunson in New York, Dinwiddie didn’t quite have the juice to carry the Mavs’ offense as a solo act: Dallas scored just 109.1 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions this season with him at the controls while Doncic rested, according to Cleaning the Glass — a mark that would rank dead last in the NBA.

That’s why the Mavericks — who entered Sunday just two games over .500 at 28-26, only a half-game clear of the play-in spots and 1 1/2 games ahead of 11th in the congested West — just sent Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, an unprotected 2029 first-round pick and second-round selections in 2027 and 2029 to Brooklyn. Four and a half years into Doncic’s tenure in Dallas, the Mavs’ Plans A, B and C for building a championship contender around one of the best young players we’ve ever seen have all gone awry. And in the modern NBA, where every franchise lucky enough to land a generational talent is living on borrowed time with the clock ticking faster, front offices don’t get to go much further down the alphabet before they have to start worrying that their superstar will be the next one disgruntled enough to demand a trade.

Dallas’ appetite for assuming whatever risk might come with importing Irving was clear from the jump. Yahoo Sports senior NBA reporter Vincent Goodwill reported Friday that “high-ranking officials with knowledge of the Mavericks’ plans” suggested Dallas would eagerly take Irving off the Nets’ hands. Harrison reportedly has a strong relationship with Irving from his days as a high-ranking executive with Nike, and Yahoo Sports senior NBA reporter Jake Fischer reported Friday that Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd, Irving’s favorite player growing up, was “considered a proponent of adding Irving.” With the front office and coach aligned, and Doncic “consulted” about the move prior to its consummation, according to Marc Stein, Irving’s path to Dallas was prepared; he is, according to Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report, “ecstatic” about the possibilities of a new partnership with Doncic.

It’s not hard to understand why. In pure on-court terms, Irving’s fit with Doncic could prove as devastating as it was with LeBron James and Kevin Durant. If you’ve already got a primary creator, you need a second scoring and ballhandling option, and you need that complementary creator to be capable of both generating high-efficiency, low-turnover offense on the ball and working at an elite level off it, it’s really hard to find a better answer than Irving.

Spot up Irving opposite a Doncic pick-and-roll and weak-side defenders have to stay connected to him; he’s shooting 38% on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers this season, according to NBA Advanced Stats, and he’s been above 40% in five of the past six seasons. (The one miss: 2017-18, when he shot … 39.9% off the catch.) We probably shouldn’t expect Doncic to suddenly start working off the ball that much himself; he’s taken nearly 10 times as many pull-up triples (327) as he has catch-and-shoot looks (35) this season. But a creator as decorated as Irving, who has averaged a shade under 26 points and six assists per game over the past seven seasons, comes in with enough of a résumé to at least somewhat address Dallas’ well-established overreliance on Doncic — and anything that might help reduce Doncic’s time of possession from a league-leading 9.6 minutes per game and drop his usage rate from a career-high and second-in-the-NBA 38.5% could pay major dividends if it means Doncic, who’s been phenomenal in the playoffs, has even more left in the tank come this postseason.

Irving’s far from just a standstill threat, too. Shade the defense too far in Doncic’s direction and Irving, who’s producing nearly 1.4 points per possession finished on cuts to the basket and 1.12 points per possession when shooting off an off-ball screen, will make you pay for looking the other way. And while neither Irving nor Doncic has done much work as a screener this season — they’ve set just 203 screens combined, according to Second Spectrum — you’d imagine Kidd might be salivating at the prospect of them running the kind of 1-3 inverted pick-and-rolls with which Irving and James gave defenses the blues while running roughshod over the Eastern Conference in Cleveland. (He also gives the Mavs another excellent option in close-and-late situations: Irving leads the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring this season, and has 65 points in 66 minutes of “clutch” time this season with a 12-to-4 assist-to-turnover ratio.)

Since Doncic’s arrival, Dallas has largely won on the strength of the offense he creates and suffered miserably whenever he hasn’t been on the floor to create it. Irving, in theory, provides a significantly higher-end source of supplemental offense than Dinwiddie — a theory supported by the fact the Nets scored at elite or near-elite levels when Irving played without Durant throughout their four seasons in Brooklyn, and outscored opponents by a healthy 2.9 points-per-100 in Irving-no Durant minutes this season before the trade. Dallas’ formula for success requires incinerating opponents when Doncic’s on the floor and just trying to not catch fire themselves when he’s off it. If Irving can keep the offense viable enough for the Mavs to play close to even while Doncic rests, that’d raise their ceiling for this season considerably; in a conference led by the surging Nuggets, but without an evident dominant super-team, that might give them a puncher’s chance of replicating last spring’s run to the West finals.

“Might,” of course, is doing some Magnus Ver Magnusson-level lifting there.

If Irving was the kind of surefire ceiling-raiser and dependable stabilizing agent I just described, he wouldn’t have just been traded for two decent starters and one unprotected pick. He probably wouldn’t have been on the block in the first place because the Nets likely would’ve just extended his contract before the situation in Brooklyn reached the point of no return.

Everybody knows by now, though, why it got to that point — the vaccine saga; the tweets and Instagram stories heard ’round the world; the implosions of title-level teams in Cleveland, Boston and now Brooklyn, twice; the 15-or-more games missed each year since 2016 for any number of reasons. That’s the rub with Irving; what begins with fireworks often ends with a fizzle. He’s absolutely still an All-NBA talent when he’s available and engaged. But how, at this point, can a franchise depend on him being both consistently enough to be worth the cost of admission?

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Irving’s an every-night difference-maker from the moment he touches down in Dallas, and that a Mavericks offense that ranks eighth in the NBA vaults toward the top of the league with Irving in tow. How exactly will all this work on the other end of the court?

The NBA’s eighth-worst defense just lost Finney-Smith — injury-stricken this season, but clearly its top defender on No. 1 perimeter options of all shapes and sizes — and, with all due respect to Irving and Markieff Morris, didn’t replace him with anybody who could do his job. The list of Finney-Smith’s most frequent defensive matchups looks a lot like the All-Star roster; he’s one of just eight players in the league to rank in the 95th percentile or higher in The BBall Index’s matchup difficulty and defensive versatility metrics. Reggie Bullock likely steps up in the pecking order, which is fine — he’s a solid and dependable perimeter defender — but where else can Kidd turn to get stops? With Dallas needing to replace Dinwiddie’s complementary playmaking and Finney-Smith’s ace defensive work, this trade represents a big opportunity for — and perhaps a big vote of confidence in — third-year wing Josh Green, who’s taken a step forward this season as a multi-positional defender and connective-tissue playmaker on offense. Dallas will need Bullock and Green to step up at the point of attack, for Christian Wood and Dwight Powell to protect the rim, for versatile frontcourt defender Maxi Kleber to come back at 100% after missing two months with a torn hamstring … and even then, Kidd and defensive coordinator Sean Sweeney might have a hard time cooking up a league-average defense to backstop their hoped-for elite offense to have any hope of making a push for title contention.

The mammoth question hanging over all of this, though: How stable is any of this? The early reporting suggests that the Mavericks, like the Nets, won’t engage in contract talks with Irving until the summer. Moving Finney-Smith and Dinwiddie, who’ll combine to make a tick over $34.4 million next season, for Irving, whose contract expires after the season, puts Dallas in position to open up max salary cap space this summer. If all goes well over the next few months, maybe Irving fills that slot. If it doesn’t, the Mavs will use their space to go shopping in free agency in pursuit of Plan … D? E? What letter are we on? … in building around Doncic.

Cuban, Harrison and the Mavs’ front office will have options, but the flip side of fresh possibility is fresh uncertainty. There’s a chance Dallas just gave up an unprotected 2029 first-rounder and a pair of seconds — the kind of draft capital that is the most precious non-renewable resource for organizations trying to build championship-contending rosters around young superstars — for what could be a three-month rental. The other path might be even more worrisome: What if everything goes fine over those next three months, you find yourself back in the conference finals … and now it’s time to offer Irving the kind of full-fledged long-term deal that Brooklyn refused? Given everything that’s transpired with Irving over the last handful of seasons, and given how incredibly vital it is to get your next big swing right, how could you confidently make that commitment? Given how important it is to surround your marquee star with talent commensurate with his ambitions, how could you do anything else?

These are the gambles you find yourself weighing when you feel the pressure that comes with the responsibility to keep a true-blue superstar happy at home. Every failed experiment, every fumbled bag, every missed opportunity brings you one step closer to the kind of existential, superstar-devoid crisis that Dallas hasn’t known in a quarter-century. That anxiety has a way of ratcheting up your risk tolerance; it puts you in a place where you’re wagering on incandescent talent, hoping against hope that you can be the ones who can harness it without reaping the whirlwind. The Mavericks, with their backs to the wall, just rolled the dice on Kyrie Irving. Now, we all wait with bated breath to learn whether they’ve doubled up or lost everything.