Kyrie Irving & the Dallas Mavericks: A Marriage of Necessity
Kyrie Irving’s image reboot and the Mavs quest for a second star. Looking at a trade where the two parties desperately needed each other.
The NBA trade deadline this year is likely one of the most active that we have seen in quite a few years. The highlight of this deadline is without a doubt the trading of Kevin Durant from Brooklyn to Phoenix. Anytime an all-time great offensive player is traded in the middle of a season where he is averaging nearly 30 points per game, it is headline news. There has been nonstop talk about the Durant trade, the dismantling of the Brooklyn Nets super team, and the Suns’ rising title hopes. Meanwhile, Durant’s old teammate and friend Kyrie Irving was also traded.
Irving had worn out his welcome in Brooklyn and this felt like a parting of two parties that simply had grown tired of one another. The Nets shipped Irving to Dallas to be paired with superstar Luka Doncic. In return, the Nets received Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, an unprotected 2029 first-round pick, and two second-round picks (in 2027 and 2029). In many ways, this pairing feels like the right move at the right time for a team and a player in desperate need of a needle-moving shift.
Fireworks Wanted in Dallas
The Dallas Mavericks have won one NBA championship. And it is a championship run that is historically significant, perhaps more than just about any title in the modern era. The Mavericks entered the playoffs in 2011 as the third seed in the Western Conference. In the first round, they faced a 48-win Trail Blazers team with a young core of LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicholas Batum, Brandon Roy, and Wesley Matthews and won the series in 6 games. They then swept a 57-win Lakers team featuring Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom. In the conference finals, they won in 5 games against a young Oklahoma City Thunder team that featured Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka. And that was all capped off in the NBA Finals with a win in 6 games against a 58-win Miami Heat superteam with Dwayne Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh. It is perhaps one of the most impressive roads to a championship in NBA history.
That Mavericks team did this with one superstar player: Dirk Nowitzki. It was a roster that was assembled of older players and role players. In fact, of the players that got over 20 minutes per game on the roster, only two were under the age of 30 (JJ Barea and Tyson Chandler). In a league that thrives off of duos and trios the 2011 Mavericks was a one-man show. It is a championship that the Dallas fan base clings to as more valuable than multiple superteam titles that we have seen over the years that followed. But when the Mavericks drafted Luka Doncic and he proved to be the next great European superstar in Dallas there has been a silent pressure to make his road to greatness less arduous than the path that Dirk took.
It is the reason why the Mavericks traded for Kristaps Porzingis and it is the reason that they acquired Christian Wood in the off-season. They needed a complementary star to their supernova to win and keep Luka happy in the long term. The Mavericks and Luka showed that they could win as they advanced to the Western Conference Finals last year with a team that felt like it had a ceiling of one series win. But then Dallas was unable to retain Jalen Brunson, who emerged as Luka’s sidekick in the playoffs, and signed with New York in free agency. While many considered the move an overpay by the Knicks at the time, he has been magnificent for the Knicks and is someone that Dallas wishes that they had now.
So trading for a talent like Kyrie Irving is a move that this Mavericks team feels that it needs to make. Is it a big risk to offer up an unprotected first-round pick for a player that can leave in the off-season? Absolutely. But it is the type of move that a team looking to show its superstar that they care about winning makes. With Kyrie, Luka has a player that is a threat to score 40 points on any given night. A player that will take and make big shots when defenses are focused on Luka. He gives opposing defenses an impossible decision to make because trapping Luka means that Kyrie could be open and exploit them with his scoring and passing ability. For a team that wants to take the next step and make the NBA Finals, this was a trade that the Mavericks had to make.
The Rehabilitation of Kyrie Irving
The descriptors that we use about Kyrie Irving might be some of the most wide-ranging that we have used for any professional athlete in my lifetime. On one hand, he is one of the best ball handlers that we have ever seen and is an elite shotmaker with perhaps the most diverse layup package of all time. On the other hand, he is looked at as a terrible teammate, a poor leader, and socially ignorant and insensitive. There have been many articles written and podcasts recorded about why Kyrie is a basketball savant but also why he is detrimental to any team that he is on.
Since winning a title with LeBron James and the Cavaliers in 2016, we have seen Kyrie Irving demand a trade because he wanted to be “the guy”. We then saw him make big statements about being committed to the Boston Celtics only to then sign with the Brooklyn Nets in the following off-season. Then there was the saga of Brooklyn, which I am sure many a basketball writer will pen books about. The statements that he and Kevin Durant do not need a coach, his very vocal stance on not taking the COVID-19 vaccine, requesting a trade in the off-season then staying quiet and keeping his head down, only to request a trade again. If nothing else, Kyrie’s image has been in desperate need of good PR.
The Mavericks provide him with this. He has an opportunity to play alongside an MVP candidate, in the same type of role that Jalen Brunson thrived in last season. As Kyrie approaches unrestricted free agency this offseason, rehabilitating his perception within league circles is incredibly important. Dallas has retained his Bird Rights, meaning that they can offer him the most financially in free agency. At this moment, Kyrie has yet another chance to prove that he is worth taking a financial risk on. His talent is undeniable, yet the narratives that surround him are also impossible to ignore.
In some sense, the Mavericks are the perfect team and destination for Kyrie. They are a team with a history of struggling to attract free agents despite an ideal geographic location and no state income tax. With the Mavericks, Kyrie is in a state where his vaccine beliefs will not be demonized and he is unlikely to get into a war of words with any politicians in Texas. The media in Dallas while prominent has historically been favorable to Mavericks players, a stark contrast to Kyrie’s relationship with the ever-present New York media. Kyrie in Dallas allows him to focus on basketball and get the fresh start that he has craved away from the big lights of New York and the pressure of being the guy in Boston or LeBron’s sidekick in Cleveland. Dallas is the destination that he needs at this pivotal junction in his career.
The Roadblocks & The Reward
Kyrie and the Mavericks are an ideological fit. But are they a basketball fit? The Mavs are 2–3 since Irving joined the team and 0–3 when Luka and Kyrie play together. Luka and Kyrie are both in the top 10 in the NBA in isolation possessions. They are both heliocentric players that need the ball in their hands to be effective. In addition, they are also both relatively poor defensive players. A starting backcourt of Kyrie and Luka may be the worst defensive backcourt tandem in the NBA currently. This is a team that is going to need to outscore teams to win games.
The loss of Dorian Finney-Smith in the Kyrie trade is a big loss as he was the team’s best perimeter defender. The team will now be relying on Reggie Bullock and Tim Hardaway Jr (who is currently injured) to pick up the slack on defense. The Mavericks are currently a fascinating thought experiment. One that begs to question if two isolation-heavy players can co-exist on a team and lead to winning basketball. There is a bit of your turn, my turn with this dynamic that on paper doesn’t sound like winning basketball. But the Mavericks have shown the ability to win with just one great scorer, and now they have two. I would not discount the possibility of this working out for Dallas, as much as Kyrie detractors are hoping that it doesn’t.
Where we stand today, both Kyrie and the Mavericks are at a crossroads. Kyrie is hoping that on the other side, he is once again regarded as an elite point guard in this league that can contribute to winning. The Mavericks are staring into the possibility of having an elite 1–2 punch in the backcourt that will lead to wins and deep playoff runs. But the other side of that equation is that Kyrie has a trademark explosion and he is left with sinking value and the Mavs are still looking for a reliable sidekick to Luka while hoping that he doesn’t demand a trade. Both of these entities need each other and need this experiment to work. We are witnessing a high-wire act in Dallas, and it will be fascinating to see the results of this high-risk game that will alter the legacies of great players and a franchise looking to remain dominant.