Well, what do you know? The ‘experiment’ of having Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving working together with the Dallas Mavericks is not working!!!! In fact, when they had only Luka, the Mavericks were in the playoffs. Now, with Kyrie and Luka, they are out of the playoffs. Were we geniuses in knowing this was not going to work? No. Not at all. It was as easy as saying the sun was going to rise tomorrow!
The Luka Dončić-Kyrie Irving Experiment
Back in October, I wrote about something I figured would quietly become one of the more important story lines in the league: How would the Mavericks—who opted to let highly talented guard Jalen Brunson walk—handle Luka Dončić’s usage rate, which had already been the NBA’s highest in each of the past two seasons?Heading H2… there could be more than one
Dallas was coming off a Western Conference finals appearance—albeit one it lost to eventual champion Golden State in a gentleman’s sweep—meaning, in theory, a couple of precise roster tweaks should have been enough to land the team back in title contention behind Dončić’s on-court leadership.
Instead, the offseason and early-season tweaks were mild and made very little difference. Free-agent pickup JaVale McGee has been out of the rotation for the past month since Maxi Kleber returned. Christian Wood’s 19 minutes per game in February and just 23.4 in March are fewer than coach Jason Kidd has given the big man all year, despite Wood enjoying his best true-shooting percentage month of the season. Dallas’s biggest move—the swing-for-the-fences one—involved shipping out Spencer Dinwiddie and Dorian Finney-Smith for All-Star guard Kyrie Irving just before the trade deadline, and … it simply hasn’t worked.
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Even with Monday’s win against Indiana, the Mavericks have dropped four of their last five, including back-to-back losses over the weekend to a lowly Charlotte club playing without LaMelo Ball or Terry Rozier. At just 37–39, the Mavs are in 11th place in the West and on the cusp of failing to make the play-in tournament. Not coincidentally, Dončić lately sounds as frustrated as he’s ever been. “I used to have fun, smiling out on the court, but it’s just been frustrating,” he said last week.
The numbers are clear at this point: The Mavs are 8–13 since the deal—including 4–8 in games with both Luka and Irving—ranking eighth in the NBA on offense and 22nd on defense over the past seven weeks. Before making the trade, they ranked ninth and 24th, respectively. Essentially, nothing changed, except for the fact that they’ll have an even bigger headache when Irving’s contract is up this offseason. Can Dallas really afford to double down—or triple down, if you rightfully see this as an extension of trying to correct the mistake of letting Brunson leave—by bringing Irving back? Or have they seen enough to know this isn’t a sustainable setup? (Worth noting here: The Mavs did seek Dončić’s input concerning Irving before dealing for him, and it’s reasonable to suspect they’d do the same at season’s end.)
At their best, Dončić and Irving are an unstoppable duo. Both can move and draw the defense with their drives and their post-up looks. One example was Sunday. With his back to the basket on the left wing, Dončić commanded a double team and kicked the ball to Irving, who was all alone at the top of the key for a triple. The flip side of that, of course, is twofold. One: The Dallas offense, which isolates more than any team in basketball, too often has players standing in the corner, which doesn’t allow the others to develop a shooting rhythm. (You might’ve noticed that as Dončić and Irving put up a combined 29 first-half points in Sunday’s loss, while the other starters—Reggie Bullock, Josh Green and Dwight Powell—didn’t log a single point over that span.) Things can get overly predictable when opposing defenses know what’s coming. Secondly, it doesn’t help when the Mavericks’ two stars can’t even be occasionally be mistaken for defensive stoppers.
Yes, there have been nice leaps and finds over the course of the season. Josh Green had shown considerable growth and consistency as a scorer before the Irving acquisition, and, for all his warts, rookie Jaden Hardy is showing promise as a bucket-getter. Still, the failure to get more out of the Irving addition raises a question that continues to stare them in the face as they come up on the end of Year 5 with their superstar: What type of player would be best to pair alongside Dončić?
The Mavericks had, then moved on from, big man Kristaps Porziņģis—a 27-year-old who is now healthy and enjoying a career-best season in Washington—preferring the flexibility of having multiple contracts (Dinwiddie and Dāvis Bertāns) in his max-salary slot. They parted with Brunson—a 26-year-old who has lifted the long-suffering Knicks into the playoff picture and figures to be a finalist for the Most Improved Player Award—and got nothing in return. Now Irving, whose skill set is largely redundant alongside Luka’s, may be on the way out in the coming months, too. The team’s cap space almost certainly won’t be abundant enough to bring in a top-level star who has the wattage Irving does. And the assets aren’t there to land one the way Cleveland did in acquiring Donovan Mitchell from the Jazz last summer. Still, there are plenty of questions concerning basketball fit with Irving, and that’s without even giving much thought to the off-court reasons that would make it even more challenging for the Mavs to commit to him long-term.
The all-encompassing second-star question isn’t unique to the Mavericks. Not by a long shot. Interestingly enough, Atlanta, which swapped with Dallas to take Trae Young over Dončić and received another pick that landed Cam Reddish, dealt the farm to shake things up by bringing in All-Star guard Dejounte Murray. The Hawks, who like Dallas reached the conference finals not long ago, are now similarly positioned record-wise, at 37–38. And the perception is that new coach Quin Snyder is taking stock of everything, from Young on down, to figure out what needs to be changed within the franchise going forward. Paying to win more is expensive. Paying but then losing just as much—if not more—is brutal.
That between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place reality for the Mavs has led to chatter of it being best for the team to try to tank its way into keeping the first-round pick it owns this summer. As compensation for the Porziņģis trade, the Knicks will receive that pick if it lands outside the top 10. (As it stands heading into Tuesday’s games, the Mavericks currently own the 11th-worst record in basketball.)
With Dončić, 24, coming up on the end of Year 1 of a five-year, $215 million deal, it’s easy to conclude that there’s plenty of time to work through everything. “It’s just a matter of whether we can be healthy in time to make a stretch run. And if we’re not, that’s just the season. No one’s dying,” Kidd said earlier this month.
It may just be a one-season swoon. But Dallas would do well to put better support around Dončić to make sure this is the last time the club is in this spot for a while. With players of his ilk, the clock is always ticking, regardless of what Kidd says.