What happens when you pair one dynamic creator with another and let the two basketball savants cook? Of course you know what happens.
Your team compiles the fifth … uh, worst record in the NBA since the splashy pairing was announced and somehow lands on the cusp of missing the playoffs altogether.
Surely everyone saw this coming when Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving joined forces in February and gave the Dallas Mavericks the requisite number of stars who historically not only prosper together, but win championships, right? Well, the Mavericks are flirting with disaster heading into the season’s final weekend. That’s really the only way to describe the situation in Dallas.
They’ll likely need to win out — Friday against the Bulls (8:30 ET, League Pass) and Sunday against the Spurs (3:30 ET, League Pass) — because the team they’re chasing for the final AT&T Play-In Tournament spot, the Oklahoma City Thunder, holds the tiebreaker. Expectations for the Mavs quickly caved under the weight of losing streaks and blown opportunities since Irving walked into the door. So they’re now 9-16 in that stretch and playing “desperation basketball,” according to Irving.
You could excuse this if it were a rebuilding situation, which it isn’t. This is a team that reached the Western Conference finals last season without Irving. The Mavericks then doubled their star power in order to double their chances of returning to that level, and maybe someday, going beyond it.
And if that hasn’t been bad enough, the ripple effect caused by this stumble could be equally damaging going into this summer and next season.
This is what the Mavericks are sweating:
Will Irving, an unrestricted free agent in July, sign with another team?
Will Doncic, who expressed unhappiness with this collapse, ask for a trade?
The first one would be bad, the second catastrophic. It puts the franchise in a slippery situation, partly of its own doing. There are a lot of anxious moments ahead for owner Mark Cuban, general manager Nico Harrison and coach Jason Kidd as they try to make sense of it all.
The elephant in the room is Irving, obviously. Fair or not, based on his recent history, he’s the Joker walking away from the hospital in “The Dark Knight” while the explosions roar behind him. Ever since he dropped the championship-winning 3-pointer for the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Golden State Warriors in 2016, Irving has embarked on an unfulfilling journey of confusion.
He left LeBron James, and who does that? He pledged his allegiance to the Boston Celtics, then bailed. He went to the Brooklyn Nets bringing realistic championship hopes and then became entangled in anti-vaccination stances, a link to a controversial video, suspensions, defiance and finally, a trade demand.
So the Nets, after reaching the end of their patience and having no championships for their troubles, finally pulled the plug on the promise of Kevin Durant and Irving together and started a new blueprint. They just had to find a trade partner desperate for a talented point guard who, shall we delicately say, does things his way.
The Mavericks were that team. The supporting cast surrounding Doncic was primarily role players with limitations. The Mavs were unable to pay Jalen Brunson when they had the chance — Cuban blamed Rick Brunson, Jalen’s father and a Knicks assistant coach, for that — before he left for the Knicks last summer and that proved costly. Mostly, they needed a shakeup to pacify Doncic, a temperamental top 10 talent who’s just touching his prime.
And the risk really wasn’t what the Mavericks surrendered to get Irving in the trade (Spencer Dinwiddie and Dorian Finney-Smith are solid players but not in Irving’s class in terms of impact). The problem was they traded all that for a star who’s just a few months from unrestricted free agency.
Rule No. 1 in every front office’s guidebook: Never, ever roll the dice that much on someone who can walk; he becomes a rental if he does. At least Kawhi Leonard, who came to Toronto in a midseason trade with the Spurs, won a title in 2019 before leaving four months later in free agency for the Clippers. But that’s the exception and not the rule.
Three things can happen in this Irving-Mavs situation, and two aren’t good:
1. Irving can, of course, walk and therefore leave the Mavs holding an empty bag while costing them all the assets they spent to get him.
2. Irving holds all the leverage in contract negotiations and, in this case, he can demand the Mavericks surrender to him the max in years and dollars, something the Nets refused to do, and something apparently no team offered last summer when Irving could opt-out and become a free agent (he wisely opted-in).
3. Irving can sign an extension — up to $272 million over five years in Dallas — which sounds good on the surface. But that’s a long time being married to a player who found a way to unceremoniously leave three previous stops.
Actually, Irving hasn’t caused any issues with the Mavericks (you could argue he didn’t have a choice) and his on-court connection with Doncic is pure. There is mutual respect and their styles haven’t clashed. If anything, Irving has delivered performance-wise, averaging 27 points, six assists and five rebounds per game with the Mavericks and restoring his rep as an entertaining and deliciously creative offensive player, in case anyone forgot.
“I’d love to have him stay for sure,” Cuban said Wednesday. “I’d love to have him. I want him to stay for sure, and I think we have a good shot. I think he’s happy here. He tells me he’s happy here, and I get along great with him. I think he’s a good guy. All I can tell you is everything I thought I knew about Kyrie because of everything I read was 100% wrong.”
Still, Irving will be 32 next season and his defense has deteriorated. And the Mavericks already have a creative point guard in Doncic. Shouldn’t their attention and resources be paid elsewhere on the roster? And shouldn’t they have weighed this more carefully before agreeing to the trade with Brooklyn and painting themselves in a very restrictive corner with an unpredictable personality?
It’s not over until it’s over. We just gotta put one foot in front of the other and keep maintaining the poise, mentality and keep being there for one another and the results will come.”
— Kyrie Irving on the Mavs’ Play-In push
The Mavericks are excruciatingly weak at the power positions because their big men are either timid in the paint or spend their time standing behind the 3-point arc, spreading the floor waiting on Luka. Either way, there’s no size advantage anywhere on the roster.
Also, they’re an average defensive team at best, devoid of any rim protectors or ball hawks. Finney-Smith was the closest to a decent defender they had.
Cuban said: “You’ve gotta be able to improve your team. Right? You have paid attention that there’s a new (labor agreement) coming, right?”
Finally, their third-best player also becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer. Will the Mavs push the salary-cap envelope far enough to retain Christian Wood, if they want to keep him?
All of this comes back to Doncic. He is just 23, in his fifth NBA season and signed for the next three years (and an option for a fourth). But this is the NBA, home of player empowerment, which means that contract doesn’t necessarily tie Doncic to Dallas for those remaining years.
Cuban didn’t sound too worried when he addressed the “Luka Topic” the other day.
“He’d like to be here the whole time, but we’ve got to earn that,” Cuban said. “You’ve got to win championships. It’s amazing how that cures all. There’s no great player, no superstar, where they don’t question, ‘What are you gonna do if you haven’t won yet?’”
So the Mavericks continue walking the tightrope, both this weekend and this summer. At least Irving dropped 19 points in the fourth quarter a few nights ago against Sacramento, showing why the Mavericks want him, and saved their season from instant death. He’ll need a few more of those performances over the next two regular season games. And even if — big if — the Mavs defy the odds and make the Play-In Tournament and/or playoffs, it’ll be an uphill climb.
“It’s not over until it’s over,” Irving said. “We just gotta put one foot in front of the other and keep maintaining the poise, mentality, and keep being there for one another and the results will come.”
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