These are the early days for the Kyrie Irving era in Dallas, yet it’s already getting late. The catch with swinging a blockbuster trade at the deadline for a player who can hit free agency in just a few months is that it burdens every possession with franchise-altering import. The fact that there are precious few games left in the season (just 19 remaining on the Mavericks’ schedule, including a nationally televised bout with the Sixers on Thursday night) means that every interaction between teammates is particularly charged as new colleagues try to make room for one another, hold one another accountable, and make their case for a future together all at once.
Fail in any respect, and Irving—whom the Mavs gave up Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, and valuable draft capital to acquire—could leave. Succeed, and Irving could leave anyway. Either case would be a disaster, but these are the risks teams accept when they’re desperate for talent, and Dallas had grown desperate in its efforts to improve the roster around Luka Doncic. Irving is the league’s biggest wild card. He made a show of telling the Celtics he would re-sign in Boston, if they’d have him, before leaving for Brooklyn at the first opportunity. Then, after getting traded to Dallas, Irving told reporters that, actually, he had wanted to leave the Nets since 2020, not even a year after joining the team.
“I wasn’t sure about whether or not I wanted to be in Brooklyn long term because of things that was happening behind the scenes,” he said.
This is the business the Mavericks have bought into. With it comes persistent questions between now and July about not only whether the pairing of Doncic and Irving is working, 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 short order, including both the mechanics of how those two stars are supposed to coexist and the balance of a rotation destabilized by the trade. Doncic is still the primary engine in Dallas, though his overdrive usage has shifted down when his new costar has been on the floor. Irving, for his part, has slotted in seamlessly for Dinwiddie, replicating the former Maverick’s on-demand offense and then some. But there’s no direct replacement for a wing stopper like Finney-Smith and no hiding the fact that a roster tilted heavily toward offense 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 watcher Jason Kidd seems to favor buyout veteran Justin Holiday over third-year forward Josh Green’s defensive upside.) The fallout has only added to the mounting pressure, as the Mavericks now have to keep pace with all the points they give up.
What’s remarkable is that, for the most part, they do. For all the deference in two of the best basketball players in the world attempting to bow gracefully 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 tidy, team-lifting efficiency. Even without the details ironed out, the power in running an offense through Luka with Kyrie just a pass away is self-evident. And to Irving’s credit, he’s thus far opted to facilitate for his wildly talented teammate, waiting for his moments 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 on the floor in Brooklyn—understandably, considering all the very loud and overtly destructive things he did to drive that franchise off course. 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 manages to stay out of his own.
The usual superstar team-up debates seem almost quaint where the Mavericks are concerned. There is no question of whose team this is; it’s Luka’s. There’s not even really an argument over who gets the last shot at the end of a close game; while there’s some obligatory hot-potato passing going on between the two stars at the moment, the deciding shotmaker in crunch time will ultimately be whomever Luka decides it should be. The only real learning curve is figuring out how to best accommodate that fact, with Kyrie attacking in fits and starts (much as he once did alongside LeBron James) and stomaching the stakes every time the ball swings his way.
Wanting to fit in is a natural human impulse. Actually doing it, however, is also an exercise in defying ourselves—in cutting against the grain of hard-worn habits and shifting not only our behavior, but the ways we see the world around us. Watch Irving closely, and you can see his wheels spinning, closely considering the sorts of functions that he usually decides by instinct. Some moves feel natural, some a bit too deliberate—so much so that the animating flair of Irving’s game has turned functional and rigid these past few weeks. It’s as if one of the game’s great improvisers is reading from the book.
All of this comes from a well-meaning place, shining through in every swing pass to Reggie Bullock or workmanlike trip down into the dunker spot. It’s also not enough, but Irving’s acclimation can’t be rushed. There’s no skipping ahead to the part where Kyrie is comfortable and fully integrated into everything the Mavericks do. These things invariably take time, likely more than Dallas has this season. Everyone involved—from Doncic and Irving and Kidd all the way down to the bit players at the end of the rotation—knows the score. They know how challenging it is to find real on-court chemistry under even the best of circumstances and that some talented teams never really find it at all. They know that you can’t microwave what must be slow cooked, but they’re going to try anyway.
Any team with Doncic and Irving will be dangerous in a seven-game series, but right now, Dallas isn’t playing for a championship so much as a sign. The hope is that this partnership is something that can work, and the early returns on the court are encouraging. The reputations off of it (particularly where Irving is concerned) are less so, and the roster around that core concept may require some pretty dramatic changes as soon as this summer. Even those problems seem too distant to fret about now. Today’s concern is a tough matchup against Philadelphia amid a brutal, unforgiving 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 in each other before it’s too late.