Kyrie Irving isn't to blame for Mavericks' mess. It's mistakes of the past still holding them back
It’s so easy to put the Dallas Mavericks’ struggles on Kyrie Irving. Irresistible, even.
The Mavericks have gone from a teetering fourth in the West all the way to 11th — a Demon Drop out of the play-in picture since acquiring Irving from Brooklyn and pairing him with Luka Dončić.
But the Mavericks’ slide goes far beyond whatever one thinks of Irving, and probably doesn’t include him, despite the 3-7 mark in the games Irving has played.
The team that was a Western Conference finalist last spring got there with a clear ethos: Identify the weak spot and squeeze relentlessly. The Mavs outlasted the favored Phoenix Suns with two shot-makers and long, rangy defenders — taking the Suns’ best shot and refusing to wobble.
That second shot-maker was Jalen Brunson, who was willing to sign an under-market deal last season but the Mavericks were hesitant, allowing him to go into free agency where he signed a massive deal with the Knicks. The leader of the long, rangy defenders was Dorian Finney-Smith, who was moved in the Irving deal — a pattern for the Mavericks in making massive moves to clean up for franchise-altering errors.
In the words of Lester Freamon from “The Wire”: All the pieces matter.
Or more pointedly in the Mavericks’ case, they connect.
Irving was acquired right before the All-Star break from Brooklyn, making him a rarity in the past 20 years. Since Steve Nash departed for Phoenix in the summer of 2004, Dallas has had one All-Star not named Dončić or Dirk Nowitzki: Josh Howard in 2007, the year the Mavericks won 67 games but were eliminated in the 1-8 matchup by the upstart Golden State Warriors.
Getting a second star has been the mission of Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. He arrived shortly after Nowitzki was drafted and helped engineer the draft-day swap of Dončić for Trae Young in 2018.
His desperation and infatuation led to the Mavericks acquiring Kristaps Porziņģis from the Knicks once his unhappiness was apparent. But Porziņģis, now in Washington, was a bad fit next to Dončić and the vestiges from that trade are still around, in the form of a top-10 protected draft pick Dallas still owes the Knicks. At this point, the Mavericks sit 11th in the lottery standings, although that could change in a heartbeat in the jumbled West.
Brunson, though, seemed to be a good fit next to Dončić — Cuban just didn’t identify him as a second star soon enough before he blossomed. He helped keep them afloat when Dončić missed the first three games of the Mavericks’ series against Utah, with Dallas holding a 2-1 lead upon his return.
Given his role with the Knicks and the contract he signed over the summer, it’s hard to project how happy he would be playing with the uber-ball-dominant Dončić and being underpaid had the Mavericks given him a four-year, $55 million deal he wanted before last season began.
And that’s where Irving comes in. Irving was at his best playing next to ball-dominant LeBron James in Cleveland, winning a title in 2016. Dončić and James are somewhat similar, but not an exact match — especially on the defensive end where James could at least ramp things up on occasion.
Dončić has shown no such interest to this point, and carries such a heavy load on offense it’s hard to see him exerting maximum effort on the other end. Plus Dončić has shown increasing frustrations on the court, being fined for making inappropriate gestures at officials, once on national TV.
He’s alluded to other issues, as well.
“It’s really frustrating,” Dončić told reporters recently. “I think you can see it with me on the court. Sometimes I don’t feel it’s me. I’m just being out there, you know? I used to have really fun smiling on the court, but it’s just been so frustrating for a lot of reasons, not just basketball.”
Irving has put up spectacular numbers in his 16 games: 26.3 points, 5.9 assists and 5.1 rebounds on 50-38-94 splits.
The one thing the Mavericks have done right is make Irving feel welcomed. Despite the statements from Irving that would lead one to believe he was a main decision-maker in Brooklyn, he knew his presence was merely tolerated as part of the Durant package.
A necessary evil.
That hasn’t been the case so far in Dallas. Both sides do need each other and are incentivized for this to work. Irving wants to get a long-term deal, and Dallas can’t afford to make another mistake on building around its franchise player.
Head coach Jason Kidd wasn’t fazed at all by Irving’s reputation and vowed to keep an open door of communication with Irving. General manager Nico Harrison, of course, comes from the Nike world, where Irving was a main endorser until earlier this season when Irving’s tweet linking to an antisemitic film led the company to end their relationship.
Irving had his issues in Cleveland, Boston and Brooklyn, public and messy affairs, but has been saying and doing the right things in this short stint.
But the mistakes of the past are seemingly holding the Mavericks back from making the best of this small window. It’s easy to see the logic behind making the trade, believing the offensive excellence of Dončić and Irving will make up for the massive holes defensively and at the rim.
The league is more offensive-minded than ever, so the bet wasn’t illogical. But in the past 19 games, the Mavs have given up 117.6 points per game — which would be well into the bottom third of the league if it held for 82 games — and they’ve slipped to 22nd in overall defensive efficiency.
Kidd has always coached defensive-minded clubs, in Milwaukee and in Dallas last season. Losing Finney-Smith — a tough Swiss Army knife of a defender who could switch on the perimeter and hold his own against bigs — has been a disaster. He was a common denominator in Dallas' best five-man units in terms of net rating and won’t be easy to replace.
Without Irving on the books for next season, the Mavericks have $106 million in salary with the cap expected to land around $134 million, the league told teams before the season. Irving is eligible for a five-year deal worth nearly $250 million, sources told Yahoo Sports.
So regardless of what happens for the rest of this season and the postseason, Cuban and Harrison have voids to fill in the summer.
Irving wasn’t going to be the answer for what ails this current iteration of the Mavericks, but to this point, nobody can say he has been the problem.