Luka Dončić’s partnership with Kyrie Irving didn’t go well last season.
There are likely several reasons for that, but one of the most obvious was time.
The Dallas Mavericks traded for Irving in February, and the team slid fast in the standings and eventually missed the playoffs altogether. Dončić and Irving, who both missed significant time due to various injuries, went just 5-11 in games played in together.
But now, as the Mavericks open training camp in Dallas, Dončić is hoping a full preseason together can significantly boost their relationship.
“He came in the middle of the season last year, and we didn’t have much time. We went straight to playing games,” Dončić said Wednesday, via ESPN’s Tim MacMahon. “It takes time to do chemistry, especially on the court, so we didn’t have the whole training camp, and then I mean, the preseason, too. So I think it’s going to be way better.”
Irving was right with him on Thursday when he spoke to reporters for the first time since last season ended.
"I think we were being too passive with one another," Irving said, via ESPN. "We're both killers on the court, everybody knows it. We want to win ... It was so quick last year and it was so much pressure on us to win now, win big, and 'It's Luka and Kyrie, why can't you guys win games?' So we were answering a lot of questions that honestly I don't think we were ready for."
Dončić averaged a career-high 32.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and eight assists last season, his fifth with the Mavericks. Irving appeared in 20 games for the Mavericks last season after being traded from the Brooklyn Nets, and he put up 27 points and six assists per contest.
While Dallas averaged more than 119 points per 100 possessions when the two were on the court together, they managed to play in just 16 games together. The Mavericks lost 18 of their final 25 games and managed to win consecutive games just once after Feb. 11. They finished with a 38-44 record and missed the playoffs for the first time since Dončić’s rookie season.
"We like things that happen right away, but we will continue to grow that relationship," Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said of Irving and Dončić, via ESPN. "There is a relationship, and so they had the summer, and now they have a preseason to bond. But that's the big question: Can they coexist? And it is not that they don't coexist, it's the group around them. I think sometimes we are misinformed. If you have the right pieces around, they're going to coexist, and after day one, they coexisted at a high level."
The Mavericks made several moves this offseason, the first of which was to sign Irving to a three-year, $120 million deal. Retaining him, the team said, was their top priority.
"It wasn't too difficult of a process," Irving said on Thursday, via ESPN. "Had Dallas as number one on my list. Obviously I looked elsewhere — salary cap opportunities, where I could fit in with other guys around the league — but there just wasn't much space. And me being 31 now, I had to have a different vantage point, and I felt like I could not just settle here but be happy to come back here and be welcomed back with a warm embrace.
"So I took everything into account. I took my time a few days before free agency just to be with my family, gauge how they felt about being in Dallas alongside me. And everybody was excited. I mean, even when I got traded here, midseason, a lot of my family was excited and they were just looking forward to me having a peace of mind just on the court and off the court. I had already dealt with enough past season or the past two seasons, so they knew that I just wanted a lot of that off my back and off my shoulders of feeling like I had to be Superman or I had to be perfect. I just wanted to be myself. And then going on the last few years, just figuring myself out. So I think this is the best place to do it and continue to mature and grow as a man."
The team also acquired Grant Williams in a deal with the Boston Celtics, brought back Seth Curry and landed Dante Exum, among others. The team drafted center Dereck Lively and forward Olivier-Maxence Prosper in the first round.
The Mavericks will open their season, Kidd’s third leading the team, Oct. 25 against the San Antonio Spurs.
"The two leaders of the team, what we do, us two, other people are going to follow," Dončić said, via ESPN. "We've got to set an example, and that's everybody. It's not just us. We got to play. There's five players on the court. We going to play everybody, so everybody got to help each other."