The Mavs' gamble on the Kyrie Irving-Luka Doncic partnership is paying off

ByTim MacMahon ESPN logo
Monday, January 22, 2024

KYRIE IRVING CROUCHED, hands on his knees, in the right corner and watched Luka Doncic operate a high pick-and-roll. Irving was tired, having already logged 37 minutes in this game, his fourth since returning from a right heel contusion that sidelined him for 24 days.

The score was tied with a little more than two minutes remaining in the Dallas Mavericks' Jan. 7 home game against the Western Conference-leading Minnesota Timberwolves, who were determined not to let Doncic beat them.

The Wolves double-teamed Doncic, and he delivered a bounce pass to center Dwight Powell at the free throw line. As Powell caught the ball and with the defense rotating, Irving sprung into a shooter's position, knowing the right read was to swing the ball his way.

Irving swished the catch-and-shoot corner 3, giving the Mavs the lead for good in arguably their most impressive win of the season. Powell got the assist; Doncic created the advantage.

It was the kind of moment the Mavericks' front office envisioned when it made the trade for Irving in February 2023: two of the NBA's premier offensive talents playing off each other.

It took some time for the combination to form clutch chemistry, and injuries have often interrupted the Mavs' momentum since Irving's arrival. But Dallas' star duo is the primary reason the Mavs, who are in sixth place in the Western Conference standings with a 24-18 record, are considered a dangerous playoff matchup.

Irving didn't choose Dallas as his destination after requesting a trade last February and, frankly, didn't have any financially appealing alternatives before re-signing with the Mavericks over the summer. But he has found happiness with his fourth NBA franchise, feeling respected and supported by the organization.

There's a sense of calm after his 2-year stint with the Brooklyn Nets, which included so much chaos and controversy, much of Irving's own making.

"I had to be mature enough to say I got to take accountability for my own actions," Irving told ESPN. "I got to really walk and be the example that I want to see in the world. And that's just being a good person to a lot of people, and not being so hard to reach and not be so isolated to where people can misjudge that as whatever it is. Like, 'Oh, he doesn't talk, or he is not really close with anybody. I don't really know him that well.' So I feel like a lot of people misjudged me. ...

"Dallas gave me a chance to just focus on the main thing, which is being the best basketball player when I stepped foot here, and then off the court still support me."

IT HAS BEEN less than a year since Irving's Brooklyn partnership with Kevin Durant, which began with a free agency pact between the longtime friends, ended with disappointment and regret. That era in Nets history will be remembered as the supposed superteam that won a grand total of one playoff series and granted three trade requests.

Irving, Durant and James Harden -- the last superstar to join those Nets and the first one to leave -- played just 16 games together because of injuries and Irving's refusal to comply with New York's COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

It still stings Irving that their plan to win championship rings and retire together crumbled as his off-court sagas -- specifically his anti-vaccine stance and his social media promotion of a movie that featured antisemitic tropes -- disrupted the Nets' past two seasons and destroyed his trust with Nets management.

But Irving's breakup with the Nets presented an opportunity for the Mavericks. Dallas, light on trade assets, was desperate to acquire a co-star to pair with Doncic, eager to ease the pressure on the young face of the franchise. The availability of Irving, an eight-time All-Star with championship experience whose trade value had been deflated, provided the Mavs a chance to fill that glaring void.

Irving said he felt a sense of comfort in playing for Mavericks coach Jason Kidd, who was one of his idols while growing up in New Jersey and had become a friend over the years. He also had a long-standing relationship with Dallas general manager Nico Harrison, a former Nike executive. Irving embraced the fresh start, with no guarantees of what might unfold in his summer free agency.

The deal -- Dallas gave up starters Dorian Finney-Smith, Spencer Dinwiddie and an unprotected 2029 first-round pick -- did not produce immediate dividends. The Mavericks dropped out of the postseason picture, tanking the last two games to position themselves to keep the top-10 protected pick they owed the New York Knicks.

But the Mavericks' belief that Irving would be part of the solution never wavered, as he had been productive, professional and a positive influence in the locker room. "An amazing veteran for the younger guys," 23-year-old wing Josh Green said after Dallas' win against the Knicks in January, an opinion echoed by teammates.

Harrison declared during exit interviews that keeping Irving was the franchise's top priority, and Dallas followed through with a three-year deal worth up to $126 million despite Irving not having other suitors with significant room under the salary cap.

Dallas viewed it as a contract that reflected Irving's impact and status while giving the Mavericks the flexibility to acquire defensive-minded upgrades for the supporting cast, such as forward Grant Williams and guard Dante Exum.

Dallas sputtered to a 5-11 record in the games that Irving and Doncic played together last season, but the Mavericks didn't hesitate to double down on the bet it placed on the playmaking duo.

"We're just happy we have him on our team," Doncic said earlier this season. "We can always rely on Kai."

IRVING AND DONCIC'S trust in each other was never an issue. But the clutch execution was clunky as they tried to build chemistry on the fly last season, as illustrated by the closing moments in Irving's Dallas home debut in February 2023.

The Timberwolves were also the opponent on that night, when Irving dazzled the sellout crowd by scoring 26 points in the fourth quarter as the Mavericks rallied from a 16-point deficit. It came down to the final possession, when Doncic and Irving deferred to each other, passing the ball back and forth until Irving coughed up a turnover.

"As much as you want things to happen instantly or happen right away," Kidd said recently, "sometimes it just takes time."

Those issues have been ironed out. The Mavs are 14-5 in clutch games -- defined as the score being within five points in the final five minutes or overtime -- this season. They've won nine of 10 such games with Irving in the lineup, and he has scored 44 points in 36 clutch minutes.

"I think what you saw last year was us having the utmost respect for each other and not trying to step on each other's toes," Irving said.

"He has created a legacy here already, and I'm the new guy coming into Dallas. ... There's a synchronicity that people have felt for the last six years with him and built that camaraderie with him. So I just wanted to add onto that."

Injuries, however, have frequently interrupted the Mavericks' season so far. Doncic and Irving have played in only half of Dallas' 42 games together. The Mavericks are 12-9 with the duo and 12-9 without.

But there are significant reasons to believe the Mavs can be a dangerous playoff matchup -- and it starts with their stars, both for their prodigious offensive prowess and their commitment to the less glamorous parts of the game.

Consider the Mavs' Jan. 11 win over the Knicks. As brilliant as Irving was -- he had 44 points and 10 assists with Doncic out because of a sprained ankle -- it was a far simpler play that left an impression.

While guarding Jalen Brunson on the left wing early in the fourth quarter, Irving poked the ball away and then dove to save it from going out of bounds. Irving swatted the ball with his right hand to Green before landing on the sideline at the feet of Kidd, who helped Irving to his feet so he could join a transition opportunity that resulted in a Tim Hardaway Jr. jumper.

"For somebody who's had that much success in the NBA, as a young guy looking at that, it motivates you," Green said.

It's a trait Irving has long seen in Doncic.

"He's a winner. I'm a winner," said Irving, who is averaging 25.3 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.3 assists. "He's a big gamer. I'm a big gamer. We like going against the best. That's where I feel like we connect. ...

"At this point in his career, in my career, particularly talking about me and Luka, it's about how we galvanize the rest of the group. We help each other grow as people, and then the basketball part is the easy part. I needed mentors when I was growing up in the league, so I feel like that's the role I play here, being a very young mentor to Luka [and] to all our guys.

"Because I've seen a lot, I've done a lot. I failed at the highest level, I succeeded at the highest level, and I want to get back to that place."

Related Video