Snap judgments in the NBA are easy to make and hard to avoid, even though they often fail to capture the nuance of the basketball itself. Whenever a star has an off night, multiple tweets fly about how they’re “washed” or “cooked”. In the case of the Dallas Mavericks, however, the combination of Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving has drawn rave reviews but may be headed for trouble sooner than later.
When the Mavericks traded for Irving, they were 29-26 and outside the contender’s circle in the Western Conference. They did so to give Luka Doncic a second star, despite Irving’s reputation as a team/coach/culture killer. Since acquiring him, they’ve gone 4-5, although it’s been against some of the better teams in the league.
While there’s still an important stretch of the season left, there are some warning signs to watch out for in Dallas that could spell disaster for Luka and Kyrie’s pairing, in some ways that are their own fault but in others that they can’t stop alone.
What’s gone well for Dallas with Luka and Kyrie?
It hasn’t been all bad for the Mavs; on the contrary, they’ve fielded one of the most exciting offenses in the NBA since Kyrie Irving’s arrival.
In the nine games with Irving, they rank 3rd in offensive rating, a lofty number that’s come against teams like Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Denver, all of which are in the top half of teams in defensive rating. They’ve done so with a barrage of deep shots, taking and making a large clip of threes to open up the game for their stars.
Those stars, Luka and Kyrie, have each been masterful since the trade. Doncic ranks 3rd in the league in scoring over the past ten games while Irving ranks 17th. This deadly combination has resulted in some of the best individual highlights from each of them all season.
Both Doncic and Irving play a similar style of offensive basketball, as they’re best with the ball in their hands, but they’ve struck a solid balance by taking turns dominating defenses. They recently combined to score 83 points against the 76ers and each looks spry and rejuvenated with a new star teammate:
This deadly offensive combination has helped the team to an overall improvement there and gives the Mavericks one of the highest ceiling teams in the NBA due to their scoring potential. They likely can’t make enough late-season noise to catch the Nuggets, Suns, or Kings, but they’ll be a dangerous team for any that meets them in the playoffs.
What’s been a disaster for the Mavericks?
That’s the rosiest take that one could have of the Mavs, however, as there are a host of issues that have plagued the team. Since they traded for Kyrie, they’ve dropped games against the Lakers, Pacers, and Timberwolves, all winnable games that the team would love to have back.
What’s hurt the team most has been their ghastly defensive performance. It was expected that getting rid of Dorian Finney-Smith and bringing in Kyrie Irving would lead to a step back on that end, but the results have been even more jarring than expected. In the ten games since the trade, the Mavs have slipped all the way down to 26th in defensive rating.
This defensive downturn is due to a host of reasons, none of which have an easy fix. Irving and Doncic are both negatives on defense, which puts more pressure on the back line of the Dallas D. With Christian Wood and an aging Dwight Powell defending the rim, teams have had a field day inside. The rotations and schemes for the Mavericks also look a step slow, which has rendered any good defensive lineups or stretches moot after a series of bone-headed mistakes:
Defensive lapses like these are all too commonplace for the Mavs and that ultimately puts an impenetrable cap on their ceiling. If they can’t defend at even a league-average level, they’re going to get crushed by the offensive powerhouses like Denver and Sacramento in the postseason.
They’ve also established a risky strategy to win; in all four of their wins with Irving, the Mavericks have had to hit 17 threes or more at a 41 percent clip minimum. Even with their increased volume, that’s a ridiculously high number to need to win a basketball game, especially when the scores in their victories have been close.
With a sieve-like defense and a high-risk, high-reward offense, the Mavericks are neither reliable nor set up for long-term success, which casts a major shadow on their ability to contend in the west even though they have two All-Star starters on their roster.
Where does that leave Dallas, Luka, and Kyrie?
As mentioned above, there isn’t a simple fix that the Mavs can try to shore up their defense. Their personnel, outside of a few G-League call-ups, is solidified, which eliminates the possibility of a late-season infusion of rim protection and switchable talent.
Expecting Dallas’ players to suddenly get crisper on their rotations, communicate more on switches, and rebound at a higher level is a foolish expectation, given there’s no evidence all season that many players have that level of skill available, much less the energy when it comes to players like Irving and Doncic who have to expend almost all of their energy on offense.
That leaves the team in a somewhat nightmarish position, where they’re far below the standard of a contending team with no way to meaningfully improve. They chose to grab a star talent in Irving to pair with Doncic, but they still lack the needed defensive pieces to be a serious threat to exit the West.
Due to Irving’s flight-risk nature when the going gets tough, the Mavs should be extremely nervous about the future of their team, given a slow end to their year could lead to Irving’s exit and a team in turmoil.