Kyrie Irving’s tenure with the Dallas Mavericks could not have had a brighter beginning. Following a Feb. 6 trade, Irving faced the Los Angeles Clippers without Dallas’s superstar leader Luka Doncic alongside him, and Uncle Drew scored 24 points in the win over a championship contender.
So who could have predicted that such a promising start might have been the peak of the Irving-in-Dallas saga? On Friday, Dallas was officially eliminated from playoff contention after an absurd defeat to the Chicago Bulls, in which the Mavs rested Irving and pulled Doncic and two other starters after just one quarter. (The NBA is now investigating Dallas over whether it tanked to improve its NBA draft odds.) It’s a shocking state of affairs for a team that sat at a 98 percent chance to make the playoffs — and was tied for the league’s second-best title odds — less than a week after trading for Irving, according to the FiveThirtyEight forecast.
Dallas struggled to a 9-18 record after Irving first took the floor as a Maverick. It had the 10th-best offensive rating but the fourth-worst defensive rating, continuing a trend that has plagued Irving-led teams. That Irving missed seven games and Doncic eight didn’t help, but the Mavericks were only 5-11 in games in which both appeared.
Last year, the Mavericks reached the Western Conference finals by building a well-oiled machine around Doncic. But while the driver in Doncic remained extraordinary in the playoffs against the Golden State Warriors, the car around him fell apart. (Doncic-run pick and rolls scored more efficiently in the series than they had in the regular season, for instance, but Jalen Brunson- and Spencer Dinwiddie-run pick and rolls fell off a cliff. Now, neither remains a Maverick.) Arguably, a lack of versatility limited Dallas against the eventual champions.
The Irving trade seemed intended to address that problem. And despite Dallas’s losing record since making the deal, the team was more versatile on offense. It’s important to note that, in this sense at least, Dallas’s gamble paid off magnificently. Dallas needed diversity, and Irving is extraordinary in a variety of play types.
|Freq. per 100 possessions
|Points per chance
|Pick and rolls
Furthermore, Irving gave Dallas a threat without the ball in his hands — a crucial addition alongside Doncic, who finished fifth in the league in touches per game and received more double-teams per game than any other player. Off-ball play can win championships for a shooter and scorer like Irving.
Irving led the Mavericks in off-ball cuts since Feb. 8 and was second in handoffs received, per Second Spectrum. Both are ways to get him the ball if it’s starting in Doncic’s hands. When preceded by a wide pindown screen, receiving a handoff is called “Chicago” or “Zoom” action, and it is one of Irving’s specialties. He used such plays to create elite offense with Doncic on the bench:
Or, he initiated plays via Chicago action as a means of creating weak-side isolations for Doncic against a moving defense. Doncic led the league in isolation frequency,so any softening of the defense by Irving beforehand was akin to sharpening the chisel for Michelangelo.
The changes made to integrate Irving revamped the structure of Dallas’s offense. According to Second Spectrum tracking data, the Mavs were 26th in the league in frequency of off-ball screens before Irving’s first game as a Mav and were 18th after. Their frequency of handoffs jumped from 25th to 10th. The team’s pace quickened. And its offense improved, going from a rating of 115.2 before Irving suited up to 117.2 after.
Theoretically, this added complexity and dynamism would have benefited the Mavericks even more in the playoffs, making them more difficult to limit because of their multi-dimensionality. But the cost of adding those extra abilities for a hypothetical playoff run was apparently an increased chance of missing the playoffs altogether. The Mavericks put the postseason cart before the regular-season horse; solving offensive problems introduced a plethora of defensive ones.
Doncic and Irving received much of the criticism for their team’s sieve-like defense, but they don’t seem to be at fault. Excluding garbage time, the Brooklyn Nets were better on defense with Irving on the floor than off, and so too were the Mavericks this season. Opposing possessions involving pick and rolls and isolations defended by Irving or Doncic were less efficient than when other Mavs defenders faced those play types on average. Furthermore, the two stars were Dallas’s two best defenders against opposing shots, holding shooters to the lowest effective field goal percentages, according to Second Spectrum. (That could also be indicative of a problem, as most teams want their big men to be their best shot defenders — not their lead ball handlers.) Neither star was intended to be a defensive savior, yet somehow they’ve been among the team’s most effective defenders.
In many ways, Dallas’s defense has been trying to draw blood from a stone, hoping for passable results without size in the middle or a host of defensive-minded supporting players around its stars. Dorian Finney-Smith had been Dallas’s wing stopper in the playoffs, recording team-high possessions guarding Donovan Mitchell and Devin Booker in the 2021-22 playoffs. After shipping him to Brooklyn in the Irving deal, the Mavericks simply haven’t had answers to questions posed by opposing offenses. Furthermore, Dallas was the fourth-worst team at defending the rim after Irving’s first game in The Big D, while Dallas’s trio of centers — Dwight Powell, Maxi Kleber and Christian Wood — combined to allow opponents to shoot more than 6 percentage points better than expected on shots at the rim or in the paint since Irving took the floor.
There’s no defensive solution coming. Last season, the Mavericks were the eighth-ranked defense in the regular season, yet they allowed an offensive rating of 123.9 to Golden State in the Western Conference finals. This year’s Mavericks, by contrast, were the 23rd-ranked defense. After the Irving trade, Dallas narrowed its possible outcomes; with this personnel, a flamethrowing offense was the only path to victory. Even though the Irving trade diversified the means by which the Mavericks could score, they still couldn’t score quite enough to win games.
As a result, Dallas is left in a strange limbo. In seeking offensive improvement, the Mavs also scorched and charred their defense. Irving’s time so far in Dallas has proved the importance of versatility. But unfortunately for Dallas, that applies to both ends of the court.
Irving is a free agent after this season, and there’s little reason to expect him to remain in Dallas. He hasn’t been there long enough to establish roots, and it’s not like Irving will make meaningful playoff memories that bond him to the city. (Irving refused to discuss his free agency and declined exit interviews with the media.) So the Mavericks may be left continuing their long-running search for a co-star to pair with Doncic. Since acquiring Doncic in a draft-night trade in 2018, Dallas has had only two players average at least 20 points per game alongside him: Kristaps Porzingis and now Irving. Irving may well have been an ideal fit alongside Doncic, but the team didn’t have the defensive infrastructure to support the pair.
Over the same time period, Dallas’s defense has spent only one season better than league average. This season represented the lowest winning percentage Dallas has managed since Doncic’s rookie season and its worst defensive rating relative to league average. If Irving departs in free agency, it will also devastate the Mavericks’ flexibility to improve around the incumbent leader. The team has tried to weave a roster that fits its superstar, but it just doesn’t have enough thread right now. At this rate, Dallas might learn the hard way the moral of Phoebe Gilman’s classic: You can’t make something from nothing.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.