The “disgruntled” guard with the “tumultuous history”—seen by some “as a malcontent”—ended the “soap opera” with his previous team when he was sent to Dallas. The “fiery” player had been a “constant disruption” with his first team, and nothing much had changed when he moved along. Eventually, he demanded a trade.
When he came to the Mavericks, he was a former All-Star, yes, and still seen as “one of the NBA’s best point guards,” true. He was joyously creative with the ball. He could score from anywhere. But he was already 30 years old and had that “turbulent past.” Was it really so smart to bring him in to play alongside one of the best European players the NBA has ever seen?
It actually turned out fine. I know because, as you might have already guessed, I’m not talking about Kyrie Irving. That troublemaker who had his “hands crossed and praying” for a trade was Nick Van Exel, who was in Dallas for a good time, if not a long time. He helped lead the team to the 2003 Western Conference finals, became one of Dirk Nowtizki’s favorite all-time teammates, and popped up in a Jay-Z verse.
The comparison is obviously not a perfect match: though Van Exel and Irving were both born left-handed, I have no idea what the former thinks about vaccinations, Judaism, or the curvature—or lack thereof—of the earth. (For the record, I have five stamps in my vax passport, my son is Jewish, and I’m a big fan of the Coriolis effect.) The ruckus that Van Exel raised before landing on Don Nelson’s bench was almost entirely related to basketball.
On a baseline level, however, we’re talking about a very similar situation: a mercurial talent whose path to Dallas was lit by the bridges he’d burned. And maybe it’s overly optimistic to think that bringing Irving here in 2023 works out as well as dealing for Van Exel did in 2003. But, hey, let’s be at least a little optimistic.
Because Van Exel wasn’t the first or last time it worked. Bob McAdoo was a me-first gunner who wore out his welcome everywhere he played before getting traded to the Lakers when he was 30 and contributing to two titles. Earlier Mike mentioned Rasheed Wallace’s later-career success with the Detroit Pistons. Rasheed was the face of the Jail Blazers! Zach Randolph bounced from that Blazers team to the Knicks and Clippers before becoming a national treasure with the Grizzlies. Vince Carter pouted his way off two teams before becoming a beloved vet on a handful of others (including the Mavericks). It happens.
Can we not pretend for a moment that it might happen here? Again? Do we immediately have to start focusing on this summer? Or next year? Or 2029? We have a few months with a player who 1) is not going anywhere and 2) has every reason to maximize his value. And who happens to be, when he’s not keeping himself from being out on the court, an absolutely breathtaking basketball player.
He has handles like a Globetrotter and a jump shot like a Hoosier. He has the body control and coordination of a juggler doing parkour. In some of his layup attempts, if you watch frame by frame, Irving never appears to be in a position to even attempt a shot, let alone make one. He dribbles like the god Shiva grew up watching The Professor on AND1 mixtapes, and he is still plenty athletic. He can play off the ball or on, and he knows what it’s like to run with someone like Luka Doncic already, since he previously teamed up (and won a title) with LeBron James.
Does he fit with this roster? Is there even enough of this roster left? Guess what, I’m gonna be optimistic about that, too, at least regarding the latter question, because there are two guys who should benefit from this partial teardown, the way a pine cone needs fire to grow into a tree.
Josh Green has demonstrated that he needs more minutes all season long; even as recently as Saturday night, he had to watch from the bench as Reggie Bullock got all the crunch-time run. He’s not as accomplished a defender as Dorian Finney-Smith, but he holds his own, and his version of three-and-D has an on-ball dynamism that Finney-Smith simply does not possess.
And maybe now Jaden Hardy gets more meaningful minutes. He doesn’t know how to play defense yet, but the only way to learn is by doing. Hardy does already know how to score, and he’s also one of the few players on the team who can get out on the break, sometimes all by himself (and, yes, sometimes to ill effect).
What I’m saying is, if you’re screaming about what all this does to the Mavs’ already suspect defense, I’m screaming back: Let’s just outscore everyone! OK, I’m not really screaming that, but it’s not like last year’s Western Conference finalist squad was built like the 1989 Detroit Pistons. And this team is perpetually one Maxi Kleber injury from losing any hope of becoming a plus-defensive unit.
It feels, then, like the Mavericks are doing something that I highly approve of: steering into the skid. Anyone who knows me very well knows I often extol this idea—in life, work, wherever. If something is trending a certain way, let it. Go with it. See if you can find some traction. This season, since Kleber went down with a torn hamstring, the Mavs have become one dimensional, an offensive juggernaut (when Doncic plays) that can’t get stops. So maybe they’re steering into the skid and shoring up their defense by becoming the best offense the league has ever seen.
It could work. Doncic doesn’t need much. He is one of the few real chip-and-a-chair players in the league. Meaning: if he’s on your team and there is time left on the clock or a game left in the series, you have a chance. Assembling a starting five of Irving, Doncic, Green, Christian Wood, and Bullock or Dwight Powell is enough to make it pretty interesting for the next few months. They might even have another move left before the trade deadline closes on Thursday. Is that enough to win a championship? Probably not. But it will be fun finding out.
Now that I’ve said all that, I will admit that I could have just as easily done the same exercise I did with Van Exel with another point guard the Mavs picked up midseason: Rajon Rondo. I could have gone to LexisNexis and dug up what people in Boston and around the NBA were saying back in 2014.
If this all goes to hell, pretend I did that instead.