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Basketball

Kyrie and Luka: A Love Story

It didn't work last season, but the dynamic duo this year is showing us something special.
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Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Well, it turns out training camp and practices actually do matter. 

Last season, when the Mavericks acquired Kyrie Irving at the trade deadline, they were in the thick of a battle for a postseason berth, with a 32-29 record. The move for Irving seemed risky, given the magnitude of the trade and the concerns about Irving’s availability (for a litany of reasons). But how could it not work? He’s an All-World talent whom you can simply roll the ball to and watch him get a bucket, and he was being paired with another player who could do the same? Surely the talent would override any system failures down the stretch. 

And then the Mavericks dropped 15 of their last 21 games. 

There was a lot of noise in the closing record. Irving and Luka Dončić were both injured at various points during that stretch, limiting the club’s ability to fully realize its two-star firepower during the failed push for the playoffs. The truth, though, was that when Irving and Dončić did share the floor, their efficiency and production were elite. The problem was they didn’t share it much, and even though the numbers were great, it didn’t really look or feel like a cohesive pairing. As such, much of the discourse zeroed in on the age-old “Can these two play together and share the ball?” Which was fair based on the eye test, though perhaps unfair based on the data.

In the final six weeks of the season, NBA teams don’t fully practice much. The bodies are too battered. Because of Dončić’s bruising style and universe-leading usage rate, this is even more true for him. So the lack of synergy for the offense, while frustrating, made sense to me.

Heading into the summer, Irving and the Mavericks were in an interesting situation. Considering what it gave up for him and its cap situation, Dallas had no choice but to re-sign Irving, and Irving really didn’t have any other suitors willing to pay him what Dallas could and would. Both parties had all of the leverage and yet no leverage at all. When the trade was executed, general manager Nico Harrison spoke of it as being a long-term play. In hindsight, it’s clear that Harrison knew there would be bumps in the road but that with a full offseason, training camp, and regular practices, Dončić and Irving could in time become a dominant duo.

That time has arrived. 

As evidenced by their destruction of Sacramento Tuesday night, this pairing and this roster look like a problem for any team in the Western Conference. Luka scored 26 of his 28 points in the first half, while Kyrie scored 18 of his 24 in the second. Dončić, the NBA’s leading scorer, is also the league’s leading scorer in the first half. His production drops a bit in the second half, as do all of his shooting percentages. Irving, on the other hand, sees the inverse in his numbers. He jumps from 9.4 points in the first half of games to 14.2 in the second. His three-point shooting percentage jumps 10 (!) points, from 35.5 to 45.5. 

This is exactly what we had hoped for when the trade was executed. In years past, Dončić clearly looked worn down late in games, especially late in the season. This led the public to fire up the “Luka is out of shape” or more bluntly “Fat Luka” takes. While his conditioning may have been a concern, I’m not sure there is a player in the league who could have handled the load he was carrying in the way he had to carry it, regardless of his physical fitness. It was simply unsustainable for a deep playoff run, especially without a capable sidekick like Jalen Brunson. This is the freshest Dončić has looked this deep into a season, which is a direct product of Irving’s presence. While Dončić is playing more minutes than he ever has, his usage rate is the lowest it has been since his rookie season. And against the Kings, he didn’t play a fourth-quarter minute. He wasn’t needed, not with Irving on the floor. 

When playing together, the pairing is producing an offensive rating of 121.4, which would rank second in the NBA to only Boston. The new-look starting lineup, full of length and athleticism, is an absolutely absurd plus-25.8 points per 100 possessions. It’s a relatively small post-trade-deadline sample size of 20 games, but that unit ranks fourth in the league in points per possession differential. 

On some nights, like Tuesday, it almost feels as if Dončić is a reconnaissance unit, sent out not only to destroy early but also to expose the opposition’s weaknesses. And then here comes Irving, with a preternatural basketball IQ paired with endless energy to lay waste to whatever is left of the other side. In short, this is exactly how this was supposed to work. The Mavs have won nine of 10, and suddenly the 4-seed in the West is within reach.

It’s also worth noting that, whatever his reputation was when he joined the Mavericks, the Kyrie Experience has been a relatively smooth one. I am quite certain there is audio of me suggesting he had been a locker room cancer in his previous stops, because from the outside, that’s certainly how it seemed. And maybe that was the case. People grow; sometimes they grow right around the time they are looking for a massive new contract. But since Irving arrived, all we’ve heard from his teammates is that he’s a great leader, he genuinely cares about the young players on the roster, and he brings a calming presence. Dončić and Irving are both surgical, but they approach the operating table in vastly different ways. For a team led by Dončić, who is often fueled by emotion, positively or negatively, Irving is the yin to his yang. He embodies “never too high, never too low” at this stage of his career.

Availability will always be a concern with Irving. Without getting into any of his off-the-court controversies that have resulted in his missing games, injuries have plagued him this season. However, he is also posting one of the lowest usage ratings of his career. He just turned 32 and although he still plays like he’s 22, bodies are simply more prone to injuries at his age. It remains to be seen if he can keep up this juice for a deep playoff run, especially when you consider much of his production is occurring late in games.

But if he can, this team is built for the playoffs. Best-laid plans often go out the window over the course of a postseason series. The games get muddy and often come down to physicality on defense (which Dallas is much better equipped for) and isolation possessions on offense. Among heavy isolation usage players this season, Dončić ranks second in effective field percentage (a metric that weighs three-point attempts more heavily), while Irving ranks ninth. As much as we deride the idea of “your turn, my turn” basketball, that truly is what the postseason comes down to in many situations. Much more than in the regular season. Recall the first-round series against Utah two seasons ago, when Dončić, Brunson, and Spencer Dinwiddie basically took turns knifing Utah’s defense with isolation plays. Dončić and Irving are two of the best isolation players in the NBA, and they can both do it from outside, in the midrange, and at the rim.

Not many, if any, teams will be able to effectively deal with a full-frontal assault of consistent pick-and-rolls and isolation plays from Irving and Dončić over the course of a playoff series. The new starting lineup lacks the shooting threat that previous lineups posed, to be sure. But it’s hard not to think this is the most playoff-ready roster that Dončić has ever played on. 

If the Mavericks make a run, it will be because Irving brings out the best version of Dončić, which is exactly what he was brought here to do.

Author

Jake Kemp

Jake Kemp

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Jake Kemp covers the Cowboys and Mavericks for StrongSide. He is a lifelong Dallas sports fan who previously worked for…

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