It’s been essentially a quarter of a season since the Mavericks made the seemingly all-in move for controversial point guard Kyrie Irving. Just a year removed from a Western Conference Finals appearance, the team had become frustratingly stagnant, hovering around the .500 mark for most of the year.
With the departure of guard Jalen Brunson in the offseason still stinging and with fans watching 40-point effort after 40-point effort by superstar Luka Dončić having little positive effect on the team’s standing within the jumbled Western Conference, a call had begun bubbling up. It was a whisper at first, but — carried simultaneously by sports talk blowhards, ESPN talking heads, and even via hand-painted murals on the sides of buildings downtown — it quickly grew into an unignorable chorus. “Get Luka some help!”
Coming so close last year, further than they’d gone in more than a decade, an effort had to be made to “put them over the top,” lest an increasingly frustrated Dončić look to pull at the handle of an escape hatch straight outta Big D at his earliest opportunity. The gambit in acquiring Irving at considerable cost was meant to finally land a second superstar to play alongside their international phenom, to help bear some of the Atlas-ian weight our beleaguered hero had been carrying all by himself — to assuage the fear that Luka just might hate playing here. With another Top 10 player in the league across from him in the backcourt, surely 77 would see that our little hometown team was worth staying around for, that there should be practically no ceiling for what Dallas might be able to do come playoff time. In fact, the Mavericks had likely just made a move to ensure a trip right back to the conference finals. Or beyond!
Alas, after an awkward transition period at the beginning and, due to injuries, a bewildering infrequency of games in which both the Mav superstars are actually playing together, the picture of what exactly the Dončić-Irving era looks like is becoming clearer. Sadly, as of now, I’m not sure the image is all that pretty.
The new double All-Star lineup has been playing exactly like an All-Star team. That is, a team that scores 120 every night, but, due to a complete lack of focus on — or even a tepid interest in — defense, gives up 121. As of this writing, in the 21 games since Irving joined the Mavs, the team has gone a dismal 8-13 and fallen from fourth in the West to 11th. Essentially, the Mavs have gone from potentially hosting a playoff series at home to out of even the play-in game.
It’s not just that their record is bad. The hair-pulling experience of Mavs fandom recently has been exasperated by just who those mounting losses have come against. Taking Ls to mediocre (to downright terrible) teams who are missing key players seems to be Dallas’ specialty of late. Drop a game to the Pelicans without Zion Williamson? A trio to the Grizzlies without Ja Morant? Then two to the freakin’ LaMelo Ball-less Hornets?!? Right now just ain’t no fun. For fans or the players.
Because he’s a walking technical foul, Luka wears his emotions on his gruesome, cupping-scarred shoulders, and this past weekend’s failures in Charlotte seemed to bring his frustration to a head.
“Yeah, it’s really frustrating,” he said. “I think you can see it with me on the court. Sometimes I don’t feel [like] it’s me. I used to have really fun, smiling on the court, but it’s just been so frustrating for a lot of reasons, not just basketball.”
Not exactly music to the must-keep-Luka-happy-at-all-costs set, in which I include myself. What if you make the move for Kyrie and Luka still wants to leave? You can imagine North Texas’ collective Edvard Munch impression.
Responsibility for Dallas’ current floundering belongs at the feet of those at every level of the organization. It starts with owner/camera junky Mark Cuban and novice general manager Nico Harrison and the one-sided team they’ve constructed, including the so-far-failed Kyrie Irving experiment. No offense to Irving. He’s been exactly what was advertised. It just doesn’t really seem to be exactly what the Mavs needed. The price for Irving was what little defensive effort the team had in Dorian Finney-Smith and what little leadership they seemed to have in Spencer Dinwiddie.
Then there’s obviously-in-way-over-his-head coach Jason Kidd. Does anyone really have an impression that he has a handle on this team? He can’t seem to motivate. His on-court adjustments are suspect at best. He doesn’t even seem to realize which players deserve the bulk of the minutes. How is it that Jaden Hardy is just now getting decent playing time despite being another potential superstar in the making?
Not to help usher his inevitable exit by daring to call him out, but blame for the meltdown also belongs to Dončić. In his fifth year in the NBA (his eighth total as a professional basketball player), you would expect some amount of growth in the all-world player. He still seems the same petulant child whining incessantly like he did in his rookie year. No one expects him to win Defensive Player of the Year, but as a “leader” on the team, he at least has to look like he’s trying. This means, at minimum, being in the actual defensive half court while the opposing team has the ball. You know, instead of pleading your case to the ref 50 feet away. This is to say nothing of his “dedication” to fitness and conditioning. There’s fewer than two weeks left in the regular season, and he still looks like he shares a personal trainer with Will Ferrell.
Especially considering their opponent was without their top (three) scorers, this past Monday’s win against Indiana is nothing to get excited about, decisive though it was. At least it wasn’t another loss. With six games left, the majority against “beatable” teams, there’s still a chance, even a likelihood, that Dallas creeps into the playoffs, but does anyone believe they’re in any position to repeat last year’s success if/when they get there? I’m calling it now. This team is failed. Say goodbye to Kyrie in the offseason. The experiment didn’t work. Then we’ll be right back to scrambling to acquire someone else just to keep Luka happy. At this rate, with his general on-court demeanor becoming increasingly more immature, it begs the question, Is there anything that can be done that will actually do that?