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It’s not working with Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving

Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic received his 16th technical foul Sunday, which would have led to a suspension. However, the NBA rescinded the technical foul on Monday. (Nell Redmond/AP)
7 min

This is an excerpt from Ben Golliver’s NBA Post Up weekly newsletter. Sign up to get the latest news and commentary and the best high jinks from #NBATwitter and R/NBA delivered to your inbox every Monday.

Sometimes, bold trades backfire because NBA teams bet on the wrong star. Other times, big and misguided swings wind up revealing preexisting problems that have built up for years.

Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks are in the unenviable position of wondering whether they are in the former category, the latter or, most likely, both. Since Kyrie Irving first suited up for the Mavericks, Dallas has gone 7-13 and plunged from the Western Conference’s No. 5 seed on Feb. 6 to the No. 11 seed entering Monday’s action. The Mavericks (36-39) are at risk of missing the play-in tournament after reaching last year’s Western Conference finals, and five of their remaining seven games come against projected playoff or play-in teams.

While other postseason hopefuls have ramped up for a final push, the Mavericks have dropped seven of their past nine games, including a pair of inexplicable losses to the bottom-dwelling Charlotte Hornets on Friday and Sunday. After the first, a forlorn Doncic admitted to reporters: “I used to have fun, smiling on the court, but it’s just been frustrating.” During the second, the 24-year-old superstar picked up his 16th technical foul of the season, but the NBA rescinded it Monday so he narrowly avoided a one-game suspension as his team’s fate hangs in the balance.

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The further the Mavericks have fallen, the uglier it’s gotten: Owner Mark Cuban has blasted the referees on social media, Doncic has been fined $35,000 for making a money sign gesture at an official, Irving has missed time with a bothersome foot injury, and Dallas’s supporting cast has proved incapable of patching up the rotation holes created by the big midseason move. When asked recently about his team’s downward spiral, Coach Jason Kidd replied with candor that bordered on flippancy: “Can we be healthy in time to make a stretch run? If we’re not, that’s just the season. No one’s dying.”

To pin all of this on Irving would be a mistake. He has avoided the controversies that marred his Brooklyn Nets tenure and has had his share of good moments, averaging 27 points and 5.9 assists per game since the trade and delivering a brilliant assist for a game-winning three-pointer in a March 17 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. Plus, Dallas’s widespread defensive problems preceded Irving’s arrival, even though parting with Dorian Finney-Smith in the trade exacerbated an already dire situation.

Importantly, though, there has been little in the way of interpersonal chemistry between Doncic and Irving, who have won just three of the 11 games they’ve played together and faltered in clutch situations multiple times. The pair have mostly functioned as dual soloists, delighting with their individual skills but struggling to construct a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. If both are hitting, such as when they combined for 82 points in a March 2 win over the Philadelphia 76ers, anything seems possible. But if one is off, Dallas’s margin for error evaporates because the duo’s teammates are reduced to ornamental offensive roles and lack defensive chops.

What’s so troubling about Dallas’s early returns with Irving is that his arrival was intended to relieve pressure on all parties: Doncic wouldn’t need to shoulder such a huge offensive burden, Cuban wouldn’t need to keep hearing about his inability to put a co-star next to his Slovenian sensation, and General Manager Nico Harrison wouldn’t face so much criticism over Jalen Brunson’s free agency defection. Unfortunately, the Mavericks’ inability to seamlessly integrate Irving has had the opposite effect: The pressure has never been higher on everyone involved.

For an aspiring all-time great such as Doncic, missing the playoffs would qualify as a calamity. Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James were all playoff mainstays throughout their 20s. Doncic seemed poised to take the baton from those legends after last year’s deep run, but now his record is at risk of a major blemish.

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Though Doncic is a transcendent talent and posting averages of 33.1 points, 8.7 rebounds and 8.2 assists per game, he bears a portion of the blame. His comportment toward referees and teammates has left something to be desired for years, and it has worsened despite his pledges to rein in his emotions. His stream of technical fouls has been a source of bad vibes all season, and the fact that he’s on the brink of a suspension counts as a major failure of leadership. Doncic has no one to blame but himself, as he’s old enough and savvy enough to know better. The four-time all-star remains a central part of Dallas’s problem on the defensive end, too, and it’s not enough to simply set up teammates with laserlike passes. Doncic’s quick temper, angry gestures and regular scowls run contrary to the goal of building a healthy and inclusive team culture.

In the modern NBA, though, franchises foot the bill when their stars get mired in frustrating circumstances beyond their sole control. If Dallas’s roster-building issues continue, Doncic wouldn’t be the first A-lister to view Miami or Los Angeles as greener pastures. He also doesn’t have much cause for hope that significant help is coming, given the Mavericks’ likely cap commitments and limited future draft assets and this summer’s relatively weak free agency class. If Doncic’s anger and despair do harden, it’s never been easier for him to force his way to a new destination. He could even ask Irving for tips.

Irving’s impending free agency looms over all of this. The 31-year-old guard is positioned for one final major payday after many teams concluded that he wasn’t worth the trouble last summer. Ironically, Dallas’s poor start with Irving has only increased its desperation to retain him. With Irving, the franchise can sell the promise of a star tandem leading a mesmerizing offense, then set about pursuing a few talented role players to handle the dirty work and raise spirits. Without him, the Mavericks would be reduced to Luka and the Doncic-aires — a precarious position for the franchise’s relationships with its star, who is desperate to consistently win, and its fans, who rightfully want a cohesive team capable of placating the presumed heir to Dirk Nowitzki.

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Neither path looks particularly fruitful now. Irving hasn’t played quality postseason basketball since 2016, he has an extensive injury history, and his recent off-court distractions could easily resurface after he signs a multiyear contract, leaving Dallas stuck just like Brooklyn was for the past two seasons. Yet his departure would be a massive blow to the Mavericks’ credibility following their failed experiment with Kristaps Porzingis and Brunson’s quick exit. As the Cavaliers learned during James’s first Cleveland tenure, a team only gets so many chances to sell another round of retooling to its maturing centerpiece.

Doncic’s competitive fire will always burn, and he isn’t likely to go down quietly over the next two weeks. But the Irving trade has made it clear that Dallas has weightier concerns than simply salvaging this season. Despite being blessed with some of the best court vision in basketball history, it’s unclear whether Doncic will be able to see his way out of this bind.