I’ll just start with the question posed in the headline: Name a worse mashup of duos than Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving. For starters, Dennis Rodman and Jean-Claude van Damme in Double Team come to mind. Maybe, but at least they were so bad, so it’s funny. Bleach and vinegar create potentially lethal chlorine gas. A majority of NBA teams at the deadline decided they’d rather drink bleach at the deadline than trade for Irving’s expiring contract, but Dončić’s breathtaking skill set at his size is more lemon than vinegar.
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Red Bull and vodka? Eureka! The NBA’s boozy Red Bull and Long Island combo has been equally as internally damaging to the Dallas Mavericks. On its face, they’re both intended to be the precursor for a fun time. Individually, Dallas’ dual stars are intoxicating talents who can provide an adrenaline rush to the floor. Together, though, the chemical mixture has been surprisingly toxic and Dallas has discovered the firsthand ramifications of overdoing it. Things can go awry quickly, which has been the story of Dallas’ season.
Mark Cuban and the Mavs have awoken with a pounding headache and another notch in the loss column since closing the deal on a trade for Irving on Feb. 6. Irving joined a team that was fifth in the Western Conference and in need of a boost to infiltrate the top four seeds.
Instead, the Kyrie-Luka fellowship has accumulated a 7-19 record, fifth-worst in the NBA, and is staggering into the offseason with puke all over their shoes. Nobody expected Irving to be a stabilizing force, but the abyss Dallas is toiling in underscores how much of an albatross Irving has been. Things have gotten so bad, that Dončić is peering through the haze and sending messages through the media he may regret in the morning to Irving’s predecessor, Jalen Brunson.
When asked how much he missed Brunson following Dallas’ latest loss to the Atlanta Hawks, Dončić was practically blushing over his ex-point guard.
“A lot,” he confessed. “I mean amazing guy, amazing player, for sure.”
That can’t feel good for Irving, whose acute desire to feel appreciated by everyone around him can be triggered by the slightest missteps. Of course, the Mavericks’ collapse is not all on Irving. However, the pieces Dallas gave up only magnified Dončić’s low-grade defensive ability, and his incessant bellyaching to officials, and dropped him down a peg in the NBA hierarchy. In other words, Irving was the ingredient that got this chemical reaction going. In an ironic turn of events, the Knicks organization that Kevin Durant and Irving turned away from is thriving.
Irving’s individual ability is awe-inspiring, but basketball is a game heavily dependent on synergy. Brunson is a consummate point guard in ways Irving has never been. In end-of-game situations, the Mavs’ two stars might as well be in different uniforms. No team utilitizes isolations as frequently as the Mavericks have since acquiring Irving. The signs of their uncomfortable fit were on display in their second game on the floor together — when they drunkenly played hot potato with the leather on the final possession of regulation of a home game where they trailed by three against Minnesota and never even got a shot off.
In the aforementioned loss to the Hawks, Irving’s mental mistake playing help defense sent Trae Young to the line for free throws that put the Mavericks behind by two. Their fates were sealed when Dončić’s game-tying, catch-and-shoot contested triple-rimmed out on the final possession.
So, what now?
In a vacuum, it’s understandable why Dončić would miss Brunson. His exodus to New York should never have happened. All the Mavs had to do was extend a four-year $55 million extension to him before the 2021-22 season. It may ultimately prove to be as much of a hindrance to his title aspirations as Cuban’s mishandling of Steve Nash’s free agency.
Dončić is a premier star in this league, but Irving hasn’t gelled as well with him on the floor as he did with Durant. Durant is a hyper-efficient scoring genie who could manifest buckets with few wasted movements. Both Irving and Dončić are ball-stopping offensive constellations that would prefer being one-man shows. They were doomed to fail and Jason Kidd’s deer-in-the-headlights coaching hasn’t helped. Despite still being within striking distance of the play-in, rumors persisted this week that both Dončić and Irving would be shut down for the remainder of the regular season so Dallas could retain their top-10 protected 2023 pick instead.
The catastrophic ending to Dallas’ season means teams will be even more precarious about pursuing Irving in free agency. If he can’t even affect winning, then there’s no point in inhaling his noxious fumes for another three years. The Mavericks have invested too much to abandon Irving and have hinted at their preference to re-sign Irving to Chris Haynes.
After all, D’Aaron Fox and Damontis Sabonis didn’t give any hints of evolving into a Western Conference contender after they linked up at the Feb. 2022 trade deadline. However, a new coach, a training camp, and an opportunity to integrate without the grind of a regular season getting in the way has made a major difference. Could Dallas do the same? Possibly? But it would require a coach willing to utilize the Kyrie-Luka pick-and-roll more often, surround them with stretchy defenders and get their franchise cornerstone to actually defend with some effort. When you consider everything that would have to change drastically, the possibility of replicating Sabonis and Fox’s transformation with the Sacramento Kings seems like a faraway pipe dream. Dallas is stuck in this nightmare of their own making.
Follow DJ Dunson on Twitter: @cerebralsportex