Examining Kyrie Irving's basketball fit with the Dallas Mavericks

Examining Kyrie Irving's basketball fit with the Dallas Mavericks

Trust me, I know.

Following the blockbuster trade that sent Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving to the Dallas Mavericks, much of the conversation surrounding the deal focused on risk — how Irving's presence may affect the Mavericks' locker room, and especially, Luka Doncic; how the Mavericks would (struggle to) pivot if Irving were to walk in the offseason; how Kevin Durant is feeling in Brooklyn, seeing his co-star total drop from two to zero in a calendar year.

All of those concerns are valid.

There's a reason we immediately got a report from Bleacher Report's Chris Haynes saying the Phoenix Suns — who offered a package headlined by Chris Paul for Irving — are ready to push their chips in for Durant if he becomes available again.

The Mavericks absolutely should be keeping an eye on Doncic's long-term happiness. And with Irving, he hasn't been the beacon of reliability or availability. (That's putting it conservatively, for the sake of this piece and this piece only.)

Let's put that to the side for just a moment. 

From an on-court perspective, the Mavericks have added a really good basketball player. The entire reason they made this gamble is because of the ceiling-raising that Irving's talent signifies. Let's take a look at what things could look like.


Frankly, this should be pretty seamless.

Irving is one of the best isolation scorers of the modern era. His free-verse handle allows him to get wherever he wants to, whenever he wants to get there. He's quick enough to speed past off-balanced defenders, mixes in deceleration to keep defenders off balance (and flow into pull-ups on a dime) and has the body control and dexterity to create finishing angles out of mid-air. 

Over the past four seasons, trips featuring an Irving isolation have generated 1.12 points per possession (PPP). That's first in the NBA among 38 players with at least 1,000 isolations during that time frame. Drop the requirements to 500 isolations, expanding the field to 81 players, and Irving barely trails Zion Williamson (724 isolations, 1.123 PPP) despite having 463 more reps.

This season alone, trips featuring an Irving isolation have produced an absurd 1.21 PPP — third in the NBA among 88 players with at least 100 clear-outs under their belt. It's worth noting that the two players ahead of Irving — Lauri Markkanen (1.22 PPP) and D'Angelo Russell (1.213 PPP) — have combined for 214 isolations, while Irving is at 328 by himself. 

I start with pure isolations because that's what the Mavericks have leaned into this season. They lead the NBA in isolations in whatever way you'd like to measure it: Total (1,397), per game (25.8) or per 100 possessions (26.9). Naturally, Doncic paces the league in total isolations (673) on elite efficiency to boot (1.14 PPP).

Even if you project this to be the most blatant my-turn-your-turn pairing in the leauge — and I don't, but we'll get into that shortly — these two are good enough to make that offense fruitful. 

Irving's scoring chops also help him in ball-screens. Drop coverage is untenable because of his ability to chew up space. He's also, quietly, a pretty creative interior passer. Diverting too much attention to him can lead to a nice mix of pocket passes, dump-offs and lobs.

Irving made sweet music with Nicolas Claxton in pick-and-roll this year (1.09 PPP). There shouldn't be a steep learning curve receiving screens from Dwight Powell or Christian Wood, assuming the latter is on the roster. 

Also, prepare yourself to watch Doncic screen for Irving sometimes. Doncic is setting nearly three on-ball picks per 100 possessions this year, a career-high for him, though pretty low overall. If I had to guess, that number should perk up.

On-ball screens from Doncic have mostly been used to manufactor favorable matchups. That was more of a given when screening for Spencer Dinwiddie since they're close to the same size. Switching was, per Second Spectrum, easily the most common coverage that two-man pairing saw. 

With Irving, that could shift a bit. Irving's defenders tend to be smaller than Dinwiddie's; this is an imperfect measure, but per's matchup data, Irving has been defended by guards roughly 69% of the time, slightly higher than Dinwiddie's 61.8% clip.

At almost 6-foot-6, it would make sense that teams would feel more comfortable stashing wings and forwards on the latter. While throwing size on Irving makes sense in theory, even asking traditional wings to navigate screens or mirror Irving in space is a tall task.

(Yes, the joke was intentional.)

By the way, it's worth keeping an eye on how Irving deals with blitzes. To say he gets overwhelmed is overselling it, but there can be a bit of catch-hold-read-then-pass to those situations that may not vibe well with how slowly the Mavericks play. The short-roll playmaking on this roster continues to be a subplot worth following.

Because Irving can generate high-level offense, the Mavericks should be able to breathe easier in non-Luka lineups. Prior to the trade, the Nets were outscoring opponents by 44 points (plus-4.2 net rating) in the 676 minutes Irving played without Durant this season, per PBP Stats. The Mavericks have lost the Dinwiddie on/ Doncic off minutes, though you can shoot some bail based on the sheer volume of talent missing in some of the games Doncic hasn't been available. 


This is where the on-court hand-wringing begins offensively, and honestly, I'm not sure where the major concern comes from.

It's very much true that Irving and Doncic like the ball in their hands. It's especially true for Doncic, who leads the NBA in average time of possession (9.6 minutes) and seconds per touch (6.39), ranks second to Trae Young in dribbles per touch (5.59) and fourth in touches per game (90.5) overall.

Irving isn't close to any of those marks. Would it shock you to learn that the Dribble Gawd himself ranks 22nd — in a tie with Dinwiddie, oddly enough — in time of possession (5.7), 41st in seconds per touch and 53rd in dribbles per touch (3.77)? You're welcome, friends.

But seriously, it feels like people are extrapolating some of Irving's iso exploits and turning him into a heliocentric nightmare that can't fit alongside Doncic. It couldn't be further from the truth.

On a basic level, Irving's ability to shoot — and opponents treating him like a top-of-the-line threat, which can't be said for Dinwiddie — should open up the floor for other Mavericks. 

Jason Kidd isn't the NBA's Andy Reid, nor should he be confused as such; he won't be drawing up fancy screen designs to confuse defenses. It became a running joke in Dunker Spot watch parties (rock with us, folks) that fan pleas for more off-ball movement led Kidd to essentially respond with, "Here's a stagger for Tim Hardaway Jr. — enjoy!"

As bland as the movement stuff for Dallas can be, Irving can operate within those concepts. The Mavs love "Chicago" action, a common set in the league where a player receives a pindown before flowing into a handoff.

Josh Green misses the assignment in the first clip, but you can see the Nets run it for Irving in the second.

That basic stagger for Hardaway? They'll run it for Dinwiddie too, in order to get him a head start downhill. With Irving's downhill funk and pull-up chops, it's easy to envision him cooking more in that setup.

What stands out about Irving is how smart of a cutter he is. That bodes well considering the amount of double-teams Doncic draws in the post. But even in off-ball actions designed for him, he's fine going off script to find a better opening.

And speaking of Doncic: Get ready for Irving to set screens for Doncic too, particularly during clutch time.

Irving has plenty of experience screening for bigger ball-handlers. He's done so for LeBron James during their Cleveland years together. The Nets were generating good looks out of the Durant-Irving inverted ball screen this season, even if the numbers behind it (0.88 PPP) were underwhelming. Screening for Doncic should be money.

As mentioned earlier, Irving likely being defended by smaller players may make it less enticing for defenses to switch that action. If teams opt to throw two defenders at Doncic, that'll open up short-roll opportunities for Irving. That doesn't seem ideal.

Off rip, Doncic is a much better passer than Durant, meaning Irving should have earlier, more fruitful short-roll opportunities than he saw in Brooklyn. Beyond that, Irving's best traits — pull-up mid-range shooting, rim finishing, dump-off passes — are highlighted in this setup.

Have fun dealing with that. 

The cloud hovering over all of this is, of course, how often we'll see Irving, period. Beyond that, it's fair to wonder what the defense will look like.

Irving is a more stout on-ball defender than Dinwiddie by my eye, though that isn't the highest bar. For whatever it's worth to you, Irving grades out as a slight positive (plus-0.2) according to DunksAndThree's Estimated Plus-Minus (EPM) metric, while Dinwiddie is firmly negative (minus-1.9). The size difference may hurt, especially once teams get into mismatch-hunting mode as the postseason nears. 

But in a Western Conference that feels up in the air, I understand why the Mavericks made the gamble. When examining the on-court fit, I'd argue it's a pretty good one.

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