Wondering whether the pairing of Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving can be the bedrock of a championship team is a fair thing to ponder. Yet despite the obvious reasons to do so (defense, Irving’s history with prior teams), the focus in most mainstream media coverage has been about offense, and whether those two can co-exist sharing the ball.
While the data shows this part of the equation is a silly thing to question (more on that later), to be fair, Doncic does have to adapt and morph his game a little now that he’s playing with a talent like Irving. We didn’t see much last season, but that’s expected with Irving being dropped in the middle of an NBA season, without much practice or training camp. Hell, even if Doncic doesn’t change his off-ball ways, the duo can still be largely successful.
So with the baseline understanding that these two players can and already have worked well together, the bigger question is: how much better can they get?
The reality: It is already pretty good
Before getting to the ceiling of the Doncic-Irving pairing, it feels best to wind back and address the elephant in the room: the two were already pretty damn good in limited time last season after the trade deadline. Dallas’ catastrophic second half of the season, failing to reach the play-in, tanking the final two games, put a stink on the entire season that extended to Doncic and Irving. The team went 5-11 in games Doncic and Irving played together, ergo, that must mean the trade was a failure.
Not true! Despite the fact that the Mavericks season did circle down the drain after the trade was completed, that had less to do with how Doncic and Irving played together and more about how barren the rest of the roster was, both before the trade and most certainly after. Consider these numbers (all taken from stats site Cleaning the Glass):
- Doncic and Irving shared the floor together last season for exactly 900 possessions. In those 900 possessions, the team was plus-4.6 per 100 possessions, scoring 121.7 points per 100 possessions with a 60.2 effective field goal percentage.
- Of all lineups that played at least 100 possessions last season, the Doncic/Irving lineups were 80th percentile in net-rating, 94th percentile in points/100 possessions, 99th percentile in eFG%, and 91st percentile in turnover percentage.
- For context, a 4.6 net-rating on Cleaning the Glass for a team’s full season would have ranked fourth in the league last season, behind Boston (6.9), Cleveland (5.8), and Memphis (5.0).
There was no better example of the duo’s potency than the game last season against the 76ers back in March. Irving scored 40, Doncic scored 42, and the Mavericks picked up a big win against a quality playoff team. While that wasn’t the expected rocket launch of success the team hoped for post-trade, it was a good showing of why the two can work, and why they work so well.
Turning Irving into spot up shooter is almost unfair for defenses to navigate while Doncic works in the pick and roll.
The Mavericks have said they want to run more this season during training camp, and while those types of statements are often dubious, Irving does represent the best possible kick in the pants for Doncic’s slow crawl up the court. While Doncic definitely prefers to control the tempo, actually having a co-star to kick the ball ahead to makes a difference in mixing the offense up, stylistically.
So in the aggregate, without changing much, Kyrie and Luka works. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, or that more work can’t be done. In terms of specific actions, Doncic and Irving did almost nothing special or unique — so much of the offense was my turn, your turn, and Irving is such a brilliant shooter that it just worked out. Doncic didn’t finish one play as a screener in the pick and roll last season and the few times the two did screen for each other it was solely to create a switch to give the other star an advantage in isolation.
Dallas will have to mix it up a little bit, if nothing else than to maximize the star duo. The rest of the roster is improved, but the team will only go so far as Doncic and Irving take them. Plus, some unique actions between the two could be just what is needed for an offense that has stagnated in the clutch. The Mavericks were the 22nd ranked clutch offense last season, scoring just over 106 points per 100 possessions in clutch time. Considering the Mavericks not only led the league in clutch games last season with 55, but also led the league in clutch minutes played, that number is a fairly decent sample size. While the narrative is that the Mavericks offense in the clutch suffers due to a lack of imagination and low percentage Doncic step-back threes, surprisingly after the trade last season Irving had a higher usage rate in the clutch than Doncic (34 percent for Irving, 24.5 percent for Doncic).
Irving did handle the ball a decent amount in the clutch, the problem was the aforementioned lack of imagination and some awful shooting — post All-Star break Irving shot 12-of-29 overall in the clutch (41.4 percent) and 4-of-17 on threes (23.5 percent), while Doncic shot 7-of-21 overall and 1-of-9 from three. In addition to the lack of quality scheming, it didn’t help that most of the Mavericks roster was absolutely cooked post-Irving trade. If it wasn’t Tim Hardaway Jr., pretty much no other Mavericks player down the stretch presented themselves as a threat in clutch games, allowing defenses to focus their full attention on Doncic and Irving.
The new offseason additions should help lessen that load a tad, with players like Grant Williams and Seth Curry have bonafide high-leverage shot making experience, but it will be on the Mavericks star duo and the coaching staff to get those two to be at their best when the games are on the line and not just in the first few quarters.