The Dallas Mavericks made a franchise-altering decision in their move to acquire Kyrie Irving. Parting ways with hometown favorite Dorian Finney-Smith and last year’s acquisition Spencer Dinwiddie removes two stalwarts from the projected playoff rotation on a team with precious few players of that ilk. The trade adds the biggest wild card the NBA has seen since Dennis Rodman. An ultra-talented and mercurial guard who fits on the court beautifully alongside Luka Dončić yet represents the real and present danger of an unknowable number of potential stress-inducing episodes for the duration of his stay in Dallas.
In a recent column, I offered my best advice — Don’t Panic — while also concluding that the answers the Mavericks give us will tell us the question they have in mind this season. As much sense as it might have made to stand pat and retool in the offseason once the 2023 draft pick conveys, the brain trust decided to take the greatest gamble in franchise history. If the answer is trading for Kyrie Irving, the question is now clearly stated: How can we upgrade the top end of the roster before the trade deadline — even at the cost of fewer options in the offseason? In other words, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.
The Marshmallow Test
In 1972, psychologist Walter Mischel conducted an experiment at Stanford University which gleaned insights into the connection between delayed gratification and positive life outcomes. Mischel seated children between the ages of three and five at a table within arm’s reach of a plate featuring a familiar pillowy sweet treat. The children were told that they could eat the marshmallow right away or choose to wait until the adult conveying instructions returned to receive a second marshmallow.
What is commonly referred to as The Marshmallow Test included researchers following up with those children later in life multiple times. Years later, surveying friends and family of the test subjects found that “preschool children who delayed gratification longer in the self-imposed delay paradigm, were described more than 10 years later by their parents as adolescents who were significantly more competent”. Those same children who managed to delay gratification for the greater reward had higher SAT scores and brain imaging revealed greater development of their prefrontal cortex.
For the Dallas Mavericks, angling for the second marshmallow likely meant standing firm at the trade deadline — or at least keeping their best assets on hand for a chance to operate in the trade market with a full complement of draft picks for the first time since 2019. While that may have been the plan as recently as a few days ago, things change fast in the NBA’s era of player empowerment. It is clear that this new front office was not willing to pass up a chance to acquire Uncle Drew and see Irving land with a Western Conference rival.
Delayed gratification would have come with massive uncertainty. Waiting until the offseason would have required self-control and patience in the face of a season of regression after last year’s magical run. As the Rudy Gobert and Dejounte Murray trades taught us, the price for star players under something closer to normal circumstances is double the price the Mavericks just paid — or more. There is a bevy of well-documented reasons why this particular star player comes at a steep discount. The Mavericks clearly decided to eat the first marshmallow and swallow the inherent risk that comes along with it.
The upside Is undeniable
Kyrie Irving is one of the most talented players in NBA history. Insane handles, silky shot, and superior court vision. If Dončić is a point guard in a forward’s frame, Irving is an elite shooting guard in a point guard’s body. Expect to see real relief in Luka’s usage rate, real punishment to defenses who double-team Dončić with abandon, and finally someone else Jason Kidd will trust with last-possession shots.
It will feel strange for fans to say goodbye to Finney-Smith, who have witnessed his maturation from undrafted free agent to franchise backbone. Dinwiddie turned out to be everything Dallas could have hoped for in his near calendar year with the team. Yet there is no doubt that the team’s goal of concentrating talent at the top of the roster has been accomplished. Irving will be the second-best player on the Mavericks for the remainder of the season and potentially beyond.
Plan powder is dead and the tenuous high wire act begins now
General manager Nico Harrison was hired for moments like this one — leveraging the relationships developed during his time as a Nike executive into the ability to acquire and then cajole star players into winning pieces of a championship-caliber roster.
Kyrie Irving will either repeat his cycle of adoration, conflagration and noisy exodus with yet another team or he will settle into the Robin role and find some semblance of peace and balance for the first time in several years as a professional basketball player. The risk now is the obvious tether between Irving’s state of mind and the calculus Dončić will eventually make about resigning with the Mavericks.
When the Eagles reunited in the early 90s for their Hell Freezes Over tour, they released a track that fits this moment — Learn To Be Still. The song explores how difficult finding contentment can be when the internal upheaval of the soul causes a person to constantly run for a change of scenery. It can appear to be an easier solution rather than facing what truly ails them and finding peace in a good but less-than-perfect scenario.
While there will be those who can never reconcile his choices that have waded into controversial waters, Irving has the chance — perhaps his last — to put the drama from the last few years behind him and win a second championship. The legacy of a star guard who was able to help LeBron win his most meaningful ring and potentially help Luka win his first is far different from the permutation of the timeline where Irving achieves nothing but high-stakes headaches for three franchises after leaving Cleveland.
Mark Cuban will roll out the red carpet. The GM and head coach adore him. Luka will welcome him with open arms. The question Irving will answer through his actions is whether he can find contentment playing basketball once again, if he can...Learn To Be Still. The Mavericks just pushed their chips in believing he will.