When James Harden joined the Brooklyn Nets, there was a question of roles, usage, responsibility, and positions. According to Kyrie Irving, he told Harden to run point, and declared himself the two guard. What this tells us about his fit with Luka is positive, but you may have also noted something else about the anecdote just mentioned. Kyrie and Harden didn’t last.
We know the ramifications of getting involved with Kyrie. Worst of all is antisemitism, and trailing far behind are, in no particular order–contrarianism, a kind of faux-spiritual hipsterdom, toxic flakiness, ego, quitting on his team, and a chronic willingness to not play NBA games. Despite knowing up front how they would best work on the basketball court, he and Harden didn’t work as personalities. Who could with Irving? (Besides Durant, the NBA equivalent of that new buddy you make whose roommate is the worst).
But as a basketball player, for the half-season or so that you get his best, Kyrie is a fairly seamless offensive player and, more importantly, one that can fit next to Luka Doncic. It’s surprising, considering Kyrie’s “mercurial” off-court nature, how fluid his offense can cohabitate with another star. Now, he might decide he doesn’t care about his team’s structure, or success, but again, consider this take hypothetically married to the bought-in Kyrie I expect to see until at least the next election, or blood moon, or moon in retrograde. For that fleeting half-season we will get, I think it will be a marvel how similar his function around Lebron, or Durant, or Harden and Durant will be replicated around Luka.
Kyrie and Spencer Dinwiddie both have held the ball between five and six minutes of game time this season. Consider the difference in their statistical profile and how quickly they spark offense within that allotted usage. Kyrie isn’t just a much better scorer, but a faster decision maker and a player with an actual knack for off-ball play, rather than just a willingness. Kyrie can create for himself or attack the gaps created by Luka’s insane playmaking gravity. He can drive-and-kick like Jalen Brunson did and generate paint touches at will, or hit a step back with even a bit of cushion. He can orbit Luka, coming off screens or taking the ball from Luka on a dribble-handoff. One of the more devastating plays in the Mavs toolbox is the guard-guard pick-and-pops Doncic runs with Reggie Bullock or Tim Hardaway Jr., which almost always leave them open on an above the break three with Luka double-teamed. You know, when he tosses that behind the back pass right where it needs to go? Kyrie is shooting 38 percent on catch-and-shoot threes (and he’s been in the 40s for most of his career on said shots), or can drive and kick and create a 3-on-2, or keep Luka from being doubled in general. Irving has shown a willingness to be this kind of flaring, streaking heat-seeking missile, not the missile-launcher itself, and his ability to both create and shoot off a versatile diet is comparable to only Steph, Dame, and perhaps a few others.
Often a player as problematic as Kyrie brings to mind late-career Allen Iverson or Stephon Marbury, and Kyrie has shown glimpses of regressing into such a player when his defense, attention to detail and basketball conviction are out of whack. Namely, in last year’s playoffs and in the 2019 playoffs, when Kyrie seemingly bet on the Bucks in his waning days as the leader of the Boston Celtics. This season, Kyrie has been excellent on offense; the Net’s offensive rating is only a point lower, at 116, with only Kyrie on the floor, as opposed to 117 with he and Durant. For comparison’s sake, the Mavericks without Luka on the floor are at 106. Defensively, Kyrie has come and gone; the Celtics perimeter size ate him alive, and it’s common to see him loaf in the regular season. But, his defense is as good or better than Dinwiddie’s when he’s at his most casual, and much better when he applies himself. He was quite good in the Cavaliers playoff runs, and last year he gave James Harden hell in the Nets first matchup with the Sixers after their deadline trade (one game he was notably invested in).
Is this a kind of coping? Absolutely, but it’s the highest ceiling that the organization has presented Luka with, both for the present and the future. If the offense works as I’ve suggested it could, the future might be preferable than some of those we’ve imagined for the team. An even bigger package for Zach Lavine? Moving assets and paying Brad Beal to be a worse version of Kyrie? If the offense is a supernova, our assets left (two picks, Jaden Hardy, Josh Green) might net us an All-Defense adjacent piece. Our cap sheets look much cleaner (though not as clean as many think). We can attach a pick to the large, negative contract of Davis Bertans to quickly get enough cap room for an impromptu free agent signing or absorbing a player without sending money out. In general there is a sense of optionality and open-endedness that didn’t exist before. The clarity of the offensive fit also means a clarity of our needs; positional size, defense, interior presence. The question is, does the uncertainty of Kyrie outweigh the uncertainty of our future beforehand?
If reading this has felt a tad bipolar; if you experience whiplash jostling between the positivity of the basketball and the abject fear of Kyrie, the human being, then it’s entirely appropriate. Adam Spinella quoted Lou Holtz and his three rules for leadership when talking about the trade; can I trust you, are you committed, and do you care? Only a fool would trust Kyrie to exhibit any of those qualities. It’s also an indictment of the front office that a risk like this was so necessary. Don’t even get me started on how much better off we’d be keeping Brunson and then trading for a third star.
But scared money, as Sam Presti said when quoting A Tribe Called Quest, don’t make money. I have a feeling I’m lying to myself, and that as soon as this offseason I might feel terrible for defending this move. In fact, I would bet money on Kyrie ending up on another team by the deadline of next season. For now, though, one can paint a picture of a title team in the near future. Before, you could squint and see the fuzzy outline, and one that was darkening fast. Now, there’s a bright light in that picture, a star at the center of its own solar system, just as likely to explode into a black hole.