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Misunderstood or not, Kyrie Irving poses a risk to the Mavericks

Mark Cuban thinks Irving is misunderstood. History says otherwise.

Sacramento Kings v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

There was plenty of criticism across the NBA ecosphere when the Dallas Mavericks traded for Kyrie Irving, and again this offseason when they signed him to a three-year deal worth $126 million (the last year is a player option). But Mark Cuban recently brushed off all those concerns.

During an interview on SiriusXM NBA radio with Frank Isola and Justin Termine at 2023 NBA Summer League, Cuban had this to say: “And I think Kyrie’s just misunderstood. Everybody sees all the noise and everything around him, but when you actually talk to him, I like him.”

Cuban might be right, but it doesn’t change the fact that for the past six years, Irving has been a magnet for controversy and division. His time with the Cavaliers, Celtics, and Nets all ended poorly. Even following the NBA casually it’s not hard to see the risks of investing into Irving. But it was a risk the Mavericks felt they had to take.

The Mavericks took a chance on Irving at the trade deadline last season, in part because they had to. Their trade assets decimated by first acquiring Luka Doncic and then trading for Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas found themselves in a bit of a crunch. Despite a run to the Western Conference Finals in 2022, it was obvious the team needed a talent upgrade, another player who was at least close to Doncic’s level. But with so few draft picks and young players available, their options were limited.

So it seemed like a gift when Irving became available for little more than one first-round pick and a couple of aging veterans in Spencer Dinwiddie and Dorian Finney-Smith. The Mavericks were able to acquire an All-Star guard whose skills complemented Doncic’s perfectly, for a price they could afford.

The reason they could afford him, however, is why it’s concerning they’ve tethered the franchise to such a mercurial player. The price to acquire Irving was so low because no other team was seriously considering adding him to their roster. The Mavericks were bidding against no one, because the rest of the NBA decided that despite his talent, Irving isn’t worth everything that comes along with it, on and off the court.

“If you do know Kyrie, Kyrie is just on his own time,” Austin Rivers said recently on the Ryen Russillo podcast. “He’s just a different guy. He’s not a bad guy. He’s just different. But Kyrie for sure is on his own time. And that sometimes doesn’t coexist with the GM, or president, or team’s time. And that can be like you said, a liability. So that’s where his issues have been. That’s why people have given up, a lot, on Kyrie Irving.”

Moving on your own time is great for artists, maybe even for players in solo sports like tennis and golf. But in a team sport, you’re accountable to so many people — coaches, front office staff, and teammates. And that lack of accountability, that’s why Irving is such a risk, and why the rest of the NBA wasn’t clambering to bring him into their building.

In the past six years, Irving has stated the earth is flat, and doubted the 1969 moon landing. He shared conspiracy theory videos from Alex Jones. He refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19, which banned him from home games with the Brooklyn Nets until March of 2022. He shared a link to an antisemitic film, leading to a five-game suspension with the Nets and the termination of his relationship with Nike.

Some of those controversies are silly, like the flat earth denial, and others are downright dangerous. But regardless of how you personally feel about each example, all of them caused distractions for his team and took the focus off basketball.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Irving’s teams have failed over and over again in the last six years. Since parting ways with LeBron James, Irving has failed to make it past the second round of the NBA playoffs. This is despite playing with a cavalcade of stars such as Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kevin Durant, and James Harden.

If your first reaction is to bring up how often Irving was hurt during several of those playoff runs, well, that’s also the point. It’s probably part of the reason why there was so little demand for Irving’s services. A small guard on the wrong side of thirty with a history of coming up injured in the postseason (2015, 2018, 2021) doesn’t project well going forward.

There’s already some sign of Irving taking a step back offensively if you look at the numbers closely. He doesn’t get to the rim at the same rate as he did early in his career. Irving’s percentage of shots at the rim (within three feet of the basket) hasn’t been above 20 percent since his last season with the Boston Celtics. It dipped to a disastrously low nine percent in his last full year with the Nets before rebounding last season.

It’s not surprising, then, that Irving’s free throw rate has fallen off a bit, to a low of .197 in 2018-19. He bounced back last season, no doubt due to Doncic’s gravity, and the Mavericks are definitely hoping that continues as they play together more. Irving is also an elite 3-point shooter, which would help offset him losing the ability to get to the rim at will. But there comes a tipping point where defenses realize Irving is more of a shooter than a dynamic guard. Dallas is betting that doesn’t come within the next two years. To be fair to the Mavericks, when Irving and Doncic shared the floor last season, the Mavericks as a team scored just over 120 points per 100 possessions, according to stats site Cleaning the Glass. That is an outrageously great number, one that shows why the Mavericks made the deal and that Irving, despite some aging to his game, is still just as potent as a talent.

Historically, James has been the only one capable of channeling Irving’s genius on the court into success in the playoffs. Without James’ gravity, Irving has been untethered, a comet barreling through the NBA universe, beautiful to behold but unpredictable and destructive.

The Mavericks are betting that playing with Doncic harnesses all of Irving’s basketball creativity at the same time he sheds all the distractions that have defined the last half-decade of his career. There’s certainly a possibility that happens.

But Irving has spent the last few years showing us who he is — the type of player who can put up tons of points, but is often injured and causes huge distractions for his teams. Coupled with his declining defense and sometimes inefficient shooting, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of how successful the Mavericks can be with Irving on the roster.