On the surface you can see it, why the Mavericks would cast their lot with Kyrie Irving, why a seemingly functional NBA franchise would tie its future to one of the NBA’s most dysfunctional top talents. The Mavs are struggling, 28–26 at the start of the first full week in February and a long way from the Western Conference finalist they were a year ago. Luka Dončić is putting up MVP numbers, but every exasperated end-of-game look from Dončić has had to make Dallas fearful that it was inching closer to the day Dončić, under contract through the 2025–26 season, could ask out.
On paper, Irving fits.
Irving, of course, heads to Texas with a lot more than what’s on paper.
Irving is an elite shooter with premier ballhandling skills … and enough baggage to fill a 747. After blowing up Cleveland’s chances of winning multiple championships and a messy exit in Boston, Brooklyn is the latest organization Irving has attempted to burn down. Make no mistake: Irving’s trade request was all about Irving. The Nets have struggled recently but were 18–2 in the 20 games before Kevin Durant went out with a knee injury, and Durant’s return is just around the corner. Extension talks with Brooklyn, though, had stalled after the Nets shockingly asked for protections in case one of the league’s most unreliable superstars proved again unreliable, and Irving knew the only way he could secure a lucrative long-term deal would be for Brooklyn to trade him—and his Bird rights—to a team that would give it to him. Irving’s team even played the victim, leaking that Irving was so offended by the Nets’ offer that he wouldn’t sign a four-year, $200 million extension if it was put on the table.
In Dallas, Irving will work with a management team he is familiar with—Irving’s relationship with Mavs GM Nico Harrison goes back to their Nike days, and his connection with Jason Kidd dates back even further—and a superstar he should complement. Dončić, who reportedly signed off on the Irving trade, should welcome the help of one of the NBA’s most efficient, high-volume scorers. Irving has already proven he can play, even thrive, opposite a ball-dominant star.
It was telling that the market for Irving was largely composed of teams with varying degrees of desperation (Lakers, Suns, Clippers), and Dallas reeked of it. Efforts to surround Dončić with a costar had failed in recent years. The 2019 trade for Kristaps Porziņģis was a flop. The Mavs failed to lock up Jalen Brunson when they could have done so on the cheap and then refused to go all-in when Brunson hit free agency last summer. Dallas badly needs another playmaker. The Irving fit isn’t perfect—good luck building a playoff-worthy defense with that roster—but the Mavericks are now the only NBA team with two All-Star starters.
But for how long? The price Dallas paid—Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith and a 2029 first-round pick—suggests the Mavs see Irving as more than just a rental. Dallas could free up close to max-level cap space if Irving walks, which could be used to pursue James Harden, Fred VanVleet, Khris Middleton or any of the top-tier free agents this summer. But you don’t surrender draft capital—the Mavericks sprinkled a couple of second-round picks on as a sweetener—if you aren’t at least hoping it works out.
Irving is eligible to sign a two-year, $83 million extension with Dallas immediately or wait until this summer, when the Mavs could—emphasis on could—lock Irving up with a five-year deal. Theoretically, Dallas will have leverage. Four teams—the Jazz, Pistons, Spurs and Rockets—project to have north of $35 million in cap space, and none of them figure to register interest in Irving. Re-signing Rui Hachimura complicates a Lakers pursuit, and the Suns’ books are a mess until Chris Paul comes off it.
The Mavericks will undoubtedly want to see how Irving fits before considering a long-term contract. But even if it goes seamlessly there remains enormous risk. The Cavs were a year removed from a title when Irving made his trade request in 2017. After publicly declaring his intention to re-sign with Boston in ’18, Irving was out the door less than a year later. Brooklyn was the city Irving chose to play in with the costar (Durant) he wanted to play with. Four years later all the Nets have to show for it is a second-round playoff exit.
Maybe Dallas will be different. Maybe Irving will connect with Kidd, embrace a role opposite Dončić and realize that as he approaches his 31st birthday he is running out of second chances. Maybe the Mavs won’t be the next team Irving torches on his way out of town. But an oft-repeated definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. Dallas will put that to the test.