Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving: How the unlikely duo made the Mavs title contenders


The trade didn’t seem smart.

Pairing Kyrie Irving and Luka Doncic? It was February 2023, and the mere idea of those superstars sharing the court for the Dallas Mavericks seemed disastrous.

Irving was a persona non grata in the NBA world after a disappointing 3 1/2-season stint in Brooklyn, in which his team never advanced past the second round of the playoffs and his name was constantly mired in controversy. And Doncic was looked at as someone who complained too much and didn’t know how to command a team.

But the Mavericks decided to gamble, with coach Jason Kidd believing he could bring those personalities together. 

“You have to give credit to J Kidd because at this time Kyrie was seen as someone you shouldn’t touch,” Mavericks assistant coach Jared Dudley told FOX Sports. “Luka was, ‘Hey, does he have enough leadership skills? Can you play for Luka?'” 

When the Mavericks pulled the trigger on the deal, the NBA world cringed. 

ESPN gave Dallas a D grade for the trade. And as recently as February, a Deadspin article called for general manager Nico Harrison and Kidd to be fired, arguing, “No team in recent memory has failed to build around a generational superstar more than the Dallas Mavericks have with Luka Doncic.”

Only now, the Mavericks are about to make their third NBA Finals appearance in franchise history, and are widely being hailed for having one of the greatest backcourts of all-time.

The road to this moment has been far from smooth.

The Mavericks missed the playoffs last season, as the injury-plagued duo of Irving and Doncic went 5-11 in games they both played. At the time, it seemed the Mavericks had proven their detractors right, with the trade being a bust.

But the team’s front office still believed this would work, and made re-signing Irving to a three-year, $120 million deal their No. 1 priority last offseason. It has paid off now. But, at the time, did they ever think of going another direction? Did they consider pushing the panic button?

“No, that was far from the truth,” Kidd told FOX Sports. “We’re judged on wins and losses. That’s fair. We were coming down the stretch and we weren’t making the game-winner or the game-tying shot. I think that helped the relationship on the floor because of the struggle. It’s alright to fail.”

In the NBA, with teams spending hundreds of millions of dollars on player salaries, there’s often a very short runway for failure. The mantra is often win now or bust. Not learn from your mistakes and improve.

But the Mavericks deeply believed in a Doncic and Irving pairing.

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And over the last eight months, things dramatically changed for them. Their trust blossomed, especially during preseason trips, eventually growing into a symbiotic relationship that has led to fireworks on the court. The team added the right pieces around those superstars. And now, the Mavericks are competing for their first title since 2011. 

For Kidd, it’s a testament to the team’s belief in itself. 

“I think sometimes we think, when we fail, it doesn’t work,” Kidd told FOX Sports. “We don’t give it enough time. With Nico and those guys giving it enough time, we’re here.” 

*** 

No one knew what to expect when Irving arrived in Dallas. 

Dudley was initially assigned to be “his guy.” They’d watch film. Dudley would show up at the arena 3 1/2 hours early to go through Irving’s pre-game drills. He was the person who was supposed to get the superstar oriented.

Dudley acknowledged he was unsure how it would all go.

“When is the real Kyrie going to show up after all the stuff you hear?” Dudley wondered. “But it never came. He seems like he’s at peace.”

Irving was quiet at first. The past few seasons had taken a toll on him. The Nets’ Big Three — Irving, Kevin Durant and James Harden — who were expected to dominate the league, had greatly underperformed. And Irving was often entrenched in drama, including being heavily criticized for missing games because he declined to get vaccinated, and then posting a link on Twitter to an antisemitic film. 

When Irving demanded a trade from Brooklyn, it was clear he needed a new start. With the Mavericks, there was an immediate sense of comfort. 

Irving had a pre-existing relationship with Harrison, who used to work as an executive for Nike and had known Irving since he was in high school. And Irving had long looked up to Kidd, who was the team’s point guard when the Mavericks last won a championship.

Irving began opening up and becoming much more talkative.

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“When a person is at peace, they can perform at their highest ability,” Dudley told FOX Sports. “Kyrie is, ‘Don’t lie to me and just keep it real with me.’ I feel that knowing that information, some of these organizations must not have [done that].” 

For the Mavericks, Irving has been the antithesis of a lightning rod for drama. He has kept a low profile, only making headlines for his play. The Mavericks believed he could thrive here as soon as he developed chemistry with Doncic. 

That hope materialized ahead of the season when they traveled to Abu Dhabi and Madrid in October for a few exhibition games.

Doncic views Madrid as his second home after leading Real Madrid to the 2018 EuroLeague title as a teenager, and he embraced the opportunity to show his superstar teammate the country that helped form who he is today. They got meals together. Irving even apparently DJ’d at a party Doncic hosted. They both brought their families, and got to know each other as men off the court. 

It led to a newfound chemistry that was palpable to everyone around them. 

“I thought the Abu Dhabi and Madrid trip really helped those two get to know each other better off the floor,” Kidd told FOX Sports. “I think sometimes we always look at on the floor first. But I think off the floor, for them to spend that time together was big.”

That trust grew throughout the season. And when the Mavericks traded for Daniel Gafford and P.J. Washington in February, and then made them and Derrick Jones Jr. starters to add an infusion of defense and a veteran presence in that lineup, the Mavericks began to soar. They won 16 of their final 18 games before Doncic and Irving rested the final two contests of the season. Now, the offensive wizards were surrounded by a stalwart defense, which climbed from No. 23 in the league to No. 1 as of March 7.

Irving and Doncic’s on-court magic was especially visible during their win over the Minnesota Timberwolves in the Western Conference finals. 

When Doncic was hampered by knee and ankle injuries in Game 2, Irving offered to take over point guard duties. And when Doncic’s offensive game was bottled up in the fourth quarter, Irving tried to unscrew the pressure cooker, telling him he’d take over that burden. (Irving carried the team with 13 points over that period, while Doncic had five.)

It allowed Doncic to be ready when it counted most, with him making the game-winning 3-pointer with 3.5 seconds left over Rudy Gobert‘s outstretched arms.

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It’s clear that Irving has evolved into the leader that Doncic needed.

“His leadership is amazing,” Doncic said. “The way he connects us. I think me and Kyrie are the leaders of this team. But he’s the one that’s been in the Finals. He’s the one that won in the Finals [alongside LeBron James in Cleveland in 2016]. He’s the one that is really leading it. He’s keeping us all together and motivated.”

In many ways, Irving understands Doncic and the pressure he faces. He closely witnessed something similar when he was teammates with James, who has long been the face of the league. Doncic is widely pegged as being next to wear that crown. And Irving wants to help teach him things he learned from witnessing how James managed the crushing expectations.

“I played with one of the greatest of all time, arguably the greatest of all time, up there with the top three, top four, and [he] dealt with a lot of that criticism and pressure, shielding us from it as teammates,” Irving said. “I think you see the same things happen and occur with the greatest players that play. They take on a lot of pressure, and they love it, and they relish in it, and they love answering that call. For me, I just want to be supportive and continue to be an all-time great next to [Doncic]. And continue to show him the ropes, letting him fly.”

Doncic credits Irving for helping him mature and see the game differently. But, in many ways, Irving gained Doncic’s trust more than anyone could have anticipated. 

“I think he respects him at the highest level and I think it’s hard for Luka to respect people,” Dudley told FOX Sports. “I think he respects his craft and I think he respects how he goes about his craft, coming in three hours before, his crazy layups, what he has to endure and what he has accomplished. I think he respects him at the highest level. And you have to do a lot for Luka to respect your basketball game.” 

***

Kidd is grateful that the Mavericks held the rope instead of making a rash decision when it appeared the Irving experiment was doomed last season.

He knows that doesn’t always happen in the league. In fact, he has some “what ifs” from his playing days, especially during his first stint with this very franchise.

Back when Kidd was in his early 20s, he infused the city of Dallas with some thrilling basketball, alongside Jim Jackson and Jamal Mashburn, who were known as the “Three J’s.” But because of injuries and immaturity, they were quickly broken up. When asked if they could’ve won a championship if they had pushed through their drama, Kidd didn’t hesitate.

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“Yeah,” Kidd told FOX Sports, flashing a smile. “We were so young. We were 21, so we were like Oklahoma City. We were just babies in a league that was much older. It was a man’s game. It still is a man’s game, but we were playing against 30-year-olds. We were young. We didn’t know how to win. And it’s a difference in college to the NBA. You could be down 15 or up 15 with six minutes left, and the score can be flipped on you just because of understanding what it takes to win in this league.”

For Kidd, his first championship didn’t come until much later in his career, after he returned to Dallas in February 2008, joining forces with Dirk Nowitzki. In fact, he said he sees some similarities in the way they approached their partnership with the way the team’s current stars have done so.  

“Dirk and I spent a lot of time having dinner on the road to get to know each other,” Kidd told FOX Sports. “He’s a good dude on and off the floor. I think these two [Irving and Doncic] got to see that about each other.”

Now, Kidd will have an opportunity that eluded him in the past: Winning his second title with the Mavericks.

He’s just glad his initial hunch paid off. And he hopes he can lead this iteration of the Mavericks across the finish line. 

After all, he knows how rare it is for two of the league’s biggest superstars to thrive alongside one another. So, his goal is simple.  

“To embrace it, to stay steady, and to enjoy this time because you’re not promised anything to come back the following year,” he said.

Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.


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