Kyrie Irving trade grades: Mavericks earn high marks for landing All-Star point guard from Nets
Kyrie Irving has been traded to the Dallas Mavericks, and the winner of the deal was… the Houston Rockets?
Let’s explain. The Rockets currently have control of every Nets first-round pick between now and 2027 thanks to the James Harden trade. The Nets just traded their second-best player, who happens to be close friends with their best player, for a package of largely win-now assets. In all likelihood, that means they are either about to trade their best player, Kevin Durant, or they are going to mortgage even more of their future assets to try to win around the 35-year-old Durant. Either way, those deep future picks headed to Houston are looking pretty valuable right now.
But that’s not the only victory for Houston here. The Rockets share a division with the Mavericks. Winning in that division with a 23-year-old Luka Doncic hanging around was always going to be difficult. Well, now the Mavericks have used a good chunk of their trade assets on a 30-year-old, volatile and injury-prone point guard. The deal certainly makes the Mavericks more dangerous right now, but it raises a lot of questions about their future. For all we know, Irving will be gone by the time the Rockets are ready to contend two or three years from now. If he is, Doncic’s future in Dallas is even less secure.
That should give you a rough idea of the magnitude of the risk both the Mavericks and Nets took on Sunday. This is the sort of deal that could result in either one of them winning the championship in 2023… or losing their best player down the line. That makes grading the deal an exceedingly difficult exercise. The range of outcomes for both of these teams is wide. But in the end, one of these teams did come out ahead. Here’s how both of them did in the deal.
Brooklyn Nets: C
Ignore the three separate star trade requests Brooklyn has endured over the past year for a moment. Ignore the fact that they traded a star without getting one back. Just imagine hearing about this trade three months ago. At that point, Irving was quite possibly the single most toxic trade asset in basketball. Some even wondered if Irving might retire, and even if he didn’t, the Nets could have credibly allowed Irving’s contract to expire at the end of the season without receiving compensation knowing that there simply wasn’t a better alternative. To turn that player into what the Nets ultimately got is, in the grand scheme of things, a victory.
Spencer Dinwiddie, despite his injury history and inconsistent shooting, is an 18-point-per-game scorer who thrived in his first stint with the Nets. Dorian Finney-Smith is among the best 3-and-D wings in basketball. The unprotected 2029 first-round pick they landed was especially valuable as Doncic’s contract expires in 2027. From that perspective, the team that last employed Irving is essentially betting that Kyrie will do the Mavericks what he once did to the Nets. If Doncic leaves Dallas in 2027 or before, that 2029 first-rounder is among the most valuable outstanding picks in basketball.
The Nets have a few of those right now. They also hold a 2027 first-round pick from the 76ers that is only top-8 protected. There is a real chance that the older and injury-prone 76ers are out of contention by then. Brooklyn’s own 2029 first-round pick is quite valuable as well, especially considering all of the picks the Nets currently owe Houston. The Nets can trade a 2027 first-round pick as well, though it would be the lesser of their own pick and Houston’s thanks to swap rights granted by the Harden trade. With four tradable first-round picks, the Nets could, in theory, turn around and go land another big fish and jump right back into the contender’s pool. If they want another scoring guard, they can go try to blow the Bulls away for DeMar DeRozan or Zach LaVine. If they’d prefer to lean into defense, OG Anunoby is seemingly quite available. They have options. Their season doesn’t have to be over.
Squint hard enough and you could even see a scenario in which this is positive for the Nets. Brooklyn’s winning percentage with Irving (82-61, 57 percent) is identical to their winning percentage without him (77-58, 57 percent) since he arrived in 2019. His playoff scoring average of 22.2 points per game as a Net is nearly a five-point drop from his career regular-season scoring average of 27.1 points per game. Irving offers little as a playmaker or defender. He’s too small to function in a switch-everything defense. His late-game shotmaking is extremely valuable in the right context, but realistically, how many of those shots would he be taking on a team with Durant?
And yet, it’s hard to fairly grade the Nets without knowing what comes next. There are positive outcomes available to them here. There is also the looming specter of Durant’s last trade request in July. If he asks out again, the next few years of Brooklyn Nets basketball suddenly look pretty depressing. The Nets can’t tank. Doing so would only benefit Houston. That essentially means that they have to spend the next five days seeking out deals that would placate the 2014 MVP. Those deals might exist on the open market. They’re not going to be cheap. Even a best-case scenario in which they land another significant piece drains their future cupboard even more. Durant is 34. He doesn’t have that many great years left.
That’s what makes this trade so precarious for the Nets. Before Durant’s injury, they had just won 18 of their previous 20 games. They were ready to contend for the championship right away. They might be able to fight their way back there between now and the deadline, but they’ve traded the relative certainty of at least one playoff run for a whole bunch of question marks. There might be a few positive outcomes available to the Nets, but there are significantly more negative ones. They’re going to have to thread a very thin needle to make this work.
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Dallas Mavericks: B+
All of your misgivings about Irving are warranted. He’s controversial. He’s injury-prone. He’s expensive and is seemingly expecting another long-term commitment. All of that is true, and it pales in comparison to the reality that Luka Doncic wanted help. After losing Jalen Brunson in free agency, the Mavericks have asked Doncic to carry an unsustainable offensive burden. His 38.52 percent usage rate is the fifth-highest single-season figure in NBA history. He has made his displeasure clear. The Mavericks wanted another star. They were seemingly planning to wait until the offseason to get one. At that point, the 2023 first-round pick they own the Knicks would likely convey and they would be able to offer all seven of their available future first-round picks in a deal for a proper Doncic co-star.
Those picks still might not have been enough for such a deal. Only so many superstars exist in the NBA at any given time, and so many teams have spent the past few years preparing to trade for one that the cost likely would have been too high for Dallas. The Thunder, Rockets, Jazz, Pelicans, Grizzlies, Spurs and Knicks are all loaded with assets for that sort of trade. The Mavericks would have lost bidding wars against any of them. Realistically, that meant that their only path to a star was trading for one so flawed that those teams wouldn’t want him. They had to trade for Irving here and now. They might never have gotten another chance to land Doncic a partner.
Irving certainly is that flawed. All of those defensive concerns he presented in Brooklyn will persist in Dallas. Fortunately, the Mavericks have less of a need for playmaking than the Nets do. Doncic, even at 23, is a far better passer than Durant. Nets lineups featuring Irving and no Durant still managed to score at a fairly efficient rate this season. That’s going to be important for the Mavericks, as their offense currently dips by around 12 points per 100 possessions whenever Doncic goes to the bench. The ability to keep him there longer in the postseason is going to be extremely valuable. In their 2021 first-round series against the Clippers, Doncic shot 57.4 percent from the floor in first halves and 40 percent in second halves. He simply ran out of gas. Brunson mitigated that problem slightly a season ago, but Irving, who can credibly take even the most difficult late-game shots, will go even further toward keeping Doncic fresh for 48 minutes (and perhaps beyond).
Had this deal been completed right under the wire on Thursday’s deadline, this grade might not be quite so positive. The Mavericks gave away their best perimeter defender in the deal. Finney-Smith was essential in slowing down Devin Booker last postseason, and without him, the Mavericks are going to struggle to field passable defensive lineups. They were already ill-suited for a postseason matchup with Nikola Jokic, but that was less problematic prior to this deal simply because the Mavericks lacked any real urgency to win this season. Now, they have to be prepared for whatever the Western Conference throws at them.
They have five days to get there, and they still have plenty of assets to work with. By sending out their 2029 first-round pick, the Mavericks retained access to their 2025 and 2027 picks as trade fodder. They still owe their 2023 pick to the Knicks, and the protections on it could complicate their plans to deal those future selections, but that problem can be easily remedied by either offering the Knicks a second-round choice to agree to make the 2023 pick unprotected or by phrasing the picks traded in their next deal as “the next allowable pick(s)” rather than specifying which year(s) they would convey. Either way, they can pretty comfortably move two first-round picks for the right player. In Tim Hardaway Jr. and Davis Bertans, they also have two sizable mid-tier salaries to use for such a deal that wouldn’t have a major impact on the immediate rotation. Bertans rarely plays, and Hardaway’s offense isn’t as important with Irving in place.
The question now becomes: what do the Mavericks prioritize with those two future first-rounders? Do they want a stopper to replace Finney-Smith? Alex Caruso is the perfect low-maintenance defender to slide between Irving and Doncic. How about a do-it-all forward? Washington might willing to consider two first-rounders for Kyle Kuzma. Maybe a big man to throw at Jokic? How does Jakob Poeltl sound? There are options across the board here. The Mavericks aren’t done, and their team should make a whole lot more sense come Thursday.
And yet, we can’t ignore the reality that Irving was available at this price for a reason. The Mavericks already swung and missed on one superstar trade when they landed Porzingis. They won’t get a third chance at this. They can no longer trade seven years’ worth of first-rounders and their best role player is now a Net. In essence, that means that this deal was their last chance to convince Doncic that he belongs in Dallas for the long haul. If Irving gets hurt, or gets involved in another controversy, or simply declines with age? There’s nothing the Mavericks can do about it. Their bullets have been fired. They’d better hope they can win with Irving right now, because the reality of this trade is that it’s likely going to make Doncic a champion as a member of the Mavericks, or it’s going to make Doncic a champion as a member of some other team. The former was always the goal. This was probably the best chance Dallas was going to have to make it a reality. But the latter is suddenly looming as a far scarier alternative. This was a good trade for the Mavericks today. It might be a very, very bad one for them tomorrow.