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Luka Doncic’s Game Can Reach New Heights By Accommodating Kyrie Irving

The Kyrie Irving trade introduced a wave of wrinkles, both on and off the court, for the Dallas Mavericks. On the court, Irving becomes the first Maverick to be a true talent peer to Luka Doncic. He’s a player who can both complement and amplify Doncic’s skill set while also serving as a star-level offensive engine when Doncic sits. Irving’s prowess as both a ball handler and shot creator are well-documented, but it’s his playmaking and ability to be a threat off the ball that should elevate Doncic and this Maverick offense to new heights.

For the first time since he became the face of the franchise — which was approximately four seconds after they acquired him in a draft day trade with the Atlanta Hawks — Doncic is playing with someone who can cause him to alter his approach on offense. Throughout Jason Kidd’s tenure, Dallas has deployed an isolation-heavy offense that leverages 5-out spacing with very little movement from their non-ball handlers. Doncic, Spencer Dinwiddie, and previously Jalen Brunson all excelled in isolation and created constant rim pressure, which led to a bevy of open 3s for their teammates.

Dallas wants to drag teams into the mud and play at Doncic’s meticulous pace — they rank 29th in pace and 1st in half-court offensive efficiency, per Cleaning The Glass. It was an offensive strategy good enough to carry them to the Western Conference Finals last year, and as of this writing, Dallas has the eighth-best offense in the league.

However, both Doncic and Dinwiddie need multiple dribbles to break down their defenders, which often led to stagnant possessions that dwindled late into the clock. And without Brunson this season, that stagnation has amplified in crunch time, leading to a series of late game collapses by Dallas early in the year. Doncic leads the league in average seconds per touch at 6.9 a game. Dinwiddie isn’t far behind at ninth at 5.44 seconds. Dinwiddie performed well this season, but his skill set and approach was too similar to Doncic’s, and the results weren’t always great. This dynamic and roster construction forced Doncic into a career-high usage that made Dallas almost entirely dependent on his brilliance. Dallas was 11.8 points per 100 possessions better when Doncic was on the floor and went 0-7 in games without him prior to the trade.

The Irving trade introduces a star-level talent and a new play style into the Maverick offense. The offensive variance was obvious in Irving’s debut against the Los Angeles Clippers. Typically, Dallas is a heavy pick-and-roll team, which allows Doncic to dissect defenses over and over until they waive the white flag and send hard doubles. With Doncic during Irving’s debut, the offense featured a series of dribble hand-off sets that let Irving and their other perimeter players play off of Dwight Powell to scramble a switch-heavy Clipper defense. Here’s a fun little play they ran to get Irving his first basket.

Irving’s ability to change direction off the ball, stop on a dime, and shoot off the catch opens up new possibilities for Kidd. Introducing new motion sets will lessen the burden on Doncic and allow his teammates to be more involved in the offense, even if most of the creation still comes from Irving and Doncic. The change in approach was evident from one stat in Irving’s debut: Tim Hardaway Jr. and Reggie Bullock both had a season-high six assists. While the offense won’t always be so egalitarian, this is a glimpse at what Irving’s presence can provide.

When Doncic returns from injury, he will have to acclimate to playing off the ball for the first time since his rookie season when he was paired with Dennis Smith Jr. Doncic spends the majority of his possessions creating for himself and his teammates — only 12.1 percent of his made field goals this season have been assisted. For the first time in his career, Doncic has a teammate that can create shots for him and will require him to stay alert off the ball. Irving is the best passer with whom he’s played since Doncic shared a backcourt with Goran Dragic on the Slovenian national team in 2017. That version of Doncic was a fantastic off-ball player that utilized all his on-ball brilliance to make smart cuts and push in transition.

Irving presents an opportunity for Doncic to diversify the game and make it easier on himself. He’s already proven he can do all the heavy lifting of an MVP, but to make a long playoff run, he’ll need to learn when to take his foot off the gas and allow Irving to create for everyone. To start, Doncic needs to play more in transition and early offense to avoid the stagnation that has plagued the Mavericks at times this season. With Irving replacing Dinwiddie and Josh Green soaking up Dorian Finney-Smith’s minutes, Dallas has the personnel to be dangerous in the open court. They don’t need to be the Seven Seconds or Less Suns, but taking a step up from 29th in pace can supercharge this offense.

To fully maximize this partnership, Doncic will have to tap into the younger version of himself. It’s a funny thing to say about someone who is 23, but Luka Doncic’s basketball career has been defined by his ability to be brilliant beyond his years.