National Basketball Association
Mavericks, Mark Cuban gamble big with Kyrie Irving trade
National Basketball Association

Mavericks, Mark Cuban gamble big with Kyrie Irving trade

Published Feb. 5, 2023 10:05 p.m. ET

No one believes in the power of change more than Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. 

He changed the way NBA owners behave, donning team merch and taking a seat on the floor near the bench. He changed the way the league grades its referees, introducing analytics and quotas. Hell, he appears on a TV show, "Shark Tank," that changes the fortunes of small business owners on a weekly basis.

And now, he apparently believes he can change Kyrie Irving.

"Cuban didn’t get to where he is," said one Eastern Conference GM, "by not taking risks."


It’s not so much what acquiring Irving from the Brooklyn Nets reportedly cost the Mavericks — Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, a first-round pick and two second-rounders — as not knowing which Irving the Mavericks are getting. Will it be the one that helped deliver the Cleveland Cavaliers’ only championship and can go head-to-head with any scoring point guard in the league? Or the one that has not played in more than 54 games in any of the last four seasons, forced his way off two different teams, and has been constantly embroiled in controversy?

"Hopefully," said one league source familiar with the Mavericks’ thinking, "they get the best of Kyrie."

That very well could depend on whether Cuban has made a stronger commitment to him than Nets owner Joe Tsai was willing to make. Irving told the Nets last week, according to multiple reports, that he wanted to be traded by Thursday’s deadline, after the team balked at giving him a fully guaranteed maximum-salary four-year extension.

"Dallas likely gave him some type of assurance that they will get close to the number that he wants or expects," the Eastern Conference GM said. 

But sources familiar with the Mavericks’ and Irving’s thinking flatly said "no" when asked if the team and Irving already have an extension agreement in place. 

One even described the Mavericks’ acquisition as "a rental."

And while there were reports that multiple teams were interested in Irving, few reports said anything about what was being offered or the interested teams’ willingness to give Irving the extension he sought from the Nets, perhaps for a reason.  

"I could see a team willing to pay him close to max numbers," an Eastern Conference scout said, "but maybe only on a team-friendly two-year deal, again with everything tied to availability."

That, league sources say, was one of several stumbling blocks in the Los Angeles Lakers’ attempt to reunite Irving with LeBron James, his teammate on that championship-winning Cavs’ squad. The Lakers were willing to include one of their future first-round picks in 2027 or 2029 only on the condition that Irving wound up re-signing with them, a source close to the team said, and if James took responsibility for keeping Irving in line. 

The Lakers also needed to involve a third team in the deal because the Nets weren't interested in the primary piece of their offer, sixth-man Russell Westbrook and his $47 million expiring contract. The Nets are intent on keeping this season's championship hopes alive and thereby discouraging their remaining star, Kevin Durant, from reviving his trade demand last summer. The Lakers thereby needed a third team to take Westbrook and their conditional pick in exchange for sending the Nets players they viewed as equal to or an upgrade over what they were losing in Irving. 

An executive deeply familiar with both Westbrook and the Durant dismissed the latter's willingness to play with Westbrook again. The two may have an amicable relationship now, the executive said, but Durant has no desire for a second stint playing with Westbrook after ending their eight-year run together in Oklahoma City nearly seven seasons ago.

The Spurs, a league source said, were willing to be the third team the Lakers needed, but it’s not clear which players they were willing to send to the Nets or what compensation they wanted for taking on Westbrook. 

Irving has quite a travel log for an eight-time All-Star, considering this is his fourth team in 12 seasons. Blame or credit that to him being, arguably, the most talented yet enigmatic player the league has ever seen. His mesmerizing ball handling and shot creating makes it hard to guess exactly where he is going on the court; his behavior and attitude off it are equally unpredictable. One day he declares he wants to stay with a team forever, the next he’s demanding to be traded or high-tailing it as a free agent. He seems eager to be taken seriously but insisted for a time that the world was flat. He presents himself as an agent for positive change, supporting a variety of charitable causes, yet he traffics in debunked conspiracy theories and endorsed one by far-right provocateur Alex Jones. He routinely shares spiritual axioms on social media, but also posted the cover of a highly anti-semitic film without explanation, only apologizing after being excoriated by everyone from Nets owner Joe Tsai to the players union to commissioner Adam Silver.

And after repeatedly saying that leading the Nets to a championship is all that mattered to him, he successfully forced his way off a 32-20 team that is currently fourth in the Eastern Conference and onto the 28-26 Mavs, who have four teams breathing down their neck for the sixth and last guaranteed playoff spot in the West. 

The Mavs’ interest in Irving makes sense as yet another attempt to find a championship-caliber co-star for point forward Luka Dončić. First, in another forced-trade scenario involving a New York team, they acquired Kristaps Porzingis from the Knicks. That experiment lasted less than three seasons before they shipped Porzingis to the Wizards. Point guard Jalen Brunson filled the vacuum but was apparently deemed not big enough of a star and left as a free agent for a better offer (from the Knicks).

Rival scouts, however, aren’t sure about this tandem either. It makes the Mavs extremely isolation offense-forward at a time when that style is being rewarded over defense. But that generally changes in the playoffs, when more physical play is allowed and fewer fouls are called. Neither Irving nor Dončić are considered quality defenders, and the Mavs were already ranked 24th in defensive rating before the deal.

"Huge risk for Dallas," said one Western Conference scout. "The fit with Luka is not great."

Irving and his mother-agent, Shetellia Riley Irving, though, are thrilled with the move, a source familiar with their thinking said. Mavs GM Nico Harrison was hired last summer after nearly two decades with Nike, where he cultivated relationships with some of the NBA’s biggest stars, including Irving (Harrison had left for the Mavs before Nike ended its relationship with Irving this fall, a move inspired, in part, by Irving’s tacit endorsement of the anti-semitic film, "Hebrews to Negroes, Wake Up Black America!").

Irving also supposedly is excited about playing for Hall of Fame point guard and Mavs head coach Jason Kidd.

Of course, Irving was thrilled after he forced his way out of Cleveland to the Boston Celtics, and again when he left the Celtics after one season to join Durant in Brooklyn. Maybe that’s why an executive with one of Irving’s first three teams panned the deal.

"Terrible decision by Dallas," the executive said. "This is going to go the way it always does."

Cuban apparently thinks otherwise — and is willing to put his quick-change skills to the test to prove it.

Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, "Rebound," on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and "Yao: A Life In Two Worlds." He also has a daily podcast, "On The Ball with Ric Bucher." Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

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