Kyrie Irving and his longtime basketball BFF, Kevin Durant, spent years organically building their relationship before joining forces as Brooklyn Nets.
Durant took notice of Irving during the latter’s NBA rookie season of 2011-12. Their paths were comparable. They became teammates on the 2016 United States Olympic squad and won gold in Rio de Janeiro. For the next few NBA seasons they often FaceTimed after games.
At noon Sunday in American Airlines Center the star compadres will face one another for the first time since blockbuster trades four days apart jettisoned them from the Nets in separate directions – Irving to Dallas; Durant to Phoenix.
“I think it’ll be an exciting time just for us to compete again, against each other,” Irving said. “It’s my brother for life, but when we’re stepping out there, looking forward to friendly competition.”
Their uniting in Brooklyn in July 2019 was a joint decision, with Irving leaving Boston as a free agent; Durant forcing a sign-and-trade from Golden State a day later.
Four years later, Irving and Durant find themselves aligned with new co-stars, under far different circumstances. The regular season ends in five weeks, leaving little time for on-court chemistry and off-court relationship building before the playoffs.
The way Mavericks coach Jason Kidd describes it, Irving and Doncic are on a speed date.
“I think it’s just a matter of time that Luka and Kai spend time off the court,” Kidd said. “At dinner [or] for coffee, so they can get to know each other better. We’re doing this on-the-fly on the court, but I think the relationship off the court is big too.”
The Mavericks’ Thursday night win over Philadelphia, in which Doncic (42 points) and Irving (40 points) became the first Dallas tandem to score 40 or more points in the same game, showed that the on-court potential is prodigious.
Certainly it’s unrealistic to expect consistent dual-scoring explosions, and Dallas is nowhere close to playing playoff-caliber defense.
But during their mere six games together, Irving and Doncic have shown more mutual respect and personal affinity for one another than did Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis in two-and-a-half seasons.
“Playing with Kai is so easy,” Doncic said.
As for off-court relationship building? We’ll see. Because Irving can become an unrestricted free agent this summer, there’s extra urgency for Irving, Doncic, the coaching staff and the Dallas franchise to figure out if this is going to be a long-term alliance.
Close losses to the Kings, Timberwolves, Lakers and Pacers were reminders that midseason trades, no matter the caliber of player acquired, typically result in a transition period for all concerned.
“As much as we play the game on paper, it’s still played on the court,” Kidd said. “You know they have to work through the kinks, but I think at the end of the day we’ll be happy with what we have.”
New Jersey-raised Irving, who turns 31 on March 23, wouldn’t seem to have much in common with a Slovenian who just turned 24, but no one says they have to become best friends.
They just need to build enough of a personal rapport to care about one another as teammates, which helps foster on-court unselfishness.
Irving mentioned the “whirlwind” of settling in with a new city and team, of getting “cabin fever” from living in a hotel while his wife and children settle in, too.
“I think me and Luka will have a lot more time moving forward to hang and chill,” he said. “I think the road is meant for that, building those types of bonds.”
When Kidd made it a point after the victory over the Sixers to say that he hopes Irving and Doncic will spend time together off the court, it caused me to think way back to Kidd’s rookie season as a Maverick in 1994-95.
That season 24-year-old Jim Jackson averaged 25.7 points, 22-year-old Jamal Mashburn averaged 24.1 points and 21-year-old Kidd was the NBA’s co-Rookie of the Year.
Through the years all of the Three J’s have expressed regret that the troika imploded the following season, with all three eventually getting traded.
“I really regret not getting to know those guys, not getting to play with them,” Mashburn once told me. “It could have been something special.”
When I mentioned the Three J’s to Kidd after practice on Friday, he offered a much more relevant comparison to what is happening now.
“That was youth,” he said of the J’s. “This isn’t youth. This is a midseason trade. This reminds me of when I came to play with Dirk.”
That was Feb. 19, 2008, when the Mavericks acquired 34-year-old Kidd from the then-New Jersey Nets to pair him with Dirk Nowitzki. After winning 51, 50 and 55 games the following three seasons, Dallas won 57 games and the 2010-11 NBA title.
“To be able to come midseason, you’re trying to feel your way out and get to know your teammates,” he said. “You’ve seen them on the other side; now you’re playing with them. I think it just takes a little time.
“It’s funny that Kai came from the Nets; I came from the Nets. I think that’s the better comparison. The Three J’s were young 20s. We had no idea. We’d be up 20 with six minutes left and lose by 10 and we didn’t know what happened.”
Kidd didn’t recite how often he and Nowitzki socialized back in 2008, but it’s true that before that season they knew little about one another personally.
Now they are good friends. Winning a championship together certainly helped, but getting to know one another on and off the court helped pave the way to that title.
“So when you look at now, that’s the scenario that I draw from,” Kidd said. “How can those guys get together outside of basketball to get to know each other?
“Because a lot of times it’s just basketball. We keep playing games and then it’s over and everybody goes their separate ways. So I think that’s, that’s the next step for those guys.”
Irving and Doncic might not become as close at Irving and Durant, but then again that pairing never realized its on-court potential.
Could Irving-Doncic become like Kidd-Nowitzki? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Considering they’ve already shared a 42- and 40-point game, a cup of coffee or maybe lunch seems like a doable next step.