Kyrie's cloudy future in Cleveland

Updated: January 31, 2014, 2:48 AM ET
By Brian Windhorst | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- The last thing the Cleveland Cavaliers and their fans need is drama with their franchise player and his future. But that is starting to appear unavoidable with Kyrie Irving, who can expect to see himself involved in rumors for at least the next six months.

On Thursday, ESPN.com's Chad Ford mentioned in a chat that Irving has been telling people privately that he wants out of Cleveland. This made significant news, especially in Cleveland, but it was only a matter of time before these rumblings became public.

There has been chatter among league executives, agents and even fellow players about Irving's unhappiness for awhile now. He has downplayed those whispers and did so again after a lopsided Cavs loss to the New York Knicks on Thursday when he said: "I'm pretty sure I'm going to be here for a long time."

But that is not going to stop anything.

Irving's halfhearted non-denials -- "I'm in Cleveland now," he said for the second time in the past year to try to dampen rumors -- are not as strong as what has been spreading in the league about Irving's mindset.

Irving is reaching a crucial point and he and his support system realize it. This summer the Cavs can offer him a contract extension. Between now and then Irving is going to have the most leverage he has had in his career to this point. It seems like he intends to use it.

[+] EnlargeKyrie Irving
Sam Forencich/Getty ImagesKyrie Irving can become a restricted free agent after the 2014-15 season.

Here is why and how.

The Cavs have Irving signed through the 2014-15 season and because he would then be a restricted free agent, the team controls his rights through at least the '15-16 season. But that is misleading, as Irving's future will likely be determined this summer because of something team owner Dan Gilbert vowed back in 2012. Gilbert said he learned a major lesson from 2010 when he lost LeBron James, and that is to never let his franchise player get to free agency again. He said so himself.

"The key thing, whoever you are and wherever you are, you cannot wait," Gilbert said before last season. "The big lesson was if a player is not willing to extend, no matter who they are, no matter where they are playing, no matter what kind of season you had, you cannot risk going into a summer and having them leave."

It seems likely the Cavs will indeed offer Irving a contract this summer that would kick start in 2015. It will probably be a maximum contract because All-Stars like Irving are so rare and valuable. If Irving takes it, the team will control him for perhaps the next six years.

If Irving doesn't sign it, well, Gilbert said it all. No matter who they are ... you cannot wait.

Even with restricted free agency in which the Cavs would have matching rights, Irving not signing that extension would apply extreme pressure to the team to act because it would be a no-confidence vote.

Would it be a risky maneuver for Irving, who has had injury problems in his career, to play it this way? Absolutely. Would it hurt his sterling reputation among the fans, who just voted him in as a starter in the All-Star Game? Probably. Would he truly go through with that? It depends on just how displeased he is with his current situation. And he is not looking very happy when he's playing.

You don't need any inside info, just read Irving's demeanor recently. Just when he was expected to take the third-year leap that so many stars before him have made, Irving seems to have played much of the season with a frown. His stats are down, but more troubling his effort level and leadership have been inconsistent, to say the least.

This traces to what seems to be a growing displeasure with coach Mike Brown, who he has not clicked with in the least. Irving is unhappy with how Brown runs the offense and Brown is unhappy that Irving's interest in the defensive end has eroded massively in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, Irving's on-court and off-court compatibly with Dion Waiters, the player who was drafted in 2012 to be his backcourt mate, is virtually nonexistent. That discomfort, combined with the large disappointment that No. 1 overall draft pick Anthony Bennett has been, has Irving questioning whether general manager Chris Grant is putting the best team around him.

With that contract decision coming up, there is reason to believe that Irving may try to force changes. The rules favor the Cavs in keeping him, but he is in position to dictate some of the terms. That makes it hard to predict which way this will go.

This of course cuts both ways, the Cavs haven't exactly been thrilled with everything they have seen from Irving in recent months. He has acted very much like a 21-year-old at times. And while he may not be thrilled with Brown, the Cavs coach has to have been taken aback by Irving going through periods of ball hogging and the absence of interest in giving defensive effort at times. That sort of play from your best player can undercut any team.

Irving's talent is undeniable. Going into this season, NBA.com surveyed the league's general managers and asked which player they would want to start a franchise with. Three players got votes: LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Not Paul George, not Stephen Curry, not Anthony Davis. During Team USA workouts last summer, Irving wowed observers among his peers with his abilities. He stands out among standouts.

A player like that, in his third season with some veterans such as Luol Deng and Anderson Varejao on his team, should not be on a 16-30 team. And that's where the rub is. Despite all that talent, the results have not equaled it. The Cavs may be asking themselves if Irving is worth investing $80 million, especially if he is going to be such a handful and may not deliver success like he appeared destined to do.

All of this is being watched closely by the teams around the league as they consider opportunities, because how this is going to play out is getting into the unpredictable zone.

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