Could the Cavaliers lose Kyrie Irving?
Four years after LeBron James fled, Cleveland is at a crossroads with its new star
If Kyrie Irving truly wants to be on a different team next season he can probably make it happen.
The Cleveland Cavaliers will offer Irving a maximum contract extension once they're allowed to on July 1, and if he hasn't signed it by October, the team will likely be forced to trade him before the Oct. 31 deadline for third-year players to extend their contracts.
The Cavs aren't without leverage. They can match any deal offered if Irving hits restricted free agency in the summer of 2015, and they control his rights through summer 2016. Waiting out that period would cost Irving millions, not to mention open himself up to losing it all should some unforeseen major injury occur. For these reasons, no player in Irving's position has ever declined to a sign a maximum contract offer.
But the scars of LeBron James' departure four years ago are far from healed, and they're certainly going to affect the way the club and its current star player handle their future together.
After losing James to Miami in 2010, having a franchise player who doesn't commit long term will not be tolerated by the Cavs. Team owner Dan Gilbert already has said as much publicly and the fan base has largely supported him, just as it did upon his release of the now-infamous letter trashing James soon after his decision to leave.
But that letter harmed the franchise in the eyes of many more. If the Cavs do take a hard-line position with Irving, he could wind up using such stains on the team's recent history against them.
Such a negotiating tactic would most certainly come at a cost for Irving -- it probably would badly damage his popularity, costing him endorsement opportunities and beaucoup bucks. And it'd officially end the extended honeymoon he has enjoyed in Cleveland, putting the spotlight directly on the shortcomings in his game that the national exposure helps to cover up.
Which is why Irving will probably sign a contract offer from the Cavs in some form and anything else would end up as a negotiating ploy. But by making the franchise sweat it out this summer -- the seeds such a strategy having already been planted -- he may be able to get a more favorable contract than the Cavs would prefer to give.
Irving is among the NBA's most popular players. Those "Uncle Drew" spots that Pepsi created for him made him a YouTube hit. His wizardry with the ball in his hands and all the last-second shots make for quite the attractive in-game package. Irving was even named an All-Star starter this season -- the third player in Cavs history to do so, along with James and Shawn Kemp -- though the field was thinned out by injuries to Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo.
But despite winning MVP honors in New Orleans this year, and the 3-point shootout crown at All-Star Weekend the year before, Irving has struggled to reach the same type of success with the Cavs. In his three seasons, the 21-year-old has spent a total of five days above .500, none of them coming after the second week of the season. That's more a reflection on his team, but it goes to show what Irving, who is currently ranked ninth among point guards in player efficiency rating at 20.04, has overcome to get uncommon national popularity in a small market like Cleveland.
There are those who even wonder whether Irving is truly worth a maximum-level contract, including some within the Cavs organization. His game has regressed a bit this season, particularly from a leadership standpoint, with his clashes with Dion Waiters making headlines, and it has raised a red flag or two in-house.
And while Irving has said all the right things about staying put in public, it's no secret that Irving's camp has been making it known for years now the point guard would like to be elsewhere long term. No matter how much he denies it.
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Just how strongly Irving feels about it could rise to the forefront soon. Though the Cavs recently went on a six-game win streak, their schedule the rest of the season is brutal. In March, Cleveland, now 22-35 and five games out of a spot in the postseason, plays the Grizzlies, Spurs, Clippers, Suns, Warriors, Heat, Thunder, Rockets, Raptors and Pacers.
The season may be another lost one for Irving and the Cavs, which means the clock on his impending decision will likely begin sooner than later.
More than likely, Irving will use his tenuous position to work favorable options into a new contract. A big one will be an escalator clause, which would create what is known as a "supermax." Also referred to as the Rose Rule, players who sign max contracts can get a bump of about $3 million per season if they make two All-NBA teams, win the MVP or get voted in to start two All-Star Games by the time the extensions kick in after their fourth season. Rose got it for winning the MVP. Blake Griffin was voted into two All-Star Games and also made two All-NBA teams. Paul George is likely to qualify for it this season, when he gets his second All-NBA team nod.
Irving has never made an All-NBA team, and he's unlikely to do so this season. But his popularity can't be denied, so those All-Star bids could wind up earning him tens of millions.
Despite it all, the Cavs, like most teams, will likely want to lock up Irving for the full five years they are allowed and make him their "designated player." But Irving might be able to leverage a shorter, more player-friendly contract with opt-out clauses.
Just signing him will lead to exhaling in Cleveland, as it did in 2006, when James signed his own extension with the team. That, though, proved to be the beginning of the end of that superstar's tenure with the Cavs, as James passed up a six-year offer for a three-year extension.
If they can't somehow work things out, Irving could find himself somewhere James never did in his seven seasons in Cleveland: the trade market.