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How Cleveland Cavaliers Can Ensure Kyrie Irving Stays 'Forever'

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How Cleveland Cavaliers Can Ensure Kyrie Irving Stays 'Forever'

Kyrie Irving's right.

It's way too early to so much as broach the subject of his long-term future with the Cleveland Cavaliers, as he recently made clear to Jodie Valade of The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

It's also the wrong time to ask Irving about anything contract-related. After all, the 2013-14 NBA season is underway. The guy's got a grueling schedule with which to concern himself, one that he and the Cavs hope will end with their first playoff appearance since LeBron James skipped town in 2010.

Granted, the lingering emotional scars left by James' "Decision" are probably responsible for Cleveland's curiosity concerning Kyrie's commitment to the team. For his part, Dan Gilbert, the Cavs' owner and infamous author of the Comic Sans screed that chased LeBron to South Beach, says he "feel[s] good about Kyrie being here for his entire career."

As well he should. Irving has been forthcoming about the strength of his bond with his billionaire boss (via The Cleveland Plain Dealer):

I finally got out of calling him Mr. Gilbert. We have a great relationship, and it extends off the basketball court. That's about where it stands right now.

It's still too early to be talking about that stuff, especially a contract extension, and all that. But we have a great relationship, me and Dan.

Those two should have plenty of time to fortify that relationship further before Irving can frolic through free agency on his own. The 21-year-old All-Star is under contract with the Cavs through the 2014-15 season and will be eligible for his first extension once the NBA's summer of 2014 officially rolls around. Chances are, Irving will be tapped as Cleveland's "super max" player, with a monstrous five-year deal to follow.

For those of you following along at home, that means Irving won't likely be an unrestricted free agent until 2020.

If Kyrie isn't prepared to touch the topic of an extension right now, why in the world would anyone expect him to verbally commit to being the face of the franchise for life?

There'd be nothing for him to gain from such lip service. If, in six years, the Cavs are terrible and Kyrie decides to leave, he'd be beaten over the head with his own words, just as James was three years ago.

And, really, Irving shouldn't do anything to let Cleveland's management off the hook just yet. It's incumbent upon Gilbert, general manager Chris Grant and the rest of the Cavs' front office to build a winning program around Irving, to make the organization one for which Kyrie wants to play until the day he retires.

 

Got to Admit It's Getting Better

Ned Dishman/Getty Images

Good news, Clevelanders: that effort is already well underway. The Cavs have surrounded Irving with a crew comprised of productive veterans and talented youngsters alike—one that, if healthy, should be good enough to get Cleveland into the postseason.

The Cavs' season-opening win against the big, bad Brooklyn Nets was a perfect example of how good this team is right now and how much better it could be as the campaign progresses. Irving (4-of-16 from the field) wasn't exactly sharp from the opening tip, but, like any floor general worth his salt, he found other ways to affect the game. He crashed the boards (seven rebounds), wreaked some havoc on the defensive end (two steals) and, above all else, got his teammates involved (nine assists).

For the most part, those very teammates came through. Tristan Thompson, he of the ambidextrous switch in shooting form, poured in 18 points and nine rebounds. Anderson Varejao tallied 11 points, eight rebounds, three assists and a block in his first game back from a blood clot in his lung.

Dion Waiters (11 points, two assists, three steals), Jarrett Jack (12 points, three rebounds, three assists) and C.J. Miles (10 points) provided the sort of backcourt support that Irving will need all year long. Earl Clark came through with nine points and eight rebounds in his Cavs debut.

Even Andrew Bynum and rookie Anthony Bennett, both still recovering from significant injuries, managed to contribute something to a team-wide effort that, with head coach Mike Brown's guidance, limited the new-look Nets—albeit without Deron Williams for a big chunk of the game—to 40.2 percent shooting on the defensive end.

Keep in mind, this Cavs squad still has plenty of room for improvement. Bynum has a ways to go before he's back at full strength and could regain his All-Star form once he is. Varejao, too, is still knocking off some rust from his health-related hiatus.

Bennett will get better as he acclimates himself to the NBA game and finds his niche as a pro. Waiters (21) and Thompson (22) are both young, with plenty of potential yet (and soon) to be realized.

And, of course, there's Irving, who will have better shooting days in the future but clearly doesn't need to play a perfect game for Cleveland to compete, even against the league's (presumed) elite.

 

The Climb

Ned Dishman/Getty Images

Kyrie, for his part, is well aware of the extent to which the pieces are falling into place around him.

We're building a culture here in Cleveland, and he told me I'm one of the guys at the forefront of it. We're building an identity here, and I want to be a part of that. Having guys come in, building a championship contending team, that's what it's all about.

Like LeBron, Irving, a former No. 1 pick, figures to have the Cavs on the verge of the postseason in his third year as a pro and his first under Mike Brown. For all the flak that Brown caught for his "failure" with the Los Angeles Lakers, there's no denying his gift for teaching youngsters how to play the right way on both ends of the floor, how to play together and, in turn, how to win.

(Remember, his Cavs won a whopping 127 regular-season games in between 2008 and 2010 with LeBron and a whole bunch of nothin'.)

Does that mean Brown will have the Cavs on track to crack the NBA Finals in the second year of his second stint and the fourth of Irving's career, as was the case when James was still up-and-coming?

That's a tall order for any team, especially one faced with the caliber of competition that Cleveland is in the Eastern Conference over the coming years. The Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls are already comfortably entrenched in basketball's upper echelon, bolstered by sturdy cores that will be together beyond this year and next. The New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets may have trouble keeping up after this season, given their respective salary cap nightmares, but they won't likely be down for long once their books clear up.

The Cavs aren't the only up-and-comers in the East, either. The Detroit PistonsMilwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards all have aspirations (legitimate or otherwise) of taking that ever-elusive "next step" this season and carrying their ascension linearly, if not exponentially, into subsequent campaigns.

And, of course, there's the Miami Heat, who will be championship contenders so long as LeBron is patrolling the shores of Biscayne Bay.

 

So You're Telling Me There's a Chance...

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

That may not be the case for much longer. As Grantland's Zach Lowe noted prior to opening night, this season could see the end of the line for the two-time defending champions as we know them. Six members of the Heat's (aging) corps of role players will be free agents come July, and, in theory, everyone else on the roster not named Norris Cole could join them. LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh can opt out of their mega-deals, while Udonis Haslem, Joel Anthony and Chris Andersen all hold player options of their own.

Realistically, Haslem and Anthony won't turn down guaranteed dough. But will James want to return to Miami if Wade's health continues to decline and if Bosh seeks out a bigger payday and a more prominent role elsewhere? Will LeBron simply confide in Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra and hope that the rest takes care of itself?

Or will he see a contender-to-be coalescing in Cleveland and seriously consider undertaking the most bizarre homecoming in the history of pro sports?

Truth be told, that can all be chalked up as pie-in-the-sky talk—for now, anyway. If Bynum and Varejao are both healthy and productive enough to warrant being kept around, the Cavs will be right at or just over the projected cap, with $62.5 million in salary committed to 2014-15.

Cleveland could clear enough space to sign LeBron by parting ways with those two and/or Alonzo Gee, whose $3 million for next season isn't guaranteed, either. But if things work out with this group in the months to come, doing so could jeopardize the Cavs' ability to build on whatever success they cobble together in 2013-14, assuming James doesn't jump ship from Miami.

And it's not as though next summer would represent Cleveland's only chance to lure a big fish to its smaller pond. Depending on how much Irving earns in year one of his expected extension, the Cavs could have upward of $30 million in cap room with which to play around on the open market in 2015. That year's free-agent class could include a number of All-Stars looking to join championship contenders, including Kevin Love, Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge and Tyson Chandler.

 

Wheeling and Dealing

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Convincing a player of that caliber to come to Cleveland may seem unlikely—and would be pretty much without precedent in the city's sports history. Free agency, though, isn't the only way forward for the Cavs to make a big splash.

Cleveland's wheeling, dealing and tanking since the summer of 2010 has left the franchise with a plethora of precious draft picks that weren't originally its own. Here's a quick rundown of what the Cavs are owed, courtesy of Hoopsworld:

- A first-rounder from the Sacramento Kings (thanks, J.J. Hickson!) that's top-12 protected in 2014, top-10 protected through 2016 and becomes a second-rounder if in the top 55 in 2017.

- Two 2014 second-rounders, one from the Orlando Magic and one from the Memphis Grizzlies.

- A 2015 first-rounder from the Heat (thanks, LeBron!) that will be top-10 protected through 2016 and unprotected come 2017.

- A 2015 first-rounder from the Grizzlies (thanks, Marreese Speights!) that's top-five and 15-30 protected until 2016, top-five protected in 2017 and 2018, and unprotected in 2019.

Those picks could all go toward acquiring prospects who'd then be groomed into rotation players over the long haul. Or, better yet, the Cavs could package those selections into trades for high-impact veterans and disgruntled stars from other cities.

That's what the Houston Rockets did. They stashed picks and hoarded assets until the opportunity to snag another team's star came around. Once word broke that contract negotiations between James Harden and the Oklahoma City Thunder had reached an impasse, Rockets GM Daryl Morey leapt into the mix, with a bundle of picks and young players in hand, to bring the reigning Sixth Man of the Year to Space City.

With Harden on board, the Rockets became one of the NBA's most promising, young teams, and they were able to convince Dwight Howard to join the fun this past summer.

 

A Central Division Blueprint

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

To be sure, the Cavs might not need a blockbuster trade and/or a free-agent coup to make the leap from pretender to contender.

What if, come July of 2015, Cleveland has re-established itself as a solid bet to win 50 games and advance in the playoffs every year with Kyrie leading the way?

That may not be enough to entice a top-tier free agent to take his talents to the shores of Lake Erie, but it could be plenty to draw in a solid veteran or two to shore up the operation, both on the court and in the locker room.

Consider what the Pacers have done over the last few years. In 2011, they announced their intention to return to playoff contention as a scrappy eighth seed in the East, one that made the top-seeded Bulls work inordinately hard just to come away with a five-game series victory.

During the summer that followed, the Pacers struck gold with David West, who appeared to be on the verge of joining the Boston Celtics before signing a two-year deal in Indy. West's toughness, productivity and leadership proved the perfect fit for the Pacers, who pushed the Heat to six games in the second round in 2012 and blossomed into a championship hopeful during the spring of 2013.

Now, Indy can count itself as one of Miami's chief challengers in the East and a legitimate threat to take home the Larry O'Brien Trophy in 2014, with a core of Paul George, Roy Hibbert, George Hill and West that's signed through 2015-16.

The Cavs are still a long way off from where the Pacers are, and they have a ton of hard labor ahead to get there. Moreover, Indy—despite the great work done by Larry Bird, Kevin Pritchard and Donnie Walsh to allow them to brave the NBA's winds of change—will need more than a few lucky breaks to bring home a title within that window, before their young stars reconsider the wisdom of trying to win in the Circle City while weighing their own career options.

 

The Best-Laid Plans...

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

But even the very best need lucky breaks to bring home the bacon. Just ask the Heat, who wouldn't be two-time champs right now without their fair share of serendipity.

Those teams that plan properly and play the right way seem to find themselves on the luckier side of the ledge more often than not. So long as there's a positive, winning culture that's cultivated by and permeates through every level of a given organization—from the owner's box and the front office to the sideline and the locker room—the team on the floor will never find itself too far adrift from the cream of the crop.

That much a team can control, much more so than the health of its veterans or the machinations of its rivals. Put together a sturdy structure, and those who become a part of it—be the players (young and old), coaches or executives—will adjust accordingly.

Will Kyrie win a title with the Cavs at some point?

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So far, the Cavs seem to be getting that much in order. Their owner is on the same page with his GM, has more than mended fences with his new old head coach and is already on a first-name basis with his superstar-in-the-making. The rest of the roster is rapidly improving, and the fans are already flocking back.

It's still way too early to predict when (or if) the Cavs will capture their first NBA title or if Kyrie will be the one to lead that celebratory parade. But the pieces are falling into place for just such a run in the years to come, a run that may strengthen Irving's sense of loyalty to the team that chose him first overall in the 2011 draft.

The rest, it seems, is up to Kyrie and his teammates to bring that winning feeling back to Cleveland—and for the Cavs to do what it takes to keep the good times rolling this time around.

Enough so, at least, to ensure that yet another franchise savior doesn't seek out greener pastures and warmer climes in the future.

 

Will Kyrie go the way of LeBron, or will the Cavs capture a title to keep him around? Share your prognostications with me on Twitter!

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