Are Cleveland Cavaliers Running Risk of Losing Kyrie Irving?

Dan FavaleFeatured ColumnistJanuary 14, 2014

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 29: Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers kneels on the court after being hit in the face in the second quarter against the Golden State Warriors at Quicken Loans Arena on December 29, 2013 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

It's time the Cleveland Cavaliers stop woolgathering and start being real.

Kyrie Irving, their best player, is a flight risk. Although his potential departure isn't imminent, or even close to forthcoming, it is possible.

After bearing witness to faulty preparation, insufficient drafting and numerous lottery finishes, Irving could eventually leave.

When inevitably given the option, he could pilot his way out of Cleveland earlier than LeBron James ever did.

 

History Tells Us One Thing...

Jan 10, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers forward Paul George (24) celebrates with center Roy Hibbert (55) after the Pacers scored against the Washington Wizards at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana defeats Washington 93-66. Mandatory Credit: Bri
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The All-Star point guard will be eligible for an extension after this summer. Luckily for Cleveland, players coming off rookie deals tend to stay right where they are.

There are exceptions, of course. Last summer we saw the Milwaukee Bucks cut their losses with Brandon Jennings, shipping him to the Detroit Pistons in a sign-and-trade.

But Irving isn't Jennings—he's a superstar.

Over time, Irving has become overrated, depicted as a top-10 player when he's not there yet. At some point he will be, just not now. And it's through no fault of his own.

Irving is a victim of circumstance more than he is overrated. The Cavs placed unrealistic expectations upon his shoulders long before now, likely out of desperation to distance themselves from the James debacle. In doing so, they've aided in the misrepresentation of one of the NBA's most promising youngsters, and they haven't given him help.

But the DeMarcus Cousins' and Paul Georges, and many others, suggest that may not matter.

Cleveland can come at Irving with dollar signs well before he hits restricted free agency in 2015. Seduced by a lucrative payday and presumed max extension, Irving could sell himself on the Cavs' future, bleak though it may be, out of sheer convenience and financially driven thinking.

 

...But the Cavs Are Telling Us Another

Nov 9, 2013; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving (2) is consoled by power forward Tristan Thompson (13) and shooting guard Dion Waiters (3) after missing a shot at the end of regulation against the Philadelphia 76ers at Quicke
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Why would a player like Irving, headed for a lucrative extension, consider leaving the Cavs?

Because of the Cavs.

Since entering the league in 2011, Irving hasn't been given a supporting cast capable of playoff basketball—until this season.

We thought.

Draft-day decisions have been especially brutal for the Cavs, who have taken four top-four picks since 2011 and turned them into a core comprised mostly of disappointments:

Cavs' Track Record for Top-Four Picks Since 2011
PlayerYearSelected...Could've/Should've Drafted
Kyrie Irving2011First OverallNo one else
Tristan Thompson2011Fourth OverallJonas Valanciunas, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard, Nikola Vucevic
Dion Waiters2012Fourth OverallHarrison Barnes, Andre Drummond, Damian Lillard
Anthony Bennett2013First OverallVictor Oladipo, Michael Carter-Williams, Steven Adams, Tim Hardaway Jr., Giannis Antetokounmpo
Draft info via ESPN.com.

Irving is easily the most successful of the bunch. And while Anthony Bennett is the only one who can be considered a "bust," Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters haven't developed into prolific sidekicks.

On top of all that, Waiters' relationship with the organization can be described as "tenuous" at best.

From the Akron Beacon Journal's Jason Lloyd:

He has to stop sulking on the court when things aren’t going his way. He has to stop thinking people are out to get him. The coaches see it, the players see it ... basically everyone inside the organization has seen it.

[...]

When Waiters’ shot is falling, he can carry a team. When it’s not, he tends to shut down. He doesn’t defend, he gets careless with the ball... Players have quietly grumbled about Waiters’ act off and on all season, and those grumbles were growing louder Sunday night.

This comes just over a month after ESPN's Chris Broussard revealed that Waiters butted heads with Irving during a players-only meeting. How is Irving supposed to react to his supposed No. 2 oozing immaturity?

How is he supposed to respond to the lack of a No. 2 in general?

Aside from money, why would Irving want to stay in Cleveland?
Aside from money, why would Irving want to stay in Cleveland?Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Andrew Bynum was brought in to help spark a playoff run and to possibly be the legitimate second option Cleveland didn't have. Look how that turned out.

Defending Bynum is futile. All we know suggests he's a selfish team cancer. But the Cavs took a chance anyway. And failed.

It's easy to assume Irving will stay with his current team. Cousins did. Roy Hibbert and George did. Fellow point guards Ty Lawson, John Wall and Stephen Curry all did. 

The difference is, each of those players—yes, even Boogie—was given a reason other than money to stay. Whether it was a regime change, unexpected playoff run or simply a good fit, they had grounds to believe.

Unless the Cavs find a solution to their current deficiencies, Irving only has cause for doubt.

 

Cleveland's Present Solution

Jan 10, 2014; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward Luol Deng (9) drives during the first half against the Utah Jazz at EnergySolutions Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Trading for Luol Deng was a solid move. The two-time All-Star didn't cost much and if healthy, he could provide the two-way punch needed to make the postseason.

But Deng is slated for unrestricted free agency and despite general manager Chris Grant indicating the Cavs would like to keep him around, other plans are at play.

In an interview with Yahoo! Sports' Marc J. Spears, Deng admitted the Cavs could hold off on signing him to an extension because of James. "If he wants to come back home, that's great for him and great for this organization," Deng told Spears. "He's a great player. Why not?"

Better question: Why?

James, to his credit, has subtly strung Cleveland along.

"I think it would be great, it would be fun to play in front of these fans again," James said in February 2012, per ESPN's Brian Windhorst.

And so another dream was born, one that had The Prodigal Son returning home, to where his career started. Nothing like grasping at straws.

Chances of James returning to Cleveland this summer, when he can become an unrestricted free agent, are slim, if they exist at all. As I wrote previously:

But there's no guarantee James returns. The Miami Heat could win a third straight title. Seduced by the opportunity to win a fourth, James could re-sign or simply opt in for another year. Should they fall short, however, that leaves James one title shy of forging a dynasty, possibly prompting the same action.

Punitive luxury-tax penalties could force the Miami Heat's Big Three to disband. Sam Smith of NBA.com points out that "conventional wisdom is the Heat will have to trade Chris Bosh to avoid the big luxury-tax penalties."

Unrealistic vision?
Unrealistic vision?Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

Doctoring Miami's blueprint in any way, shape or form could compel James to leave. His next team could be the Cavs. Or it could be another organization. Or, more likely, he could remain in Miami.

In either of the last two instances, the Cavs find themselves playing a dangerous game.

Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski says Deng rejected a three-year, $30-million extension before the Chicago Bulls traded him. Ironing out an extension now, after Deng told Spears Cleveland is an "amazing organization," could save the Cavs money. Waiting in hope of signing James—likely a fruitless endeavor—screws them over.

Beyond Carmelo Anthony and James, this summer's free-agency class is overrated. That could leave Deng as the most sought-after commodity on the open market, in which case Cleveland would risk overpaying him to ensure he stays or, equally likely, watch him sign elsewhere after the Cavs missed yet another playoff berth.

Irving, meanwhile, will be watching it all unfold. The (potential) absence of a playoff berth. The James Plan gone wrong. 

What then?

 

How Irving Could Leave

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 29:  Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the game against the Golden State Warriors at The Quicken Loans Arena on December 29, 2013 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by do
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

Irving could form a plan of his own, that's what.

Leaving Cleveland won't be easy, but it is possible.

Refusing to sign an extension this summer and into next season allows Irving to enter restricted free agency in 2015. The problem there is, the Cavs are able to match any offer he receives, effectively forcing him to demand a trade, since Cleveland won't likely let him walk for nothing.

More drastic measures could be taken, though.

Accepting the Cavs' $9.2 million qualifying offer for 2015-16, and subsequently playing out that season, allows him to become an unrestricted free agent in 2016. At that point, he'll have his pick of the litter, able to sign with whomever he pleases, including Cleveland.

 

Empty Threat?

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 26:  Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers runs out before the game against the Atlanta Hawks at The Quicken Loans Arena on December 26, 2013 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by d
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

Given all the hoops Irving himself would have to jump through, is leaving a legitimate possibility? 

Absolutely.

The Cavs haven't set a foolproof plan in front of him, having spent the last two-plus years surrounding him with players and offering him promises that aren't good enough.

"Did we fight or not?" Cavs head coach Mike Brown said after the Sacramento Kings handed his team a 44-point drubbing, per Lloyd. "We didn’t fight. That’s disappointing. Hopefully it doesn’t happen again, but I don’t know. I’m not sure with this team yet."

Absence of fight has left the Cavs two games outside the woeful Eastern Conference's playoff picture. Left them wallowing in self-manufactured sloth when they were supposed to contend.

Left them clinging to infirm visions of the future that are defective enough to cost them Deng, James and Irving, their "franchise savior."

 

*Salary information via ShamSports.