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...
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.
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
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.
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|
|Kyrie Irving||2011||First Overall||No one else|
|Tristan Thompson||2011||Fourth Overall||Jonas Valanciunas, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard, Nikola Vucevic|
|Dion Waiters||2012||Fourth Overall||Harrison Barnes, Andre Drummond, Damian Lillard|
|Anthony Bennett||2013||First Overall||Victor 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?
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.
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
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."
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.
How Irving Could Leave
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.
Given all the hoops Irving himself would have to jump through, is leaving a legitimate possibility?
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.