That’s the message a young fan wore on his T-shirt when he wandered onto the court during a December matchup between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Clippers at Quicken Loans Arena. It’s hard to blame Cavs fans for having separation anxiety following the LeBron James "Decision," but should Kyrie Irving want to leave a franchise already in disarray?
While Cleveland’s floor general has garnered plenty of individual accolades during his NBA career—No. 1 overall pick, NBA Rookie of the Year, Rising Stars Challenge MVP, Three-Point Shootout champion and two-time All-Star—team success hasn’t been part of the equation.
After their latest embarrassment via a 31-point drubbing from the New York Knicks, the Cavs are now 61-133 since drafting the Duke standout with the No. 1 overall pick in 2011.
Irving's Enigmatic Answers
To this point in his career, Irving has been very cryptic with regard to his basketball future.
He’s said things like, “I’m still in my rookie contract and I’m happy to be here. And I’m pretty sure I’m going to be here for a long time,” per the Akron Beacon Journal’s Jason Lloyd.
Quotes like that resonate with the fanbase, but Irving has also blurred his future by dodging the topic of signing a max contract extension with the Cavs.
“It’s still too early to say,” the point guard said, per Lloyd’s article. “I’m still trying to get through this season. Everybody is trying to antagonize this team and put it on me…I’m here for my teammates, I’m here for Coach Brown and the coaching staff and I’m going to play my heart out every single night for the Cleveland Cavaliers.”
This isn’t the first time Irving has weaved his way around contract talks the way he glides through defenders. Lloyd asked Irving last summer if he would sign a max extension like Washington Wizards floor general John Wall. His answer was as follows:
“I’m not really worried about that right now. Right now I’m focusing on the year ahead, my third year, then I’ll worry about that in summer time.”
The Star's Potential Out
The question now becomes, how much longer will Irving be suiting up for the Cavaliers?
The answer to that question—at least from the perspective of a potential contract extension—gets somewhat muddled.
Lloyd does a great job breaking it all down in his article, but essentially Irving can turn down a max extension this summer that could eclipse $90 million via the “Rose exception.” That rule rewards players with 30 percent of the team’s salary cap (rather than 25 percent) if they reach certain “escalator clauses” that include All-Star appearances.
He could then accept his one-year qualifying offer of approximately $9.1 million (per Sham Sports) for the 2015-16 season and leave during the summer of 2016.
There are obviously numerous factors at play here, but at this juncture, what’s keeping Irving from skipping town regardless of the inherent obstacles?
The Cavaliers front office spent its No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft on Anthony Bennett.
The UNLV product is averaging 2.8 points and 2.4 rebounds in 34 games played for Cleveland. He’s shooting 27.3 percent from the field, 18.2 percent from three-point range and has a player efficiency rating of 2.35. That PER ranks him 334th out of all qualified players—dead last.
Dion Waiters, the 22-year-old guard taken fourth overall by the Cavs in 2012, reportedly wanted out of Cleveland, according to a December article by Bleacher Report’s Jared Zwerling.
The storm of that narrative has since calmed, but that doesn’t mean that Irving and Waiters have shown much chemistry on the court this season.
New addition Jarrett Jack hasn’t played to the level he did while with the Golden State Warriors, and the Andrew Bynum signing ended abruptly when he was traded to the Chicago Bulls for forward Luol Deng.
Although Deng provides a huge improvement in talent when compared to Bynum, the Cavs are just 4-7 with the 28-year-old veteran in the lineup.
Needless to say, Irving still needs plenty of help in terms of the supporting cast around him.
Coaching and Management
On top of the roster’s shortcomings is head coach Mike Brown.
In his first season since taking over for Byron Scott, Brown doesn't appear to be getting through to his players.
After blowing a 20-point lead at home against the Phoenix Suns—a game Cleveland went on to lose 99-90—Brown ripped into his guys.
“It was hard to watch,” he said, according to Jodie Valade of The Plain Dealer. “Very disappointing. Our guys should be embarrassed of the way we played in the second half.”
The Cavaliers took an 18-point lead into halftime, but collapsed by scoring only 29 second-half points in the loss.
Brown also had harsh words for his team after a 44-point beating at the hands of the Sacramento Kings on Jan. 12.
“We didn’t fight,” he said, per Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal. “That’s disappointing. Hopefully it doesn’t happen again, but I don’t know. I’m not sure with this team yet.”
Brown has tried to preach defense with his young squad, but the message hasn’t been getting through. The Cavs rank 20th in the league by allowing 101.6 points per game, and Irving’s struggles have been a big reason for that.
Opposing point guards have recorded a player efficiency rating of 17.9 against Cleveland in 2013-14, according to 82games.com. That’s the best production of any opposing position.
D.J. Augustin, who was released earlier this season by the Toronto Raptors, has twice torched Irving’s Cavs. He notched 18 points and 10 assists in a 100-84 win on Dec. 21, and then poured in 27 points and seven assists on Jan. 22 in a 98-87 win.
Pairing Irving with a defensive-minded coach was meant to make him a better overall player. Instead, his defense has remained lackluster and his offensive production is down from a season ago—he’s shooting a career-low 42.7 percent from the field.
So what, if anything, is enticing the 21-year-old point guard to stay?
Aside from Irving, James and Carlos Boozer, the Cavs’ track record in the draft has been suspect since the turn of the century. Free agents don’t flock to Cleveland and this team needs more than a few tweaks to contend.
Even Coach Brown has spent more time ridiculing his players’ effort than looking in the mirror and evaluating changes he can make to the roster, which isn't a good sign.
The organization is a mess that needs cleaning. If positive changes don’t happen soon, Irving may have no choice but to request a trade.
As Lloyd writes, “I’m not saying Irving is leaving. I’m not saying Irving is staying. But I know (Cavaliers owner) Dan Gilbert has said he’ll never allow another player to hold his organization hostage.”
Personally, I don't believe the star point guard will want to stay. Fair or not, he's only known a losing culture since entering the NBA in 2011. That burden will weigh heavily on any young player, as it has with Kevin Love of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The best player Irving has played with to this point is Deng. He's only been around for seven games and will become an unrestricted free agent at season's end, so he may not be seen as a long-term piece to the puzzle.
If the youngster is planning to leave, Cleveland will have to reload with a bounty of assets. It simply can’t allow Irving to leave for nothing.