Tranquility finds the Cleveland Cavaliers almost as often as they find the win column.
Uncertainty monopolized Cleveland before LeBron James left in 2010. Now, the team's projected savior and supposed lone trace of certainty, Kyrie Irving, is consigning the Cavs into deeper and darker states of confusion and panic.
Privately, Irving has been telling people he wants out of Cleveland, according to ESPN's Chad Ford. Publicly, he's been non-committal, answering questions about his future with alarming indifference and detachment.
A wake-up call for what exactly, we don't know.
Is it a sign that he personally needs to grow as a leader? A reminder of how far away the Cavs are from contention? Proof that, like LeBron, his future lies outside the city and franchise he cannot save alone?
LeBron set a precedent when he abandoned Cleveland's sinking ship, one Irving appears prepared to piggyback if the Cavs cannot figure out what it takes to remain afloat in their sea of disaster and dysfunction.
Why Would He Want to Leave?
Short on wins, the 16-31 Cavs offer plenty of reasons for Irving to want out.
Since being drafted first overall in 2011, Irving hasn't been surrounded by the talent needed to win. While he's not absolved of all blame, it's unreasonable to expect more from him on a team that consistently whiffs on personnel decisions.
Cleveland has drafted three other top-four prospects besides Irving since 2011. Though it's further evidence of the organization's inability to escape the lottery, it's also proof the Cavs had plenty of opportunities to land impact players.
In 2011, they selected the still-unimpressive Tristan Thompson at No. 4 when players like Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard were all still available. In 2012, they took the always-erratic Dion Waiters at No. 4 when Harrison Barnes, Andre Drummond and Damian Lillard were all still on the board.
Finally, in 2013, they drafted the seemingly lost Anthony Bennett at No. 1 when Victor Oladipo, Michael Carter-Williams, Steven Adams, Tim Hardaway Jr., Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Hart, Barack Obama and just about anyone with a pulse would have been a better pick.
The NBA draft can be a crapshoot, but Cleveland has reached new levels of incompetency. Free agency hasn't gone much better, either. Jarrett Jack, Earl Clark and Andrew Bynum can all be filed under "bust," and that's just from this past summer.
Trading for two-time All-Star Luol Deng was supposed to inject stability and leadership into the roster, but not even he can make sense of this mess. Per the New York Daily News' Mitch Lawrence, he's already disgusted with the franchise:
As Deng recently told one close friend, 'the stuff going on in practice would never be tolerated by the coaching staff or the front office back in Chicago. It’s a mess.'
Deng was brought in to help clean it up when he arrived in a deal for Andrew Bynum on Jan. 7.
But since then, he’s seen players get thrown out of practice, take off their uniform tops at halftime and threaten not to play, mouth off to Brown and generally act like spoiled brats. Entering Saturday’s game at Houston, the Cavs had lost seven of their last 11 games since the Deng trade.
There is no accountability, as Dion Waiters found out when he was kicked out of practice last week but still got his usual minutes against the Knicks. Brown isn’t getting much help from GM Chris Grant, who is expected to be fired at season’s end because of the losing and problems in the locker room.
Think Deng, an unrestricted free agent after the season, is going to stick around for this? Think again.
Dreams of prying LeBron away from Miami are dead. Anyone with the mental image of him returning needs to get real. He's not coming back to Cleveland's hellhole, and Deng isn't staying if the Cavs continue to be a lottery-bound fiasco without any semblance of accountability or internal structure.
Worse still, this is nothing new.
In November, the Cavs held a contentious players-only meeting, according to ESPN's Brian Windhorst, during which Fox Sports Ohio's Sam Amico says Irving butted heads with Waiters:
More recently, Lloyd indicated Irving has essentially given up on his team, writing that two "opposing general managers this season have told me they think Irving is pouting." Head coach Mike Brown isn't able to deny any of it either, per The Plain Dealer's Mary Schmitt Boyer and Jodie Valade. Not Irving's deteriorating morale; not Waiters' recurring immaturity; not anything:
Looking beyond the fact that Irving shouldn't be quitting or "pouting" as the team's leader, his displeasure is understandable. Losing is difficult to stomach and becomes even worse when the team in question doesn't have a handle on anything.
And the Cavs have a handle on nothing. Not Waiters, not Deng and most certainly not Irving's future.
A Quicker Escape
To Irving's credit, he hasn't entertained rumors of his dissatisfaction and alleged desire to leave. That said, he hasn't exactly denied these reports, either.
"I’m still in my rookie contract and I’m happy to be here," he said following Cleveland's 117-86 loss to the New York Knicks, per Lloyd. "And I’m pretty sure I’m going to be here for a long time. I’m not saying anything to tell the future, but I’m pretty sure the relationship I have with Dan Gilbert and management extends off the court. I enjoy being here."
"Pretty sure" is hardly a vote of confidence.
It doesn't take a psychologist or insider to see Irving isn't happy. The look on his face late in games when the Cavs are down big is one of frustration. Unhappiness. Disgust.
Incessant struggles and constant losing have rendered Irving evasive. As Lloyd noted, he refuses to discuss his future in Cleveland, frequently parroting "it's still too early to say" lines instead of providing answers with any substance or certainty—because he can't.
Irving isn't going to stand for this, however at fault he may be. LeBron didn't, and Irving won't. He may find his way out even sooner.
LeBron signed a second contract with the Cavaliers, spending seven years in Cleveland before meticulously orchestrating his escape.
But Irving doesn't necessarily operate on a similar timeline. Cleveland made the playoffs in LeBron's third season. At 15 games under .500, the Cavs will be lucky to finish in the top 11 of a baseborn Eastern Conference.
With restricted free agency on the horizon in 2015, Irving has the option of pulling his ripcord sooner, giving up on Cleveland well before LeBron actually did. Problem is, he really must be prepared to endure a firestorm.
The Cavs can match any offer he receives in 2015. Unless he successfully forces a trade, he must accept the $9.2 million qualifying offer he's due that summer, play out another year in Cleveland and leave as an unrestricted free agent in 2016.
That type of patience may not exist, leaving Irving with one of two options: accept a lucrative extension this summer or exert every ounce of leverage he has by first refusing to sign anything.
Owner Dan Gilbert watched helplessly in July 2010 as LeBron sent his Cavaliers into another Dark Age, and he won't allow that to happen again.
"The key thing, whoever you are and wherever you are, you cannot wait," Gilbert said before last season, per Windhorst. "The big lesson was if a player is not willing to extend, no matter who they are, no matter where they are playing, no matter what kind of season you had, you cannot risk going into a summer and having them leave."
Moving forward with Irving after he refuses to sign an extension falls under waiting.
If Irving is willing to wait and see, the Cavs may not be. Memories of LeBron spurning them, leaving the team with basically nothing, are still fresh in the minds of those in control.
Their refusal to play that same game, to take that same chance again, means a resolution will be reached sooner rather than later, one way or the other.
On His Way Out?
Don't expect Irving to leave Cleveland the way LeBron did.
When LeBron was in town, the Cavs had hope, more direction than they've ever had with Irving. When he stayed the first time, it was because he believed. And yeah, because Cleveland could offer him more money.
Irving's situation is different, because the Cavs are so far gone. If he signs an extension this summer, it won't be because he believes. Or has faith. Or possesses some sense of undying loyalty for the city of Cleveland.
It will be out of convenience. Out of impatience. Out of prioritizing a max-contract extension over winning and future outlook.
Likewise, should he decide to leave, it won't be a long, drawn-out process. Cleveland won't live in fear of what happens next if he refuses to sign a new contract. Or invest more years and money in his services if it's only prolonging the inevitable.
If and when Irving leaves, it will be quicker and cleaner than LeBron's departure. It will be sparked by Irving himself, but controlled by the Cavaliers. A trade will be struck long before he can leave them the way LeBron did.
"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," Irving said, via Lloyd.
For how much longer, though?
Unlike LeBron's eventual exit in 2010, Irving's actually feels inevitable, buttressed by multiple reports and reinforced through excessive losing. So when—not if—he leaves, he'll follow a different path entirely.
One paved and put to use much sooner than LeBron's ever was.
*Salary information via ShamSports.
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