The Cleveland Cavaliers and their beleaguered fanbase will justifiably hold their breaths until Kyrie Irving signs an extension to remain with the organization beyond the end of his rookie contract. They've been burned before, and decisions of this ilk come with few guarantees.
Those won't come until the Cavaliers assure Irving that there's a brighter future, preferably one that's just around the corner.
As first reported by Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, Cleveland took the first step on Thursday by firing general manager Chris Grant, the principal architect of this season's misfortunes. That undoubtedly sends Irving the message that owner Dan Gilbert is serious about winning and not in any mood for patience, but creating a winning foundation will require more than gestures alone.
In the interim, assistant GM David Griffin will take over Grant's duties. And in the meantime, the organization will hope it's doing enough to keep Cleveland's best player around for years to come.
Per Beacon Journal's Jason Lloyd, Irving said he's "pretty sure" he'll remain with the franchise for a "long time," but he offered nothing resembling a promise to stay. He hasn't added any fuel to the speculative fire, but his options are still very much open.
Irving's comments came in response to a claim by ESPN's Chad Ford (subscription required) that the star point guard "has been telling people privately he wants out."
Cleveland should take some solace in the fact Irving rebuffed the rumor amidst a swarm of speculation, but more resolute reassurances couldn't hurt—kind of like his response to separate rumors that his agent's days are numbered, according to The Plain Dealer's Jodie Valade: "I can tell you that's 100 percent, 1000 percent false," he said. "I love my agent. He's made me a lot of money over these past three years."
And according to ESPN's Brian Windhorst, it also doesn't take a rumor from Chad Ford to know something's up:
You don't need any inside info, just read Irving's demeanor recently. Just when he was expected to take the third-year leap that so many stars before him have made, Irving seems to have played much of the season with a frown. His stats are down, but more troubling his effort level and leadership have been inconsistent, to say the least.
Unfortunately, Windhorst's assessment isn't anomalous. Beacon Journal's Jason Lloyd writes at least one of Irving's teammates is saying the same thing: "He's acting like he doesn't care."
Some caveats are in order. So far we have just one rumor to go on, along with various interpretations of the 21-year-old's comments and disposition. We've yet to see a concrete pattern of behavior suggesting he wants out.
Moreover, this is Irving's first time through serious questions about his long-term future. He's not yet trained in the art of saying and doing all the right things. Perhaps there's something to be said for not reading too much into the tealeaves. Irving cautioned against as much in his interview with Jason Lloyd:
I’ve never been known for pouting. Just because I don’t smile on the court when we’re losing, I don’t think I’m supposed to smile. You smile on the court, that’s a problem, especially when you’re losing like this. I think last year my morale definitely changed just from being frustrated and hurt all the time the second half of the season.
But even if we give Irving's intentions the benefit of the doubt, this organization is in no position to rest on its laurels. Signing an extension this summer would temporarily put some fears to rest, but it would hardly assure the Cavaliers of Irving's long-term happiness and willingness to stay. That will take some work and savvy maneuvering in the coming months.
Move Dion Waiters
It didn't take long for Cleveland's ostensible backcourt of the future to show signs of dysfunction. Basketball Insiders' Steve Kyler reports that rumblings around the league suggest that Dion Waiters is available on account of failed chemistry between Irving and the second-year shooting guard.
Amidst speculation about his future, Waiters' attitude has unsurprisingly taken a turn for the worst if his dismissal from practice is any indication. For now he's playing it cool, but this is the kind of situation that rarely gets better before it gets worse. Cleveland would be better-served by acting sooner rather than later, trading Waiters before his value is tainted by a locker room in disarray.
The Cavs could conceivably get fairly equal value in return for the 22-year-old. Waiters has been nothing if not consistently solid in his first two seasons, averaging 14.5 points through his first 104 games in the NBA. His range has improved dramatically this season, and he's still an ideal sixth-man candidate for the right team.
That team probably isn't Cleveland, though. With Jarrett Jack locked up for at least two more seasons, the rotation already has a backcourt leader coming off the bench. Meanwhile, Waiters is on pace to start significantly fewer games than he did as a rookie, and it's hard to argue he's had more impact per minute than fellow 2-guard C.J. Miles.
Cleveland's blueprint should ultimately have less to do with acquiring the best available shooting guard and more to do with finding someone who will make Irving better—or at least maximize his value on the court. That may just mean a guard with a different mindset, a partner as inclined to distribute as he is to score.
It could also mean bringing in a perimeter defender capable of improving a defense that ranks 23rd in opponent scoring.
Take the Pressure Off
While rebuilding teams treasure youth above all else, there comes a time when that stereotypical veteran presence becomes essential. That has a lot to do with locker-room politics, but in this case it's also about relieving Irving of some of his off-court duties—namely serving as the lone face of the franchise.
Signing the ever-demonstrative Jarrett Jack was a start, and acquiring Luol Deng in the Andrew Bynum trade was a critical next step. Extending Deng beyond the final year of his contract would help going forward. The 28-year-old has a winning pedigree and ample experience playing second fiddle to a dominant young point guard.
Deng is making over $14 million this season, and it's hard to imagine him claiming a similarly rich contract on the open market. If Cleveland can secure his long-term services at a rate of $8-10 million per season, that's a reasonable price to pay for someone who can help shoulder the burden of talking to the media, solving internal disarray and play a critical role on the floor.
Should Cleveland let Deng walk this summer, there remains a vital need for someone of his makeup. Chances that a serious LeBron James pursuit materializes remain slim, but there's something to be said for aiming high. Irving may be the future of the franchise, but he'll need plenty of help for that future to be a bright one.
If it isn't, the Cavs risk turning Irving's status into a yearly question mark.
Stop the Press
The Cavs are in danger of becoming a story for all the wrong reasons. Starting with the attention garnered by the failed Andrew Bynum experiment, people are suddenly paying attention to Cleveland for the first time since "the Decision" made Ohio an NBA martyr.
Firing Grant could be a good thing in the long term, but it's also a dangerous admission of futility. The Cavs' turnaround hasn't been as rapid as hoped, and continued instability highlights just how long it may take before things get better. Sending Grant on his way all but confirms just how bad things are, how deeply the problems run. This was about more than a losing record.
It was about a losing culture.
Mike Brown and his massive coaching staff can still be part of the solution, but the bigger change should be bottom-up in nature. So long as this roster is complaining off the record, the media has no choice but to surround Irving with unwanted attention. Loose lips can't be blamed on Grant.
Changing a culture doesn't happen overnight, and roster turnover merely serves to fuel internal unrest. This is the kind of process that may take a players-only meeting or two, the kind of marathon that requires leadership Irving may not be prepared to offer.
Before anymore fingers are pointed, there has to be a commitment to keeping accountability an in-house conversation. No one wants to be the face of a failed venture, least of all when everyone knows all the gritty details.
The wins will help—whenever they start coming—but a winning attitude will help even more. It may even give Irving a reason to start smiling again.