Now in his third season with the team, Irving has failed to lead the franchise to respectability. Even a recent four-game win streak has Cleveland at 20-33, far below what most fans and media members expected.
The grumblings from the locker room have been nonstop. There was an article from Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal in which a player said of Irving, "He’s acting like he doesn’t care." Chad Ford of ESPN reported that "Irving has been telling people privately he wants out". Even Lloyd himself ripped into Irving, questioning his individual accolades given the team's poor record over the past three seasons.
Still, Irving remains Cleveland's best player and most marketable star. He's already a two-time All-Star and former Rookie of the Year. More importantly, Irving is also eligible to sign a five-year extension this offseason.
No player coming off a rookie deal has ever turned down a max extension like the Cavs will likely offer Irving. When asked back in August about possibly signing an extension, Irving told the Akron Beacon Journal, “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 the summer time.”
With no confirmation of him re-signing, Cleveland could explore a trade for Irving, but there's probably no way to get equal value while he's in his rookie deal. The Cavaliers need to patch things up with Irving now and convince him to sign the extension this summer.
Here's how they can do it.
The Dion Waiters Dilemma
It's well known that Waiters and Irving hate each other.
Except they don't.
“Going out there and having one of your good friends out there, we can play off one another,” Irving said of Waiters recently, via Bob Finnan of The Morning Journal.
Irving went on to say:
“He’s looking to me for advice. I’m looking to him for advice, different things we see out there. Earlier in the season, we probably wouldn’t have said anything to one another. It’s just continuing to get better and playing off one another.”
Needless to say, the relationship is improving.
It's important to note that Irving, 21, and Waiters, 22, have played just 92 total games together. Both are tremendous offensive talents that love the bright lights. Because both players are so ball-dominant, Mike Brown moved Waiters to the bench just nine games into the season. Waiters has played well in this role, averaging 14.6 points, 2.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists as a reserve.
Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer had this to say recently about the pair:
The Cavs are excited that Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters are making a better effort to play together. The front office underestimated how difficult it would be for them to blend into the same backcourt because both so dominated the ball in college. Waiters and Irving went out with one of the Cavs' coaches to shootaround together early Friday afternoon before the start of all the All-Star events. They have been doing things like that to build their relationship.
For Irving to want to stick around, he'll need help shouldering the scoring load like every great star does. Some players even bolt to join a team with two superstars, as unbelievable as that sounds.
Irving needs Waiters, or at least someone like him, to grow and win with.
There was a time when it seemed Waiters wasn't that person, and that the Cavaliers needed someone who got along better with Irving and complemented his game more.
Now, things are looking up for the pair.
“He’s got so much talent. Me just going to the corner and let him go to work. Or me and him playing off one another, coming off the top of the key, playing pick-and-roll, just looking for each another and also trying to make plays for our teammates," Irving told The Morning Journal.
Waiters needs to continue to develop into a star next to Irving, while still complementing his game.
If he can't, then the Cavs need to find someone who can.
Find a New Head Coach
Playing under Mike Brown already helped drive one star out of Cleveland, and the Cavs shouldn't let it happen again.
The hiring of Brown for the second time was a ridiculous move that shouldn't have even been considered. Byron Scott may not have been winning, but players were developing the right way. We saw both Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson make huge strides during their second year under Scott. Has there been a noticeable improvement from either under Brown?
Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal reports that players are already grumbling about Brown and his staff, saying:
Players have privately complained that Brown’s coaching staff, with at least seven assistants, is too big. An assistant coach will tell a player one thing, then Brown will come back and yell at that player because he wants it done another way. 'We’re getting too many mixed messages,' one player said. 'This isn’t very much fun. We were losing last year with Byron, but at least we were having fun.'
The Cavaliers need a head coach that has a proven track record of improving young players. Getting someone with NBA playing experience never hurts, either.
Dan Gilbert and company are standing by Brown for the rest of this season it appears, so a change at coach will have to come this summer at the earliest.
If the Cavs fail to reach the playoffs with the amount of talent currently on the roster, Gilbert will almost assuredly fire Brown.
Looking ahead to the next head coach, it's important to get Irving's opinion. This certainly doesn't mean letting Irving tell Gilbert whom to hire, but rather just gathering his thoughts on qualities he'd like to have from a new coach.
Is it someone who's won a championship? A top college coach? A former NBA point guard with head coaching experience? It's important for management to hear what Irving has to say but ultimately make the decisions themselves. Employees should have their voice heard in any company, but they shouldn't necessarily make the executive decisions.
Getting Irving's opinion will show him that the franchise genuinely values his input and wants to keep him happy.
Leverage, Trust and Winning
Cleveland may not have the decorated past of some NBA franchises, but it is set up for a nice future. The Cavaliers have to prove to Irving that re-signing with them is what's best for him, not what's best for Cleveland.
In other words, the Cavs need leverage. Some factors Cleveland has going for it in negotiations include:
- Around $30 million in cap space this summer, per USA Today.
- Young nucleus of Waiters, Thompson, Anthony Bennett and Tyler Zeller.
- An owner in Gilbert who's willing to spend to improve the team.
- Veterans to learn from in Luol Deng, Anderson Varejao and Jarrett Jack.
- $25 million state-of-the-art practice facility.
- Passionate fanbase proven to fill Quicken Loans Arena.
- New general manager that's already inspired better team play.
When Cleveland failed to re-sign its last star player, LeBron James, many of these factors were working against it.
The Cavs had a payroll of nearly $80 million in 2009-10, paying a then 37-year-old Shaquille O'Neal $20 million. They were trading away picks for past-their-prime veterans and had little young talent to build around.
Before getting fired, Chris Grant did an excellent job of keeping the cap space open and gathering draft picks during his time in Cleveland. He left the team in much better shape than when he first took over in the summer of 2010.
Trust is also an issue.
Right now, things seem good between Irving and Gilbert. Irving told Jodie Valade of the Cleveland Plain Dealer:
I finally got out of calling him 'Mr. Gilbert.' We have a great relationship, and it extends off the basketball court. That's about where it stands right now. We're building a culture here in Cleveland, and he told me I'm one of the guys at the forefront of it. We're building an identity here, and I want to be a part of that. Having guys come in, building a championship contending team, that's what it's all about.
If Irving continues to trust Gilbert and his vision for the franchise, Cleveland stands a great chance at retaining its star.
Winning may also have a little to do with his decision.
The Cavs are just 20-33 but are very much still alive in the playoff race. They currently sit three games behind the Charlotte Bobcats for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. Acting general manager David Griffin has encouraged having fun again—a message that's helped lead to a four-game win streak.
The upcoming Feb. 20 trade deadline could also bring with it some improvements, and the All-Star weekend gives players like Anderson Varejao and Luol Deng time to heal nagging injuries.
Now that Cleveland looks motivated and re-energized, it's very possible it could still make the playoffs this year.
Irving needs to get a taste of team success, of playing in the postseason and feeling that energy from the city. Knowing that he can win here is a huge difference over just thinking he can.
The Cavaliers and Irving haven't always had the best relationship, and that's OK. What's important now is building a winning team, one with a proven head coach and young building blocks that Irving can grow with.
As Irving told the Mary Schmitt Boyer of the Cleveland Plain Dealer in January, "I'm happy to be here and I'm pretty sure that I'm going to be here for a long time."
Signing the extension this summer would be a nice start.