Quite literally, the 21-year-old cannot go anywhere by his own hand. Not right now. He's slated for restricted free agency in 2015 and won't be eligible for unrestricted free agency until 2016. But that hasn't stopped speculation from running rampant.
"It's no secret that Irving's camp has been making it known for years now the point guard would like to be elsewhere long term," ESPN's Brian Windhorst writes. "No matter how much he denies it."
Making like LeBron James before him and leaving is a definite possibly, but it's one entangled in twists, turns, unrelenting determination, seasons worth of awkwardness and potentially inordinate amounts of public backlash.
And that's all before he leaves the Cavs.
How Can He Leave?
What would come after leaving is largely unknown. What isn't a mystery, is Irving's desire to make bank.
All young superstars coming off rookie deals—even former top picks—are in no position to leave the kind of money their incumbent team can offer them on the table. And Irving is no different.
Cleveland will—yes, will, without a doubt—offer Irving a max extension this summer worth close to nine figures, one the then-22-year-old could turn down...if he's prepared to endure up to two seasons worth of self-foisted hell.
Rejecting the extension doesn't give Irving a guaranteed out. He would still hit restricted free agency in 2015, at which point the Cavs retain rights to match any offer sheet he signs, exercising continued control over his destiny.
In order to combat this measure, Irving would have to accept a qualifying offer worth almost $9.2 million and play out 2015-16 in Cleveland. Only then is he clear to enter restricted free agency in 2016, clad with the freedom to play wherever he pleases.
If Irving wants absolute control over his future, that's his only option. This isn't to say he has no other options or leverage at all, but total power only comes in unrestricted free agency, which he can only reach by declining an extension and essentially forgoing restricted free agency next summer.
While that sounds reasonable, it's not without flaws. The Cavs are going to realize what's happening if Irving 1) declines an extension and 2) passes up another payday in favor of a qualifying offer.
Owner Dan Gilbert isn't going to wait around and let Irving spurn his Cavs the way James did. This time, if it comes down to it, he'll take action.
"The key thing, whoever you are and wherever you are, you cannot wait," Gilbert said before last season, via 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."
The Cavs aren't above trading Irving. If there was ever a franchise smart enough to know the perils of wait-and-see approaches, it's them. Gilbert will ship Irving out by his own hand if he has to.
That puts Irving in another predicament: playing for another team.
Any organization that trades for him will most likely want to invest in him long term, which forces him to engage in yet another stalemate. The general public won't look fondly upon him for that.
Of course, as previously mentioned and as ESPN Insider's Amin Elhassan (subscription required) details, Irving is not without leverage:
Another common objection is the notion that the player has no leverage as it pertains to restricted free agency and that the only path to "freedom" is to play out the contract year, then accept the qualifying offer ($9.2 million) before reaching unrestricted free agency. Again, this fails to recognize the enormous leverage Irving has as an elite player. If Irving's representatives quietly and respectfully approached Cavs management seeking a trade this summer (the type of transparency Thorpe described earlier), it would give Cleveland the opportunity to maximize his trade value.
If that request were refused, Irving could turn "ornery," making for an extremely uncomfortable situation: How do you build a franchise with a franchise player who publicly has stated he does not want to be there? Much like with Steve Francis and the Vancouver Grizzlies, team leverage is compromised, forcing the team to deal with low-ball offers from predatory opposing GMs. Teams are much better off honoring the player's request.
What Irving can essentially do is politely or aggressively force his way out before the Oct. 31 deadline, allowing him to max out with his next team. If he's feeling particularly rambunctious or confident, he could also do the same after signing an extension with the Cavs, knowing that compromises some, but not all of his leverage.
Problem is, both those scenarios assume Irving gets dealt to a team of his choosing or preference upon request. That doesn't have to happen.
Providing the Cavs with a pre-approved list of potential destinations after demanding out paints Cleveland into a corner, but it doesn't force it to deal with those teams exclusively.
Irving would presumably wish to play for a big market or title contender, two types of franchises not known for having the assets necessary to broker blockbuster trades. Title contenders are title contenders for a reason: They're already winning, most of the time at expense of financial plasticity and expendable assets.
It's not unreasonable to believe the Cavs could negotiate a deal that better serves their purposes with a team not on Irving's hypothetical list that is also willing to risk his disinterest. In that scenario, Irving once again finds himself in wait-and-see mode while continuously delaying a lucrative payday.
About That Money...
Everything we know now is circumstantial. It hasn't been vetted by Irving or the Cavs themselves and is therefore pure conjecture with a possible hint of truth.
But just as it's foolish to discredit the obvious case Cleveland has to part ways with Irving if it feels threatened, it's ignorant to believe Irving isn't seduced by the idea of playing somewhere else. In fact, it would be weird if he wasn't.
The Cavs have the second-worst winning percentage in the NBA since drafting Irving in 2011 (32.5 percent), ahead of only the Charlotte Bobcats (26.8). Irving shouldn't be satisfied with the absence of a playoff berth, especially if he and the Cavs miss the postseason again this year, which isn't just possible, but likely.
That doesn't mean he wants to leave, yet it sure as anything doesn't mean he doesn't. But the fact is, regardless of how Irving feels—whether he definitively wants out or not—he's more likely to stay.
It's easy to look past the financial advantages and convenience of staying in Cleveland, until they're staring him right in the face.
If Irving signs an Early Bird Extension this July, he guarantees himself just south of $100 million over the next six years, including the 2014-15 campaign, which isn't part of a five-year extension. Young, budding 20-somethings don't pass up that kind of coin. It doesn't happen.
Not even James could bring himself to leave Cleveland that early, opting for a shorter extension instead of attempting to leave at the tail-end of his rookie deal. For Irving to be any different, he must pass up all that money while living through the uncertainty of where he'll land next, and the criticism bound to be hurled his way until that's figured out.
Maybe that's easy to do next year, when his salary doesn't stand to change even after inking an extension. In 2014-15, though, if he still hasn't signed, not so much.
Unless he's prepared to ask for a trade, or the Cavs are inclined to trade him, he's not (likely) going anywhere. Signing a shorter extension is a possibility, but even then, he's in Cleveland for a few more years.
"I'm pretty sure I'm going to be here for a long time," Irving said in January, via Windhorst.
Be that because he wants to, or because the dollar signs will it to stay that way doesn't matter. Irving is Cleveland's to keep.
*Salary information via ShamSports.
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