Defense has been an issue for the Cavs. Offense has too—an even bigger one. So has Irving's future. Will he sign an extension? Should the Cavs even offer him a max contract? The list goes on and on and on, just like it would for any rebuilding team approaching various crossroads.
Rule of thumb dictates the Cavs handle these conflicts and answer these questions as they come. Worrying about issues they don't yet have control over—like Luol Deng's free agency, lottery position, etc.—is like a rocking chair: It gives them something to do, but it doesn't get them anywhere.
Certain complications, however, cannot be ignored or pushed aside. Not when they determine the direction of an entire team.
The collective future of Irving and Waiters are among those problems that cannot be avoided or delayed. They're the two most important pieces to this whole puzzle. They're the foundation on which the Cavs once hoped to build upon.
Extending Irving to play with Waiters makes little sense, though, if the pairing itself lacks rationale. If it's not working, one, perhaps both, would have to go. The Cavs have waited too long, endured too much, to mistakenly invest in flawed gambits.
Are Waiters and Irving the quintessential one-two punch? Not at all, which isn't an insult. Superstar dyads crop up like creepy wannabes adorned in oversized chains at nightclubs. There's no shame in not being ideal.
But are they a partnership worth spending ample time and money on and assembling talent around? That's exactly what the Cavs are left to figure out now, not later.
Hearsay or Absolute Truth?
Off-court disunity can mean more than on-court warts.
Teammates, especially franchise pillars, must be able to coexist off the court. It doesn't matter how talented a duo may be. Off-court squabbles are going to come full circle eventually. Ask Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal.
Irving and Waiters are not Kobe and Shaq on the court, but off it, they might as well be. Rumors alleging discord and mutual animosity have surfaced numerous times throughout the course of this season, the frequency of which, while not incessant, is alarming.
In December, ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard reported that a rift had developed between the two guards:
Irving called the meeting after the game, and every player spoke. When Waiters was given the floor, he criticized Thompson and Irving, accusing them of playing 'buddy ball' and often refusing to pass to him. Thompson took umbrage with Waiters' words and went back at him verbally. The two confronted each other, but teammates intervened before it could escalate into a fight.
However, Waiters and Irving are not close. Waiters believes the Cavaliers have a double standard when it comes to Irving, sources said. Waiters feels that while Irving is allowed to get away with loafing defensively, making turnovers and taking bad shots, he is taken out of games for such things. Waiters has shared his views with Brown and Grant.
Around the same time, Bleacher Report's Jared Zwerling brought word that Waiters wanted out of Cleveland, an allegation the shooting guard himself later denied, per the Akron Beacon Journal's Jason Lloyd.
Attention shifted mainly to Irving once the trade deadline came to pass. Reports forced us to ask questions, to consider what his future looked like in Cleveland, if he even had one.
Most recently, ESPN's Brian Windhorst told Cavs the Blog's Robert Attenweiler that Irving's "camp" has made it clear the point guard doesn't want to be in Cleveland. More questions. More doubt. More drama.
Irving reached a boiling point when it came to Cleveland Browns wideout Josh Gordon perpetuating rumors of dysfunction between Waiters and the Cavs' point man.
"Guys like Josh Gordon need to stay in his sport and mind his own business," Irving said, per Lloyd. "Does he still play for the Browns? I’ll continue to root for the Browns, but in terms of this stuff here, what goes on in this locker room, he needs to stay out of it."
Soon after, in one of the most bizarre "press conferences" ever, Irving and Waiters cleared up the matter, via The Plain Dealer‘s Mary Schmitt Boyer:
How would Irving describe his relationship with Waiters?
"Honestly, off the court and on the court, we're the best of friends,'' he said. "So when we come on the court, we're just going to play basketball like we've been doing the past few games and our focus is on winning right now.''
"Yeah, we still need to learn certain things. But I think at the end of the day, we're genuinely friends. I love him as a friend, teammate, everything. I just want everybody to know that. I don't hate this guy. I'm pretty sure he don't hate me. I know he don't hate me. I hope he don't hate me."
There's really no discrediting Irving's and Waiters' words. They come straight from the sources of purported contention themselves. They don't hate each other. It's good that they said this. It's long overdue, but it's still good.
Now, maybe everyone else can move on, so that Irving and Waiters can move on. Dealing with this constant cloud over their heads isn't optimal for on-court chemistry.
And yeah, about that...
Those On-Court Warts
In the interest of optimism, we're going to assume Irving and Waiters are on good terms personally. Young bucks like themselves clash from time to time, but that's hardly future-crippling. They don't even need to be the "best of friends." All the Cavs need them to be is "those guys who can effectively play alongside one another and look like they're actually friends."
In any case, once you move past potential off-court disputes, in-game chemistry reigns supreme. Irving and Waiters' friendship—or indifference toward one another—means little if they cannot complement each other.
To this point, that's been the bigger problem: finding a happy medium for this alliance. Look at their numbers together and how they compare to when they're separated:
|Irving With Waiters||Irving Without Waiters||Waiters With Irving||Waiters Without Irving|
The numbers aren't pretty. By and large, Irving has performed better without Waiters on the floor, and vice versa. And when both are in the game, Cleveland is being outscored by an average of 6.5 points per 100 possessions, which is worse than the team's overall minus-4.2 rating.
Defense is the more pressing concern when Irving and Waiters share the floor. The Cavs already rank 19th in offensive efficiency, allowing 104.9 points per 100 possessions. During the time both guards are on the floor, they relinquish 106.8. That's what happens when you put too developing defenders together in the backcourt. Neither Irving nor Waiters is posting a defensive rating below 103.8, which poses serious matchup problems.
Results on the offensive end have also been unimpressive, though not as dire. The Cavs offense diminishes in efficiency when both guards play. Pairing one ball-dominator with another is a dangerous combination, and the two have struggled to find that balance between attacking and deferring to one another.
On the bright side, there's serious potential on that end. While both prefer to work on-ball, they've shown the ability to hit shots off it. Waiters is connecting on 40.6 percent of his spot-up three-pointers, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). Irving is converting just 34.2 percent, but he's one season removed from drilling 47.1.
The blueprint for success is there once they both become consistent off-ball threats and are more in tune with one another's tendencies. Waiters has only assisted on 14 of Irving's made buckets, or 2.7 percent. That's a number the Cavs need to increase. Irving is already assisting on 13.3 percent of Waiters' baskets, so that's a start.
Staggering their minutes—like head coach Mike Brown has done for much of this season—is only an option for so long. Transitioning teams shouldn't need to worry about their two primary building blocks sharing the floor together.
If Irving and Waiters are to be Cleveland's future, they need to become threats alongside one another, working in effective harmony.
Unless you're holding a crystal ball, you have no idea how this is actually going to turn out. Neither do the Cavs. Their job is to accurately predict whether it's worth finding out.
So, is it?
Yes, largely because there aren't a whole lot of other options.
Irving and Waiters are what the Cavs have right now until further notice. You can argue that one or the other should be dealt, but Waiters isn't going to land you a star via trade and Irving's contract situation could diminish his market value as well.
Statistically, the sample size for this doublet also isn't large enough. They barely played 1,000 minutes together last season and have yet to eclipse the 1,000-minute mark this year.
Partnerships take time, especially at this stage of their careers. Irving is only in his third season. Waiters is but a sophomore. They're each still finding themselves as players, evolving and adjusting. More time is needed to genuinely determine their on-court ceiling.
Off-the-court drama is what the Cavs can control. Until recently, the pulse wasn't good. Denials seemed half-hearted. Their latest refusals are more encouraging.
Should the Cavs keep Irving and Waiters together?
But that's what the Cavs need to figure out: the truth. We can take what Waiters and Irving are slinging at face value, but truthfully, we have no idea what's going on behind closed doors.
When the prevailing scuttlebutt had these two feuding, I was all for the Cavs getting rid of Waiters. I'll admit. I still will be if their personal relationship isn't hunky-dory.
If they're actually friends, then we've seen enough to understand we don't know enough, which, in this case, is reason for the Cavs to move forward with both for the time being.
"Rome wasn't built in one day," Waiters said, via Boyer. "We're still young. We're still planning to stay together. We're still working. As long as we've got great communication down, it's fine."
Good enough, worthwhile enough, to keep trying at least.
*Stats courtesy of NBA.com (subscription required) unless otherwise attributed.