The Cavs announced the firing of Mike Brown on Monday, along with the removal of "interim" from David Griffin's tag as the team's general manager.
None of this comes as any great surprise. This was supposed to be the year that the Cavs finally broke through their post-LeBron James malaise. Instead, the squad that former GM Chris Grant put together and Brown coached stumbled out of the gate on the way to a 33-49 finish, five games back of the Atlanta Hawks for the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
As a result, Cleveland will head into the summer with a newly empowered GM and a brand-new coach, with Irving's contract negotiations looming large over the entire organization. The Morning Journal's Bob Finnan suggested in April that Irving would likely field a five-year, $80 million max extension from the Cavs on July 1—the first day that the reigning All-Star MVP and his current employer can begin negotiations.
In all likelihood, the decisions to promote Griffin and split with Brown (for the second time in four years, no less) were made with Irving in mind. As ESPN's Brian Windhorst told Cavs: The Blog's Robert Attenweiler just a few days prior to Finnan's report:
The truth is [Kyrie's] camp has been putting out there for years – years – that he doesn't want to be in Cleveland. That they don't want him in Cleveland. He doesn't like Mike Brown. He didn't like Chris Grant. He doesn't like Dion Waiters. He's already gotten a General Manager fired. He might get Mike Brown fired. This is the last time – once he signs he loses all of his leverage – so this is the last time he gets to enact leverage.
Perhaps Brown's ouster was a matter of Irving's "camp" exercising its leverage. If Griffin, newly empowered in his roster-shaping capacities, moves Waiters in the not-so-distant future, Irving's influence might once again rear its head.
But Irving might not have any influence within the organization whatsoever if he doesn't sign his extension with the Cavs before he joins Team USA in late July to prepare for the FIBA World Cup of Basketball. Added Windhorst:
I think this is very elementary from Dan Gilbert's perspective. If Kyrie wants to play for Team USA, he's going to have to do his deal before mid-July when he goes to play for it and he'll either take the five years or he won't. If the answer is 'no' to five years, he goes on the trade block. Period. I think it's pretty simple.
Whether such a weighty decision winds up being as simple as Windhorst says it will be is a matter of some question. Cleveland may not be keen to keep Irving around if the team feels he's going to leave it in the dust just like James did in 2010. But any situation involving a franchise-caliber talent like Irving isn't likely to be resolved quickly or without pain of some sort.
(Not to mention that Windhorst's concerns about the Irving-Waiters relationship and Griffin's future with the organization have been put to rest, to varying degrees, in the five weeks since. Or that Irving took to Twitter to refute Windhorst's musings shortly thereafter. But I digress.)
The point is, the Cavs don't want to part ways with Irving, nor should they. He's this team's presumed meal ticket off the "treadmill of mediocrity," which it's been stuck on since "The Decision."
Say what you will about Irving's defense, his maturity (or perceived lack thereof) or the overall stagnation in his game in Year 3, but there are only five guys in the NBA who averaged at least 20 points, six assists and three rebounds per game this season, and Irving was one of them.
The Cavs' chances of luring James back to Cleveland sit somewhere between "slim" and "none," but without Irving, they'd be entirely nonexistent.
For better or worse, Irving is the center of the Cavs' solar system right now, the one player who can serve as the centerpiece of a team-building effort and potentially attract other free agents into his orbit. Guys like Irving are rare commodities in the NBA, even more so when factoring in his age (22) and resume (Rookie of the Year, two-time All-Star).
This season's "tank-a-palooza" was, in part, the byproduct of so many teams vying for the chance to select a promising prospect like Irving in the 2014 NBA draft.
Again, not for a bona fide All-Star, but for the chance to maybe (if you're lucky) pick up a youngster who might develop into that caliber of player. As talent-rich as this year's draft class may be, none of the top names therein looks to be on that level.
And remember, the Cavs didn't acquire Irving with their own pick. Rather, Cleveland wound up in the No. 1 slot in 2011 after assuming the Los Angeles Clippers' lottery pick that year in the trade that brought Baron Davis to Rock City.
All of which is to say, the Cavs are exceedingly fortunate to have Irving around at all. The last thing they can afford to do is cast him aside if he's not sold on the idea of sticking around for five years.
That should give Cleveland all the more reason to pick the right head coach this time around. Whoever Griffin, Gilbert and the Cavs' brain trust choose will be Irving's third head coach in four seasons as a pro; Irving's spent his rookie and sophomore campaigns under the auspices of Byron Scott, who was canned after compiling a record of 64-166 in three miserable seasons on the job.
Cleveland's list of candidates already looks to be as long as any to fill a vacancy this side of the Los Angeles Lakers' own "who's who" of "who's next." Windhorst threw Steve Kerr's hat into yet another ring:
According to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, the Cavs may consider plucking someone from the college ranks:
The Cavs' choice comes down to which prospective hire best fits the uptempo offensive philosophy that, per Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears, the team wishes to implement. That shift may have as much to do with a dictate from up top to depart from Brown's stodgy offense as it does with satisfying a desire on Irving's part to play a more fun and attractive brand of basketball.
Whomever Griffin and Gilbert choose, they'd better be sure they get the right person to lead them into the future, as opposed to someone like Brown, who was a part of the franchise's more glorious past. They need a coach who can excite the fanbase and, more importantly, Irving, whose own decision to stay would, in turn, be a boost to the morale of the Cleveland faithful.
Not that the Cavs are in any great danger of losing Irving. On the off chance that he turns down the extension that's likely coming to him—and the even more off chance that he insists on a one-year qualifying offer as a restricted free agent in 2015—Irving's future will still be subject to Cleveland matching (if not exceeding) offer sheets from other teams next summer.
That being said, the Cavs and their incoming coach can ill afford to dillydally, regardless of the length of Irving's next deal. Another prolonged period of on-court mediocrity and in-house squabbles could be enough to convince Kyrie Irving that he should take his talents elsewhere and, like Cleveland's last superstar, leave the team high and dry in his wake.
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