And Irving, for all his faults, is more important to Cleveland—both in the tumultuous current era and whatever the next one brings—than ever before.
That's a scary thing for the Cavaliers because Irving is in line for a max extension this summer. How do you fully commit to a player as a franchise cornerstone if he hasn't been a stable piece of the foundation to this point? And what assurances does Cleveland have that Irving will grow into the leader it needs him to be?
Though we're still early in the process, the Cavs are reportedly taking a very cautious approach to Irving's extension.
The Cavs are making noises that they aren’t going to offer Kyrie Irving “max money" this summer via a long-term extension. They don’t want to deal the 2014 All-Star Game MVP, but it could come to that, especially if the West Orange product and his family continue to tell people that he wants out. Irving hasn’t been a leader in his first three seasons and he’s also gained the unwelcomed reputation as a locker-room problem. Those are two reasons the Cavs don’t see him as a max player.
Cleveland's reservations are defensible. Irving regressed in his third year, posting career lows in player efficiency rating and true shooting percentage while seeing his per-36-minute averages in scoring, rebounding and assists drop below the ones he posted in his rookie campaign, per Basketball-Reference.com.
Field-goal percentage? Three-point accuracy? Both also fell to career-low levels for Irving last season.
Worse still, he showed no signs of committing on the defensive end and was the "best" player on a dysfunctional team that won just 33 games in the weak Eastern Conference. Fair or not, he's absorbed the lion's share of blame for how ugly Cleveland's 2013-14 season turned out.
But you have to look at the bigger picture when it comes to Irving and his future. The analysis can't stop with where he is now; it has to continue into the realm of where he might go.
An Unfinished Product
A starting point we should all remember about Cleveland's point guard, per Grantland's Zach Lowe:
But he just turned 22, and he’s a fantastically talented offensive player—that rare breed of point guard with ankle-breaking off-the-bounce skills and a threatening 3-point shot. He’s the Damian Lillard of the Eastern Conference, only almost two years younger, with a higher ceiling.
That changes the calculus on Irving, doesn't it?
Irving is immensely polished, composed in interviews, clever, well-spoken and possessed of a maturity that belies his age. It's easy to forget he's so young because he carries himself like a much older player.
Even amid a rough season, he managed to say all the right things:
Let's also keep in mind his relative lack of experience—not as a knock, but as an argument in favor of his room to grow. Irving played 11 games in college and has missed 49 games in three years as a pro. Plus, he's never really been in a situation in Cleveland where he had players around him who could teach him the right way to do things.
He's become a leader on the fly, and though he's undeniably flawed right now, Irving has done pretty well for himself—given the circumstances. That bodes well for the future.
Still, all those things could work against Irving as Cleveland considers what to do about his extension. Making Irving a cornerstone of the franchise is hard to do with so many unknowns floating around, even after three seasons. And NBA teams don't like to invest nearly $100 million in unknowns.
Present and Future Concerns
That's why the Cavs must be mindful of the ripple effects of making Irving a part of the organization's plans. It's shortsighted to look only at Irving as an individual player without considering what he could mean to the team symbolically.
The Cavs need Irving around—happy and productive—because he's the only player on the roster who could even loosely be deemed a star. If the Cavaliers are serious about building a team good enough to make the postseason next year, he's the guy they must give every chance to lead them to that modest goal.
And in terms of keeping fans happy in the short term, letting the first post-LeBron star leave town would be devastating. Even upsetting Irving by not offering him the max this summer could be dangerous. Not in a practical sense—as Cleveland would still retain his restricted free-agent rights by making him a qualifying offer after the 2014-15 season—but in the sense that an unhappy Irving might sour to the point where he becomes a destructive force in the locker room.
Cleveland must offer Irving a max deal in order to foster hope among fans next season. And remember, per Lowe, the financial commitment required here isn't as significant as you might think:
The “max” for guys coming off their rookie deals is smaller than the “max” for veteran players. It might stand as an overpay for present-day Irving, but it’s an overpay you make with the cap rising so fast every season.
That's the short-term picture. The long-term one offers even more reasons for why Cleveland should commit to making Irving a part of its plans.
Most players (free-agents-to-be in particular) don't pore over advanced stats. So they probably don't know Irving ranked 36th among point guards in ESPN's real plus/minus figure last season.
Guess what they do know, though: Irving was the MVP of the 2014 All-Star Game.
Thanks to showing out on the big stage in front of his starry peers, Irving is still regarded by players around the league as an elite talent.
That means he's still got the cache to attract impactful players via free agency. And perhaps his show-stopping All-Star performance and a shared love of Pepsi Max and prosthetics will entice Kevin Love to sign with Cleveland if the Cavs can pull off a trade to land the disgruntled Minnesota Timberwolves forward.
And then there's the possibility of what Irving might be able to do with a promising young sidekick. With apologies to Anthony Bennett and the ball-hogging Dion Waiters, Irving hasn't really had a chance to play alongside an up-and-coming stud.
That could change in this year's draft, and the Cavaliers have to be intrigued by the possibility of better surrounding talent unlocking another level in Irving's game.
For his part, Irving sounds plenty excited about playing with a young stud.
His enthusiasm can only be a positive sign going forward.
Costly to Keep, Costlier to Lose
Ultimately, Irving is valuable to Cleveland because of what he might become individually and because of what he represents as a legitimate draw to talent outside of Cleveland. For a team that has never managed to attract big names on the free-agent market, having a guy with that kind of reputation is doubly valuable.
He's the best player and only star the Cavaliers have, and unless they've got one hidden away somewhere we don't know about, they'd be crazy to give up on Irving.
Nobody's saying the decision to max out Irving is the easy move. For what it's worth, FiveThirtyEight.com's Nate Silver says the Cavaliers probably shouldn't do it. And it's awfully hard to argue with the mountains of data and dispassionate analysis in support of that point.
But Irving's value is as much symbolic as it is objectively quantifiable.
The Cavs don't just want Irving to be part of their future; they need him to be.
He's a potential superstar in the embryonic stages of his development, and whether he takes another step or not, he's still an attractive teammate to free agents and incoming draftees.
Cleveland might balk at the idea of investing huge dollars in Irving, young and unproven as he is. That's an expensive risk, to be sure.
But giving up on Irving could cost the franchise a whole lot more.