Keeping star players in Cleveland can be a difficult task, especially when a team doesn't want to pay them.
While it was widely assumed the Cavaliers would throw whatever money necessary to keep All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving, a recent report by Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News suggests otherwise.
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.
Regardless of if the Cavaliers have a point by refusing to offer Irving max money, will this hardball tactic damage the relationship with their star?
Irving and the Max
Ever since his fantastic Rookie of the Year campaign back in 2011-12, it's safe to say most believed Cleveland would give Irving whatever money he wanted to stick around.
After his second season, one that saw Irving make the All-Star team while averaging 22.5 points and 5.9 assists, it appeared a maximum contract was becoming inevitable.
When fellow point guard John Wall got his own max extension last summer, Irving definitely took notice.
Surely, Irving would be next. After all, the Cavs' floor general was scoring more points, proved to be a much better shooter (39.1 percent from three for Irving, 7.1 for Wall during second seasons) and was showcasing handles far beyond Wall's abilities.
So where did it all go wrong?
For one, the Cavs still stunk this year even with Irving's flashy dribbling. Cleveland is now just 78-152 since drafting Irving in 2011, failing to make the playoffs in a weak Eastern Conference this year even with some notable trades.
Irving is 22 but sometimes can act even younger while on the court. You can often see him showcase his frustration, and Irving's admitted to being disinterested during games.
This past season, Irving seemed to have taken a step back. His field-goal percentage plummeted to 43 percent, down from 46.9 percent his rookie year. His three-point shooting also took a hit, settling at 35.8 percent after reaching 39.1 percent the season before.
Irving's points (21.3 to 21.8), rebounds (3.7 to 4.4), assists (6.2 to 6.4) and blocks (0.3 to 0.5) per 36 minutes were all down from his rookie year, as was his player efficiency rating (20.1 to 21.4).
Some of this should understandably be blamed on Mike Brown, who ran a nonexistent offense that made Irving work more for his shots. However, given that Irving was now in his third season and named to his second All-Star game, we should have seen better production.
Is Irving worth $80 million or more?
Probably not, but small-market teams like Cleveland always have to overpay for players.
I'd still be surprised if the Cavs didn't end up making Irving a max offer, whether he deserves it or not.
I proposed the question of whether the Cavaliers should entertain the idea of trading Irving back in November and was nearly tarred and feathered for it.
About six months later, the thought doesn't seem so ridiculous.
The truth is, Cleveland has to seriously consider dealing its star if he shoots down any kind of an extension this summer, maximum or not.
Irving has never stated publicly that he wants to leave the Cavs, nor has he verbally committed to staying with the team.
We learned a long time ago that actions speak louder than any words, and what Irving does when handed those extension papers this summer will tell us all we need to know.
For now, however, Cleveland needs to keep all potential trade talks involving Irving on hold.
It's one thing to let rumors spread that the Cavs don't want to offer Irving a max deal, and quite another to say they're listening to offers for him.
If the Cavaliers are worried about damaging their relationship with Irving, general manager David Griffin needs to adamantly deny that he's even talking to teams about a trade for his star. Since Griffin is new on the job, this would be a fantastic opportunity to send a positive message and help recover any trust lost by Irving.
Of course, if Irving refuses an extension and wants to become a free agent after the 2015-16 season, Griffin should be scrambling for his phone.
Keeping the Peace
Say what you want about Cavaliers' majority owner Dan Gilbert, but the man truly loves his team and players.
Irving echoed these sentiments at the beginning of last season to Jodie Valade of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
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.
So, Irving and Gilbert appear to be cool for now.
What happens if the Cavaliers shortchange Irving by offering him anything but a max deal?
What Should Cavs Do?
They may not like it, but Cleveland needs to offer Irving as much money as the league allows.
Why? Because if they don't, someone else will.
The Cavaliers need to look at Irving as an investment. Is he worth the same amount of money as a player like Wall, who just led his team to the Eastern Conference semifinals?
Right now, no, but neither was Wall when he got his deal. The Wizards had just wrapped up a 29-53 season before committing to Wall, who apparently used the extra motivation from his contract to push Washington into the postseason.
The Cavs' best option right now would be to lock Irving up and continue to build around him. Not only would signing a max contract now keep Irving in Cleveland until 2020, it would also serve as a powerful negotiation point in future contract talks.
Right now, the relationship between Irving and the Cavaliers is still strong.
Overpaying a little is worth keeping it that way.
Stats provided by basketball-reference.com unless otherwise noted.