Undoubtedly, Irving has the look of a superstar. He puts up big numbers, he can get by his man at will and he can make plays that virtually no one else can. He's exciting, he's marketable and he's an awfully good basketball player.
But to present Irving as a "can't-miss" star for the rest of his career would be a bit careless, particularly since he plays a position where talent is so readily available. Irving has missed 15, 23 and 11 games in his first three years due to injury, and the Cavs have struggled mightily with him leading the way, securing the first pick in the draft two times.
While it's not fair to hold Irving accountable for Cleveland's failures to compete in a weak Eastern Conference, he's certainly not innocent, either. Irving's defensive efforts have been consistently lackluster, and Cleveland's locker room issues and shuttling of coaches don't speak all that well to his leadership.
The main issue is that Irving is a flawed player, as he's simply average whenever the ball isn't his hands. That's something for Cleveland's brass to consider, especially since the time for an extension is approaching quickly.
According to Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, there might not be much hesitation on Cleveland's part, however:
My sources tell me that the Cavs have had no doubts about offering Irving the 5-year deal, and will do so. Once July 1 arrives -- the first date that an extension can be offered -- the Cavs will set up a meeting with Irving. They will present their All-Star guard with a contract extension, a 5-year deal in the $90 million range (or whatever is the maximum number)...
...The Cavs' goal is to have a new coach in place. Then have General Manager David Griffin, the coach and Irving discuss the future. Now, if Irving doesn't seem interested in an extension, that could lead to a trade.
The question marks with Irving are there, but you can't ignore the reality Cleveland is faced with when it comes to retaining him.
It is possible, albeit unlikely, that Irving would accept a one-year qualifying offer in 2015 instead of a max contract extension or offer sheet in restricted free agency. Accepting that qualifying offer and playing out the 2015-16 season would allow him to become an unrestricted free agent in 2016.
It's important to note that never once has a player turned down a max extension to do that. It's awfully reckless, particularly for a player that's had spotty health over the years, as fluky as most of those injuries have been.
The threat of losing Irving or upsetting him by not offering a max extension at the first possible time is definitely real, though. There's a reason why the Sacramento Kings gave DeMarcus Cousins, a similarly flawed but talented player, a max extension last offseason. And there's a reason why the Washington Wizards, who had accomplished exactly nothing with him, gave a max deal to John Wall.
Irving is on that level as far as potential, and that's the primary reason why Cleveland sort of has to take a leap of faith and hope Irving fulfills it in the near future.
There's also the not-so-small factor of Cleveland likely not being able to recruit star free agents without having someone already in place. Irving is probably the only legitimate path to bringing in other stars down the line, save for a LeBron James homecoming.
And you would think that, even if the plans are to woo LeBron back home, locking Irving up will help in that regard. Few point guards can play at his level, even if he rarely maintains it.
With Wall, we've seen the positive effects of sticking it out and keeping a franchise player around for the long term. There's really very little argument against the Cavs extending Irving, particularly when you remember that all "max" players shouldn't be weighed the same.
Before Wall signed his extension with Washington, Mike Prada at SB Nation blog Bullets Forever made this same point:
(...) the gist of the argument is that, by capping the maximum the absolute best players in the league make, it artificially raises the value of the second-tier players because there's a money vacuum. Teams end up having more cap space to spend on the Brook Lopezes, Roy Hibberts and, yes, John Walls of the world because LeBron James isn't making the $50 million that he should. Thus, it's hard to accurately compare Wall to other max players, because those guys would be making much more than the max if they could.
Is Irving as good as most of the other max players in the league? At this point, no. He could be if he ever starts defending, but we aren't there yet.
That's not reason enough to give him an out or an excuse to try and leave town, though. Trading players of his stature almost always ends up in receiving pennies on the dollar, and again, Cleveland needs Irving both for his production and to lure talent going forward.
Dan Feldman at Pro Basketball Talk discussed the argument for why giving Irving a max extension makes sense:
Undoubtedly, there are benefits to give Irving a max extension. It keeps him happy – which could also serve as a negative if it makes him feel too entitled, but is probably a positive – and secures his standing on the team. John Wall became a much better team leader because of his max extension.
The hope here is that by following the path the Wizards went down with Wall, the Cavs will get similar results. Going to the second round of the playoffs and putting forth a good effort would be huge for Cleveland at this point, as it would legitimize them as at least a contender, even if they were truthfully on the fringe.
It's about making progress, ultimately, and that might be worth a few extra million a year, even if Irving hasn't done enough to earn it.
If nothing else, the continuity of having the same point guard and leader for the next four or five years is important, particularly since Cleveland's management and coaching have seen such dramatic overhauls recently, both with the firing of former general manager Chris Grant and head coach Mike Brown.
To be fair, though, Irving taking on a bigger voice and leading by example would probably help those in power positions retain their jobs a little easier.
On that note, here's what Cavs general manager David Griffin told reporters after Brown's firing, via ESPN.com:
"Any, any insinuation that Kyrie had anything to do with this decision is patently false," Griffin said, his voice rising. "It's unfair. He was not counseled on this decision, nor was he counseled on the previous coaching decision. It's a completely unfair assertion and one that I want everyone to understand very clearly."
While Griffin's point may be perfectly true, Irving definitely did have at least something to do with Brown's firing, as with great talent comes great responsibility. The Cavs seemed to undermine Brown's authority, and the terrible efforts on a nightly basis can't be put solely on the coach's shoulders. At the least, it's hard to assume Irving's play (aside from anything else) didn't ultimately contribute to Brown's ouster.
But with a new general manager and new coach, there's a chance to start fresh next year. Irving will have the same opportunity, and a new contract could set the expectations and the responsibilities right where they need to be, much in the same way they did for Wall.
Cleveland is in the driver's seat and is in control of Irving's future, but there's been too much turmoil and losing in the past to assume things will play out exactly how they want them to. With other franchises it might be prudent to make Irving "prove it," have a great fourth season and then go match any offer in restricted free agency, but that might be unnecessarily playing with fire.
Stars and agents are awfully powerful in the NBA, and testing them or angering Irving might not be for the best. A good faith offer with a new staff to put any speculation to bed seems to make the most sense, especially since it would probably be much easier to receive fair value in a trade for Irving when he's locked up on a long-term deal.
As we know, the Cavs have had their fair share of free-agency disasters (LeBron's short deal, Andrew Bynum's contract). If Irving is open to signing on for the long term, there probably shouldn't be any hesitation. He's talented and capable, and for a team like Cleveland desperate for star talent, that alone should be enough.
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