How Kyrie Irving Can Live Up to New Max Contract with Cleveland Cavaliers

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How Kyrie Irving Can Live Up to New Max Contract with Cleveland Cavaliers
Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Getting paid was the easy part for Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving.

The 22-year-old, despite reports of his unhappiness and the franchise's concern that he's not a max-contract talent, reached an agreement on an extension less than two hours into the negotiating period of NBA free agency, as Cavs owner Dan Gilbert announced:

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports released the financial terms of the new deal:

That was the no-brainer side of this story.

Irving, happy or not, was never going to leave that type of money on the table. And the Cavaliers were always going to put this offer in front of him. Any franchise would do the same for someone this young and this talented, but the motivation was even stronger in Cleveland, where the wounds haven't fully healed from LeBron James' infamous exit in 2010.

All of this has been predictable—expected even. However, this is when the story really starts. The next chapters haven't been written.

Getting this money and actually earning it are two different things. To do the latter, Irving must embrace this franchise and city like never before, elevating his play and that of his teammates every step of the way.

He's starting off on the right foot. Shortly after Gilbert's announcement, Irving took to Twitter to publicly express his commitment to the Cavaliers:

Granted, it's easy to feel warm and fuzzy toward the party responsible for the Brink's truck sitting in your driveway. Still, the Cavs have given Irving more than economic reasons to get excited.

Cleveland has handed the coaching reins to David Blatt, a brilliant offensive mind who could pair perfectly with an explosive offensive force like Irving. Blatt has apparently already made a major impression on his All-Star floor general, as sources told ESPN's Chris Broussard:

Blatt and associate head coach Tyronn Lue were part of the Cavs' contingent that met with Irving early Tuesday morning. The pair reportedly laid out an offensive blueprint for Irving, which all but extended his arm for the handshake agreement.

The coaches "were incredibly impressive," Irving's agent, Jeff Wechsler, told Wojnarowski. "That's what helped sell Kyrie on taking this deal."

Using the first overall selection of the 2014 NBA draft, Cleveland's third top overall pick in the last four years, on ridiculous-upside prospect Andrew Wiggins didn't hurt, either.

If Wiggins even scratches the surface of his potential, and last year's No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett brings anything to the table—Bennett did average 7.0 points and 4.2 rebounds in only 16.8 minutes over his last 20 games—Irving could see a significantly upgraded supporting cast around him.

And that's before the Cavaliers go free-agent fishing.

Cleveland already entered the offseason with substantial buying power. As general manager David Griffin pointed out, via Fox Sports' Sam Amico, the Cavaliers are close to having max-contract space and could pull a couple strings to create it if needed:

The franchise's hands were tied as long as Irving's situation remained unsettled. Now that he's pledged to stick around for the long haul, the Cavs can use that commitment as a bargaining chip on the open market:

Any help that Irving can provide on the recruiting front could go a long way toward validating his new deal. The Cavaliers, by acting so quickly on Irving's extension, have already sent a clear message to any of their offseason targets.

"It is to say to any free agent, 'We are building something here,' " Terry Pluto of The Plain Dealer noted. "'We got Kyrie to extend. We drafted Andrew Wiggins. We've got salary cap money. We've got some good young players.'"

Cleveland's pitch is strong, but history says it will need Irving's help on the recruiting trail. James had trouble bringing players to Cleveland, and Irving isn't held in the same light now as James was then.

Still, Irving is already an All-Star Game MVP who's younger than some members of the 2014 draft class. His name carries weight in basketball circles, perhaps enough of it for Cleveland to land an impact player.

That pursuit will likely begin with James. "The Cavaliers are likely to speak with his agent, Rich Paul, about a possible reunion," according to USA Today's Sam Amick.

It seems improbable that James would return now, but it's not impossible. As long as that's the case, the Cavs can and should explore the option.

Assuming James is out of reach, Irving can still help validate his deal by attracting some second-tier targets.

The Cavs are "high on Utah Jazz small forward Gordon Hayward," Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal wrote, and "are also contemplating a run" at Washington Wizards unrestricted free agents Marcin Gortat and Trevor Ariza.

Whatever roster improvements Irving can help the Cavaliers make, the easier it will be for him to live up to this extension.

Individually, there are strides he'll need to make on the floor.

He has to start giving better effort at the defensive end. The Cavs allowed 106.8 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor in 2013-14, according to NBA.com, and only 101.4 when he sat. Opposing point guards enjoyed a 17.8 player efficiency rating against him, per 82games.com.

USA TODAY Sports

Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News detailed Irving's problems on that side while naming the point guard his No-Defense Player of the Year:

He has all the classic weaknesses: Irving allows himself to get bumped by every screen that comes his way and then gives up on the play if and when he does, he is lousy on the ball, he’s weak in transition D, and when he is off the ball in half-court defense, he is just as likely to lose his man for a back-door lay-up as he is to forget who actually was guarding, anyway.

Look how many of the issues described relate to effort and focus. Those are questions that should not have to be raised regarding a maximum-contract player.

Irving doesn't need to be a lockdown defender by any stretch, but he needs to play with that type of intensity.

It's all about setting an example for his teammates to follow. After his porous defense, his leadership has probably been the most scrutinized aspect of his game. 

"Two opposing general managers this season have told me they think Irving is pouting," Lloyd wrote in January.

Some have offered excuses for Irving's problems in this department. Everything from his age to the relative ease with which he grabbed the keys to the city has been cited as a reason he's been slow to progress in this area.

Those excuses won't survive Irving's transition to max-contract status. He has to play a leadership role for the franchise whether he's ready or not.

USA TODAY Sports

It's not about justifying his cost. It's about giving the Cavaliers a significant return on their investment—something much more than the .339 winning percentage Cleveland has compiled across Irving's first three seasons.

The franchise needs a taste of playoff basketball. In the Eastern Conference, it doesn't take much to scratch that itch.

The Washington Wizards handed John Wall a max deal last summer and saw their five-year playoff drought quickly come to an end. The Cavaliers, who haven't been to be the big dance since 2010, will be leaning on Irving to produce a similar outcome.

Irving needs to make himself better, but more importantly he needs to make this team better. Potential earned him the salary of a difference-maker; now it's time for him to go about making those differences.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of NBA.com.

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