In our “What’s Next” series, a Right Down Euclid writer will look at each individual member of the Cleveland Cavaliers by analyzing what their future looks like and/or what’s the next step in their development. In this piece, RDE Editor Chris Manning looks at Kyrie Irving, the much maligned franchise player.
The decision that defines the Cleveland Cavaliers’ upcoming offseason won’t be defined by the decision the team makes on Anderson Varejeo’s future. It likely won’t be any free agent acquisition. It could be the 2014 NBA Draft, but we won’t be able to properly the success or failure of the draft for a few years.
The moment that will define the upcoming NBA offseason will be the day the Cavaliers offer Kyrie Irving the max and whether or not he signs it. In the past week or so, much has been made of a report indicating that the Cavs don’t want to offer Irving the max. And then came reports that the Cavs are “taking calls” regarding Irving.
But all things considered, this shouldn’t be a discussion at all. Irving, for all his flaws, is an elite talent. You don’t win Rookie of the Year, the All-Star Game MVP and have a morgue filled of crossover victims without being good at basketball. Irving is due to get paid is an investment in that talent, as well as for what he’s done and what he has the potential to do.
This isn’t to suggest Irving is a complete package. He’s James Harden-like on defense and he’s had some injury problems. This past season, his third in the NBA, and should have been his leap year. But he had the worst shooting year of his NBA career, with this true shooting percentage dropping from 55.3 percent to 53.3 percent. Overall, his statistics were down across the board.
But he is a borderline elite scorer and is only 22 years old. When you factor in all the time he has missed due to injury and the lack of a compatible roster around him, it’s conceivable, perhaps even likely, that this upcoming season could be Irving’s leap year. In short, he is nowhere near close to maximizing his potential. Think Washington Wizards point guard John Wall this time a year ago, when he signed his max deal with Washington.
Even if you consider offering Irving a max deal a risk, either due to his injury history or his maturity, his skills alone merit a max deal. And if you are in the camp that doesn’t view Irving as a max player, think about it this way: Giving Irving the max won’t destroy the Cavaliers’ cap space. The max for players coming off a rookie deal (which Irving is) is lower than the max for veteran players. The salary cap is also rising every year, and even if you think it is an overpay right now, it’s worth it. In two or three years, as Irving gets closer to his peak, it won’t be. At his peak, a max deal is a bargain for what he does on the floor.
It also helps that the Cavs’ aren’t bogged down by other large contracts. Varejao’s deal is non-guaranteed for next season at just north of $9 million. No other Cavalier is due to make more than $8 million after next season. Potential extensions for both Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters could affect this, but as of right now, neither is a lock to get a huge payday from the Cavs. Plus, if the No. 1 pick (whether it is Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker or Joel Embiid) ends up as a max player, their deal and Irving’s deal will only overlap for one season. This means that, if the Cavs so choose, then can rebuild around this No. 1 pick and not have to worry about shedding long, expensive contract. Or, in the likelier scenario, the Cavs then have two stars to build around while still having some room to sign role players that compliment the two stars.
Even when you factor in that the Cavs are again selecting No. 1, whomever that player is won’t be due to even be offered a max until after their third NBA season. That potential extension wouldn’t even kick in after the fourth season and by then, the Cavaliers could manage the roster and plan accordingly. For instance, the Cavaliers could have an extra $6.3 million to spend ahead of the 2016-2017 season by declining to pick up the last year on Jarrett Jack’s contract. Financially speaking, there isn’t a downside to offering Irving the max now – especially when you consider that Cavs owner Dan Gilbert is historically willing to open his checkbook. After all, Gilbert is the man who cut the checks for the 2009-2010 Cavaliers.
On the court, Irving will, without question, need to get better. He needs to take that Wall-esque leap to clear that next step from talented young player to legit star. That can be helped if he can mesh better with both Waiters and Jack in the backcourt. After all, minutes can only be staggered so much.
Whomever the No. 1 pick ends up being should help as well. If the Cavs go with Embiid, Irving will have a legitimate rim protector behind him for the first time in his NBA career. If the Cavs go with Parker, he will have a pick and roll partner who also should be able to run with Irving in transition and spot up off the ball. And if the Cavs go with Wiggins, Irving will get a fast break partner who fits in nicely off the ball as a spot-up shooter. It’s a win-win-win situation.
All things considered, the book is far from written on Irving. He’s young, on the verge of stardom while still having the room to grow. This type of player doesn’t grow on trees and most teams don’t even have one. Even if he is flawed and there are issues with his game, he’s too good not to offer the max this summer. Which means this all really up to Kyrie Irving.