The Cleveland Cavaliers' paper-thin playoff hopes took a major hit this weekend, thanks to a pair of losses — one a blowout at the hands of the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks, the other an overtime squeaker that clinched a postseason berth for the seventh-seeded Charlotte Bobcats — that left Mike Brown's club sitting at 31-47, four games behind Atlanta and two back of the ninth-seeded New York Knicks with four games left to play. The Hawks can knock Cleveland out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture for good by beating the Detroit Pistons on Tuesday; as you might imagine, these are stressful times for the wine and gold.
As has been the case at several points this season, a lot of the sturm und drang has to do with the relationship, on the court and off it, between 2011 No. 1 overall pick Kyrie Irving and 2012 No. 4 overall pick Dion Waiters, two ball-dominating score-first guards have had difficulties dovetailing over the past two years. The recent run that got the Cavs back in striking distance of the eighth seed came thanks in large part to Waiters playing well (22 points, five assists, three rebounds and a steal per game, including a game-winner to beat the Pistons) following a move into the starting lineup while Irving recuperated from a left biceps strain.
The highly touted backcourt played beautifully together in Irving's return last Wednesday, combining for 43 points and 11 assists in a win over the Orlando Magic, but returned to scuffling this weekend. They shot a combined 14 for 34 in the loss to the Hawks, and while Irving was sensational on Saturday (a career-high 44 points, eight assists, seven rebounds, three steals), Waiters needed 16 shots to score 14 points and posted just one assist in 36 minutes in the loss to Charlotte.
They rarely seem to get it going at the same time, and with every game meaning so much at this stage given the hole the Cavs have dug themselves this season, the fit/chemistry issues tend to loom larger. So, too, does the criticism facing the two guards, and especially Irving, who continues to hear grumbling about how his stardom (the commercials, the video-game covers, the All-Star starter nods, etc.) doesn't quite track with his team having a 76-150 record since he was drafted.
The most recent headline-grabbing criticism facing Irving has come from a somewhat surprising local source — Cleveland Browns' All-Pro wide receiver Josh Gordon, who spoke about the "rift" between Irving and Waiters during a recent appearance on ESPN's "First Take," according to Tom Reed of Cleveland.com:
“I talked about it with Dion. He’s my neighbor in my building so we hang out all the time,” [Gordon] said. “I’m aware of the rift in the locker room. That’s just alpha males and supreme athletes trying to share the spotlight."
The Browns receiver said Waiters had played well while Irving was sidelined recently with a biceps injury.
“Dion has some exposure right now depending on how Dan Gilbert wants to play free agency or trades,” Gordon said. “Hopefully they get along.”
Gordon was asked if the players might be better off separated.
“I’m not opposed to that,” Gordon said. “It might play out better.”
Irving didn't exactly welcome the cross-sport critique from the rising NFL star, according to Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal:
“Guys like Josh Gordon need to stay in his sport and mind his own business,” Irving said prior to shootaround Friday morning. “Does he still play for the Browns? I’ll continue to root for the Browns, but in terms of this stuff here, what goes on in this locker room, he needs to stay out of it.”
When word of Irving's response began to circulate, an evidently amused Gordon offered his rejoinder via Instagram:
"Smh.. 😏 think i touched a nerve lmao @waiters3 #racetotheplayoffs?" Gordon wrote in the image's caption.
Waiters, for his part, seemed to want to keep his distance from the squabble:
I don't kno y & how I was put in this but y'all can't believe everything yu hear!!!! That's what media get paid for.— Dion Waiters (@dionwaiters3) April 6, 2014
The "media creating dissension" card is one that's been increasingly prevalent in Cavs-related — and, specifically, Irving-related — matters of late, with the most notable fire recent being started by ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst (who used to cover the Cavs for the Beacon Journal) in an interview with Robert Attenweiler of Cavs: The Blog:
The truth is [Kyrie’s] camp has been putting out there for years — years — that he doesn’t want to be in Cleveland. That they don’t want him in Cleveland. He doesn’t like Mike Brown. He didn’t like Chris Grant. He doesn’t like Dion Waiters. He’s already gotten a General Manager fired. He might get Mike Brown fired. [...]
Now, Kyrie has been very upset by this stuff but, whether he wants to acknowledge it or not, it exists out there and I’m just saying the way it is. I’m sure Cavs fans are upset about it. The Cavs are upset about it. When I’ve written about it, the Cavs have been like “Why does this stuff have to be written about us?” I say, “It has to be written about you because this could happen.” [...]
I thought I knew Kyrie, but he’s just disappointed me this year with his immaturity. [...] It’s definitely out there in the NBA that Kyrie is not happy in Cleveland – but if that’s not the case, he has a golden opportunity to prove everybody wrong and that opportunity is coming in a few months.
Irving, predictably, was unhappy at Windhorst's reporting, and Gordon's remarks, and the mounting criticism of something he may or may not do in the months ahead. So he decided it'd be a good idea to tweet through the pain:
Sick to my stomach with all these rumors and accusations. Can I play without media guessing at my life and putting B.S out for headlines.— Kyrie Irving (@KyrieIrving) April 5, 2014
It brings nothing but negativity to the team and portraying me as something I'm not. I don't want or need the attention, so it can stop now.— Kyrie Irving (@KyrieIrving) April 5, 2014
At least be man or woman enough to come and ask me. There's no such source as "Kyrie's camp", nothing but nonsense.— Kyrie Irving (@KyrieIrving) April 5, 2014
Irving can talk about #clarity all he wants, but the reality is that we won't really have a much clearer picture about what's going on with Kyrie and the Cavs until this summer, when Cleveland can offer the point guard a long-term maximum contract extension that would keep him in Ohio for an additional five years.
If Kyrie wants to stick around, he can sign the deal he's offered. If he doesn't, he can pass on the extension, become a restricted free-agent following the 2014-'15 season, and seek out another team for whom he'd like to play, although Cleveland would have the option of matching any offer sheet tendered to their point guard. Irving could also accept Cleveland’s one-year, $9.19 million qualifying offer for '15-'16, which would A) allow him to enter unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2014, B) force Cleveland to try to move him to get some semblance of value in return before he leaves and C) further complicate this whole mess. There's really no precedent for that sequence of events happening, because teams typically look to lock up their max-level guys as soon as humanly possible and players typically like to make as much money as humanly possible as soon as they can, which tends to make this sort of thing work out more cleanly than what's being reported as potentially unfolding here.
Irving and Waiters addressed the media together on Monday, answering questions about their relationship on and off the court. Waiters said he played pool with Gordon on Sunday, discussed Gordon's comments with him, and then put him in touch with Irving to deal with the back-and-forth.
"Everything's cool now," Waiters said.
"Honestly, off the court and on the court, we're the best of friends," Irving said. "So when we come on the court, we're just going to play basketball like we've been doing the past few games, and our focus is on winning right now."
Say, there's an idea. It seems pretty #clear that that's a good thing for two dudes on a 31-47 NBA team, and a third dude on a 4-12 NFL team, to focus on.
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