Kyrie Irving was never going anywhere. The Cleveland Cavaliers, despite two reports from former and current New York tabloid writers, were never going to balk at offering him a maximum contract. NBA players are not going to sit out productive years in their 20s, working through a relatively piddling qualifying offer season along the way, to sign for less money some years down the line.
One shouldn’t doubt Kyrie’s excited about a future with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and his new five-year and $90 million contract extension mostly reflects that. In spite of four years of wasted words and bum moves in the wake of LeBron James leaving the Cavs, he has what should be a great rookie coach and a great running mate to line up alongside starting in 2014-15. Whatever Irving says at the press conference announcing his understandable decision after July 10, you should believe.
You should also understand that the way NBA rookie contracts are set up, that Irving was always going to sign a maximum extension this summer, even if the Cavs had clung onto the deposed Mike Brown as head coach and selected Uncle Drew with the top overall pick in the draft in June.
Even at the solid rate (nearly $9.2 million in 2015-16), there was no way Irving was going to play out both next year and his qualifying offer year in Cleveland after more or less making his intentions known by turning down a max deal offered by the Cavs – making him an unrestricted free agent two years from now. And, again, his current intentions are likely quite sincere – the Cavs have options moving forward, even after whiffing on draft pick after draft pick that wasn’t named “Kyrie Irving” after 2011. I don’t doubt for a second that he’s interested in this team’s future moving forward – new coach David Blatt, new top overall pick Andrew Wiggins, a respected and competent new general manager in David Griffin – regardless of how much cash Cleveland just dumped in his lap.
This is not a shot at Cleveland, nor the Cavs, nor the team’s ownership, front office, players or coaching staff. This is the NBA’s new reality. If you are a top overall pick who is worth a maximum contract in theory – and Irving certainly falls in line with that description – then the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement has made it increasingly tougher to decide to ride out your rookie contract and eventually join a team of your liking as an unrestricted free agent.
Even if Irving had turned down Tuesday’s contract offer, played for more than $16.2 million (including that qualifying offer) over the next two seasons, he still would have made less per year and in total after signing a “maximum” contract with another team with a clear cap sheet in the summer of 2016. Had he dared to sign a “maximum” offer sheet as a restricted free agent in the summer of 2015, the Cavaliers would have quickly moved in to match the sheet and sign Irving to a discounted rate, locking him into the team he didn’t want to play for. This extension, as was agreed upon by most sane NBA observers even when the Cavs were at their most laughable earlier in 2013-14, was always how things were going to turn out.
Luckily for Irving, things have turned out. The Cavs’ cap situation isn’t ideal, especially if they overpay to keep Spencer Hawes, but they do have flexibility and the chance to turn down extending all of the contracts of the lottery picks that former GM Chris Grant blew. Wiggins is no panacea, he’s a work in progress, and Blatt will need time as he acclimates to both this league, its players (that’s a lot of scouting to do) and an 82-game season, but Irving is just 22 and still has yet another year to go on his rookie deal.
He better understand there is no quick fix. And if he takes the trade demand route that most cynics are predicting, he better be ready to cool his feet in the team’s Gatorade cooler in order to make things untenable – because Cleveland isn’t going to fall for him whining as soon as the first bit of toil and trouble hits. That’s the hope, at least, that the team’s front office doesn’t stand for any passive or aggressive attempts to flee northern Ohio.
The real hope is that Cleveland’s fortunes turn on court, with a coach that players actually listen to (seriously, how do you rehire Mike Brown after everything already known about the guy?) and a GM worth his weight in this league (seriously, how do you stick with Chris Grant after he refused to rebuild in the summer of 2010?). And that an Irving moan-fest in the first season of his new deal, pitched somewhere in the middle of 2015-16, will be met with crisp indifference.
The NBA’s owners and general managers, should they decide to utilize it, are now allowed the luxury of such indifference. If their disgruntled young stars want to play for two seasons, one at a reduced rate and sign for less money elsewhere some two years after turning down a max contract … go for it, slugger. Your fractured and hapless Players Association signed off on as much in a repeated series of three collective bargaining agreements that led to this.
Some 15 years ago, when NBA teams were signing youngster after youngster to max contracts without much provocation, restricted free agency was an anachronism left over from another era. In 2005, it was brought back, and in 2011 it was given some sturdy legs in response to a series of owners who dared not utilize it as they attempted to make friends with their young charges and fire away financially prior to claiming poverty.
Now? It’s a real threat, and both the Cavs and Irving were correct in their collective approach to a late-night connection.
With that in place, and even with tens of millions to come in his name, Kyrie Irving was just about leverage-less here. That’s significant, as this tug of war between players and owners continues.
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