NEW YORK: Twenty-five thoughts for 25 shots from Kyrie Irving on a turbulent day in New York, which concluded with a terrible 117-86 loss to the New York Knicks…
1. Kyrie Irving is smart. He’s well spoken. He has learned the craft of saying things without actually saying them. So when he said “I’m still in my rookie contract and I’m happy to be here. And I’m pretty sure I’m going to be here for a long time,” I’m sure it sounded swell to a lot of fans who were clamoring for him to say something along those lines.
2. But I gave him another chance to say he’d accept a max contract extension from the Cavs this summer and he again refused. That’s twice the topic of a max extension has come up and both times he refused to say he would take it.
3. “It’s still too early to say. I’m still trying to get through this season,” Irving said tonight. “Everybody is trying to antagonize this team and put it on me … I’m here for my teammates, I’m here for Coach Brown and the coaching staff and I’m going to play my heart out every single night for the Cleveland Cavaliers.”
4. I asked him last summer, in the days after John Wall signed his max extension, if he would accept the same deal from the Cavs. “I’m not really worried about that right now,” he said. “Right now I’m focusing on the year ahead, my third year, then I’ll worry about that in the summer time.”
5. I’m not saying Irving is leaving, I’m not saying Irving is staying. But I know Dan Gilbert has said he’ll never allow another player to hold his organization hostage, and I also know if Irving wants out, his chance could come this summer.
6. Since Irving was voted an All-Star starter this year, his max contract offer this summer is slightly complicated. If the Cavs deem him their franchise player (from all accounts they will), they can offer him a five-year deal worth 25 percent of the salary cap. The numbers get filled in later when the cap figure is set.
7. But Irving has the rare possibility of earning “Rose exception” status. He’s already halfway there. The Rose exception is named after Derrick Rose and awards a player 30 percent of the cap rather than 25 if he hits certain escalator clauses. One of those is being voted to an All-Star team twice within his first four seasons. This year is his first. If he’s voted to the All-Star team again next season, he’s automatically entitled to 30 percent of the cap rather than 25 percent – which can amount to about $15 million over the life of the contract, so it’s a significant figure.
8. Only a handful of players have qualified for the Rose exception: Rose (who won a league MVP award to qualify) and the Clippers’ Blake Griffin among them. Indiana’s Paul George can become another member if he is named to an All-NBA team again this season (he made third team last year). George agreed to a max extension with the Pacers last summer and the numbers will be filled in later once a.) the cap is set; and b.) it’s determined whether George is entitled to 25 percent of the cap or 30.
9. How does all of this apply to Irving? He’ll be in the same position this summer. The value of his max extension with the Cavs could soar past $90 million if he reaches Rose exception status next year. That’s a lot of money for someone to turn down, particularly given his injury history.
10. But if he truly wants out of Cleveland, he can reject the max offer, play out the final year of his rookie contract next season, accept a one-year qualifying offer of about $9.7 million for the 2015-16 season and leave as a free agent in the summer of 2016. That’s technically what he could do, but obviously the Cavs won’t just stand by and watch their best player play out his contract and walk away without getting anything significant for him. They’ve been down that road before.
11. If Irving truly wants out of Cleveland, we’ll find out this summer. All he has to do is reject the extension and force the Cavs’ hand. At that point, the Cavs would be forced to explore trading him. He could then get his five-year max deal in another market, which is what James Harden received from the Houston Rockets after the Thunder traded him prior to the start of last season. All of this is why I’ve been writing since last summer that this is a huge season – and this summer is a huge offseason – for the Cavs. It’s also why the Cavs’ 16-30 record and pathetic performance on Thursday is so very damaging.
12. I watched that hapless 112-57 loss at the Lakers the first year after LeBron left, the loss that remains the worst in franchise history. I watched a couple weeks ago as the Cavs were drilled by a terrible Kings team by 44 points. I thought the Kings loss was worse than the Lakers’ loss just because that Cavs team barely had an NBA roster and what few legitimate NBA players they had were injured. This team was built to compete and win. That was a very good Lakers team and these were the freaking Kings. But given the circumstances, tonight’s loss might trump them both.
13. The players were publicly lashed by both their coach and general manager over the previous 48 hours. “Our competitive spirit is non-existent,” Mike Brown said after Tuesday’s abysmal loss to the New Orleans Pelicans.
14. “The lack of effort is just not acceptable,” General Manager Chris Grant said on Wednesday. “It’s not who we are and who we want to be. It’s got to be addressed head on.”
15. If it was addressed, it certainly wasn’t resolved. The Cavs allowed a combined six layups and dunks to the Knicks in the first quarter, nine in the half and 17 for the game. Brown was calmer after the game than I expected, but he already fired his cannon shot on Tuesday with his “competitive spirit” remark that obviously had no effect.
16. “We all have to hold each other accountable and hold each other at a higher standard,” Irving said after the game. “We have to play with more fire, especially starting the game.”
17. The only player that seemed truly disgusted with Thursday’s performance was Luol Deng, who just got here. Perhaps that’s the most damning indictment of all.
18. “You’ve got to fight. It’s one thing to play hard and to lose, it’s another thing to just let the team do whatever they want,” he said. “As a man, you’ve got to at some point just stand up and battle and play your heart out.”
19. So I asked Deng if this team has reached that point yet. “We wouldn’t have lost like that if we have,” he said. Ouch.
20. At one point, J.R. Smith’s step-back jumper left Tristan Thompson flat on his rear end. Smith also had a behind-the-back dunk when Irving and Waiters were too lazy to get back defensively. Chandler followed with another dunk as Irving and Anthony Bennett stood by and watched. Smith and Carmelo Anthony took turns abusing poor Anthony Bennett, who inexplicably was left to defend them.
21. The Knicks danced and pranced off the court following timeouts. The Cavs stood by and watched. This team has shown no heart, no fight, no pride. There is an obvious disconnect between Brown and these players. A few players have said this season regardless of what they thought of Byron Scott as a coach, he was a players’ coach. He played in the league, he related to these guys, he got along with them. For whatever reason, the transition to Brown has been much more difficult than anyone expected.
22. Of course, by being a “players coach,” Scott let guys get away with things that Brown isn’t. The belief throughout the organization is Brown is holding guys more accountable than Scott did. There clearly is some resistance there.
23. Look at what Grant said Wednesday when he was asked about the way Irving is defending this year: “It coincided with Mike. Mike is demanding a lot more of those guys, and they have a lot more expectations on both ends of the court offensively and defensively demanded of them. I think Kyrie, Tristan, Dion, a lot of the younger guys, see that, feel it and are starting to step up to it.”
24. Whether or not they’re starting to step up to it can certainly be debated, but Grant subtly made it clear Brown has ramped up the expectations on players this season. And there clearly has been resistance to it.
25. The Cavs lost another game tonight against a team they’re chasing for the playoffs. It sounds silly to still be talking about the postseason, but the Cavs are now 3 ½ games out of the final spot. With the Rockets and Mavericks (a combined 19 games above .500) still to come on this road trip, that gap will likely continue to grow. See you in Houston.