MIAMI: Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson were just a couple of high school basketball stars the first time they met LeBron James.
Thompson attended the Nike skills academy in Akron before his senior year and Irving was even younger the first time James showed interest in him.
When one of the greatest players on the planet starts calling high school kids, they generally embrace the opportunity. Only now it has evolved into something a little more complicated.
As the Cavaliers prepare to face James and the Miami Heat for the first time Tuesday at American Airlines Arena, Irving and Thompson have been thrust into a fragile predicament. James remains the despised villain in the eyes of many Cavs fans, who never forgave him for leaving town, while Irving and Thompson are the future stars destined to replace him.
The dichotomy requires a careful balance between business in the NBA and sensitivity toward Cleveland fans, but both Irving and Thompson approach it as two kids with no ties to the past.
“I just got to the Cleveland Cavaliers,” Irving said. “I was at Duke last year. I’m just coming in as a rookie trying to play well.”
Added Thompson: “I wasn’t around in Cleveland when LeBron played there. … Most fans understand you can’t fault a kid that wasn’t here at that time.”
Thompson’s ties run a little deeper. He is part of Creative Artists Agency, the same superpower agency that handles James’ affairs. Thompson is represented by Rich Paul, one of James’ inner-circle figures and the man who ultimately called the Cavs to tell them James wasn’t returning to their organization.
Through all the bluster of James’ departure, Paul maintained a very good working relationship with the Cavaliers. Thompson, meanwhile, was ready to participate in James’ Homecoming Tour in Akron last month, but it was ultimately postponed when the NBA lockout was lifted.
“He’s like a brother to me,” Thompson said of James. “But at the same time, it’s a business. We’re trying to go to Miami and win the game. That whole friendship feeling is out the window when we get on the court, and I think he has the same mindset, too.”
Since early in his career, James has taken an interest in the top high school players. Whether it’s merely an effort to coax them into signing with his fledgling LRMR marketing firm or sincere interest in the league’s future stars remains up for debate, but James’ track record is consistent. He forged the same type of relationship with John Wall and Tyreke Evans when they were about the same age.
Irving said before the Cavs drafted him, James was talking to him at least once a week during his toe injury, keeping his spirits up. James told the Beacon Journal last summer neither he nor Irving can worry about how the relationship is portrayed.
“We can’t control our relationship with them,” James said, referring to Cavs fans. “I’ve been mentoring him since he was in high school. He’s continuing to get better, and he’s going to go out there and make Cavs fans proud.”
It’s just that Cavs fans would probably be prouder if he severed ties with James, but that isn’t happening anytime soon. The NBA is a fraternity, and Irving and Thompson are the freshman pledges. They’re not about to betray the president of the Alpha Betas.
“Whatever me and him have going on is between us,” Thompson said. “The main thing is playing basketball and that’s what we’re here to do.”
Asked whether he was concerned at all how fans would react to his relationship with James, Irving had a simple response Saturday: “No, not at all.”
In the wake of James’ departure to Miami, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert lost his battle to implement a franchise tag in the most recent collective bargaining agreement. But he remains confident the rules have been altered enough to give small-market teams a better opportunity to hold onto their stars. The Cavs’ interest in that is obviously geared toward Irving, who appears headed toward superstardom.
Under the new agreement, max players can receive 30 percent of the salary cap after seven years in the league and 35 percent after 10 years. But a new Derrick Rose Rule allows players to qualify for the 30 percent rate after four years if they meet certain criteria – an MVP award, two nominations to start in the All-Star game or twice being named to the All-NBA first team.
Salary cap expert Larry Coon said James and Chris Bosh were the motivation behind the rule, since both signed shorter contract extensions after their rookie contracts expired to qualify them for bigger paydays sooner.
“By giving franchise players the 30 percent max after their rookie contracts, the idea is that players will be more motivated to lock in for the maximum number of years,” Coon wrote in an e-mail, “so the team gets to hold onto its stars.”
Under the new agreement, max players can sign for up to five years following the expiration of their rookie deals.
While it’s not the exact scenario he wanted, Gilbert said he was pleased that current teams will be able to offer max players about $30 million more than another team, which is more than teams could offer their own free agents under the previous deal.
“I think [a franchise tag] probably would’ve been a good thing overall for the NBA, but that difference in what you can pay your own max player is significantly more than it was in the previous one,” Gilbert said. “Hopefully, that will help and be a difference.”
Once the Cavs lost James in free agency, the new slogan around the league for teams with superstars nearing the end of contracts became, “We don’t want to be Cleveland.”
The Utah Jazz traded Deron Williams and the Denver Nuggets traded Carmelo Anthony, the New Orleans Hornets traded Chris Paul and the Orlando Magic were expected to deal Dwight Howard any day.
Only Yahoo! Sports reported over the weekend that the Magic are now seriously contemplating holding onto Howard and making one last run at a championship despite his trade request.
It’s a huge gamble for the Magic, but with the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks both faltering in the East, the only teams between the Magic and the NBA Finals appear to be the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls.
The Magic may very well decide it’s worth taking one last shot at a title, then trading Howard for a couple of draft picks in a sign-and-trade after the season if he insists on leaving Orlando – just as the Cavs did after losing James.
The Cavs, incidentally, have at least a small vested interest in the Magic/Howard dilemma. They own Orlando’s second-round picks in each of the next two drafts.
Thompson’s sprained left ankle was fairly swollen in the locker room after Saturday’s loss to the Atlanta Hawks, but Thompson said he would be fine. X-rays were negative and his availability for Tuesday’s game against the Heat will be updated today. … Dwyane Wade missed his fourth consecutive game for the Heat Sunday with an ankle injury and would have to be viewed as questionable at best for the game against the Cavs on Tuesday. … The Washington Wizards began last season 0-25 on the road before finally winning at Quicken Loans Arena. At 0-6, they’re the only team in the league without a road victory this season.
Jason Lloyd can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.