(originally published elsewhere)
Cleveland committed their future to Kyrie Irving. They picked him first overall, gave him all the reins, and gave him all the plaudits. And yet now there are reports that they do not want to give him a maximum contract extension.
Whether or not Irving is worth the maximum salary is not really relevant here. The point is loyalty, and, more importantly, the perception of loyalty. It is not automatically disloyal to offer less than the maximum salary in an extension to a player you (rightly) do not feel is worth it, but to the player and his powerful agent, it is perceived as so. Anything less than undivided love is insufficient love, because the assumption – fuelled by perception – is that undivided love is available elsewhere. If you show anything less than undivided love, you do not show sufficient loyalty. And NBA players are driven by loyalty.
Offer them less than the maximum and they will point to all those beforehand in comparable situations who received it. Blake Griffin, for one, or fellow point guards Derrick Rose and John Wall (particularly Wall, who had a long way to go at the time he received his deal, moreso than Rose). It matters not if they are not worth the maximum – the assumption was always that they were going to get it, especially after picking him first overall, openly stating he is the future and the foundation, and when given that they are one of the few bright spots for the franchise in the last three moribund seasons. The fact that the last three years have been poor is partly Irving’s fault, of course, but that is not how this particular process works.
It could, then, be a situation headed for a messy divorce. Especially if Pete Vecsey’s version of events which state that Irving would not take a maximum contract extension even if it were offered is to be believed.
In theory, both characters in the Kyrie Irving saga have options. Kyrie does not need to take a deal below his market value, and, if he really does want out of Cleveland, is either a mere two years away from freedom via free agency or a few weeks or months away from being able to force a trade. In theory, Cleveland will have to do such a trade if they are convinced the situation cannot be redeemed. The Cavaliers, however, also do not have to give maximum money to a player they seemingly do not feel has earned it, or will go on to do so. And if they change their mind and/or are proven wrong by Irving next season, they have the right to make him a restricted free agent and pay whatever anyone else can.
In practice, none of the options are particularly good.
If the Cavaliers do not budge on their supposed position of not offering a maximum extension, Irving has several choices. He can either take what they offer and take the pride hit that comes with it, potentially playing himself out of a maximum contract in the 2015 free agency market for the sake of the security that accompanies a still-huge extension. He could also decline the offer and head for restricted free agency in 2015, whereby one of four things with happen – he will take the one year $9,191,949 qualifying offer Cleveland can extend him (an amount they cannot change, set as it is by the CBA), he will sign an offer sheet with another team that Cleveland may or may not match, he can re-sign with Cleveland bypassing the offer sheet stage, or he can be signed and traded.
You can more than likely discount the first of these. Irving and his representatives have to feel that the maximum salary is available to them somehow and someway – if anything, Irving should use Cleveland’s reluctance to offer it as motivation to develop as a player and a leader and give them no choice but to do so. Even if the Cavaliers do not do so, Irving’s representatives must feel as though someone will – the Knicks, for example, could and should be big players in 2015 free agency, with plenty of reason to buy.
You can also more than likely discount the one year qualifying offer option. In all the draft classes since 2004, the list of players on rookie scale contracts to sign their one year qualifying offer reads Stromile Swift, Mickael Pietrus, Vladimir Radmanovic, Melvin Ely, Ben Gordon, Robert Swift, Raymond Felton, Spencer Hawes, Marco Belinelli and Nick Young only. Self-evidently, there is no one there of the kind of calibre we are dealing with in Irving. Players of Irving’s calibre are paid beyond what the QO can realistically pay, and thus it does not offer the intermediary stop gap solution to them that it did to others. Additionally, a player playing under a one year qualifying offer in this way loses their Bird rights if they are traded. This gives them the power to veto a trade, yet it also means that if they are traded, the recipient team has no Bird rights on them, which in Irving’s case would make it impossible to re-sign him. Thus he would lose both a suitor and sign-and-trade possibilities.
(There exists such a thing in the CBA as a “maximum qualifying offer.” This is a vehicle a team can extend to a player coming off of the fourth season of an unextended rookie scale contract – and only when coming off of the fourth season of an unextended rookie scale contract – offered in conjunction with the one year set-value qualifying offer. It offers the player a five year maximum salary extension with no options, no unguaranteed portions, and maximum raises, effectively offering a maximum salary contract before anyone else can. If a maximum qualify offer is extended, however, the only inhibition it places on other teams is that the minimum offer sheet they can extend goes from two years in length to three. It does not affect the value of said future offer sheet – as is the case with conventional qualifying offers, there is no requirement that any contract the player signs starts at or above the QO amount, and in Irving’s case, the contract was never going to be that short anyway. The maximum qualifying offer, then, is less useful than it sounds, and as far as can be ascertained has never been used since its inception. And of course, Irving still does not have to accept it.)
This leaves three possibilities – signing an extension before October 31st this year, or heading for restricted free agency concluding in either an offer sheet or a sign-and-trade. As much as the latter two offer the potential chance at the freedom, redemption and unconditional love that probably looks highly desirable to Irving right now, they also offer a lack of security. It is hard to turn down $80 million, even if you are pretty sure you will be offered it again in nine months. A lot can happen in nine months. Instinctively, you protect yourself.
Normally in this situation, then, the player takes the extension, for the max, and business is closed. Griffin, Rose and Wall all did this, as did Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook – the list of players on rookie scale contracts to turn down a maximum value extension offer consists of entirely zero people, Despite how bleak the Irving and Cleveland relationship looks at the moment, the list is non-existent for a reason. Cleveland have seemingly muddied these waters by deciding they are not prepared to offer one for the maximum, yet there is a lot of time between now and the end of October for them to change their mind on this.
Irving will not be able to do anything on the court in that time to make them change their mind, and, given the battle lines that have been drawn in these negotiations, he is not going to love being there any more in that time either. The Cavaliers, however, may have to yield. For all the flaws in their unison, Cleveland need Irving lest they are to have to rebuild again. Having fired the general manager and head coach, they can use the promise of a new beginning to assuage any doubts about the franchise’s ability to win, and with the #1 pick coming into the fold, they truly have a chance to build a decent Eastern conference team.
Winning cures everything. Winning means more exposure, more overall good vibes, and less need to blame someone for all the losing. Irving, warts and all, gives Cleveland a much better chance to win. And as much as it smarts to pay the max to someone with such obvious warts, someone whose development is so far off complete that you feel he is not worthy of the maximum, the market dictates it. So show him the love he might not entirely deserve, and pay the cost of keeping him, gambling on the fact that the flaws will iron themselves out.
After all, it happened with John Wall. And that has worked out well.