There are those who even wonder whether Irving is truly worth a maximum-level contract, including some within the Cavs organization. His game has regressed a bit this season, particularly from a leadership standpoint, with his clashes with Dion Waiters making headlines, and it has raised a red flag or two in-house.
And while Irving has said all the right things about staying put in public, it's no secret that Irving's camp has been making it known for years now the point guard would like to be elsewhere long term. No matter how much he denies it.
Just how strongly Irving feels about it could rise to the forefront soon. Though the Cavs recently went on a six-game win streak, their schedule the rest of the season is brutal. In March, Cleveland, now 22-35 and five games out of a spot in the postseason, plays the Grizzlies, Spurs, Clippers, Suns, Warriors, Heat, Thunder, Rockets, Raptors and Pacers.
The season may be another lost one for Irving and the Cavs, which means the clock on his impending decision will likely begin sooner than later.
More than likely, Irving will use his tenuous position to work favorable options into a new contract. A big one will be an escalator clause, which would create what is known as a "supermax." Also referred to as the Rose Rule, players who sign max contracts can get a bump of about $3 million per season if they make two All-NBA teams, win the MVP or get voted in to start two All-Star Games by the time the extensions kick in after their fourth season. Rose got it for winning the MVP. Blake Griffin was voted into two All-Star Games and also made two All-NBA teams. Paul George is likely to qualify for it this season, when he gets his second All-NBA team nod.
Irving has never made an All-NBA team, and he's unlikely to do so this season. But his popularity can't be denied, so those All-Star bids could wind up earning him tens of millions.
Despite it all, the Cavs, like most teams, will likely want to lock up Irving for the full five years they are allowed and make him their "designated player." But Irving might be able to leverage a shorter, more player-friendly contract with opt-out clauses.
Just signing him will lead to exhaling in Cleveland, as it did in 2006, when James signed his own extension with the team. That, though, proved to be the beginning of the end of that superstar's tenure with the Cavs, as James passed up a six-year offer for a three-year extension.
If they can't somehow work things out, Irving could find himself somewhere James never did in his seven seasons in Cleveland: the trade market.