Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love’s answer was almost immediate when asked if Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving’s Cavs jersey should be retired and hang in the same rafters as three-time All-Star Larry Nance, a four-time All-NBA selection in Mark Price and the once-leading scorer for the Cavs in Brad Daughtry.
“Without a doubt,” Kevin Love told cleveland.com. “Absolutely. Right away, after his career ends. It’s not even a question to me. He needs to be up there.
“He made the biggest shot in franchise history and one of the most important shots in Finals history when you consider how it all went down. What it meant for the city, what it meant for his legacy, LeBron’s legacy and everything else, including that Golden State team that became a dynasty and was historically great.”
Seven numbers hang from the rafters at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, including the numbers of those who faced Michael Jordan in the NBA playoffs or made their mark as some of the Cavs’ all-time statistical leaders. The Cavs have retired three more jerseys than a Central Division rival in the Chicago Bulls and 17 less than the Boston Celtics.
The jerseys at the top of Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse have a few things in common. Every player recognized in the Cavs rafters has been to the playoffs, three have top-10 spots in Cavs history in games and minutes played, four have top-10 spots in field goals and field goals made and all but one have played for eight or more seasons in Cleveland, according to Basketball Reference. Center Nate Thurmond played just two seasons on the tail end of his career after earning a Hall of Fame bid during his time with the San Francisco and Golden State Warriors.
Both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love’s contributions brought timeless memories to the Cavaliers, along with a promised championship back to The Land in one of the most historic NBA Finals series of all time.
But will that be enough for both of them to be immortalized in the Rocket Mortgage rafters?
The crowd-silencing shot over Stephen Curry. The Cavs clawed back from a 3-1 deficit against a seemingly-unstoppable Golden State Warriors squad. The hoisting of the Larry O’Brien trophy in front of a stunned and heartbroken Oracle Arena.
None of that would be possible without Kyrie Irving.
“We had a heck of a team that did something special here,” Kyrie Irving said in a Monday postgame press conference. “That’s forever sketched into NBA history. No matter what they say about me, or anybody else, they have to talk about that team.
“It takes building a great team to do something special. I understand that. I don’t take this moment that I’m in for granted because it took all those times for me to go through here in Cleveland to achieve something special. Cleveland’s never in the rearview, but it’s definitely something I look back to to remember what it takes to be a champion.”
Irving proved to be more than a bright spot for the Cavs after they selected Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett with the following two top-5 draft picks. He played with teams whose next-highest scorers were Antawn Jamison with 17.2 points per game in 2011 and Waiters with 14.7 in 2012 and 15.9 in 2013, winning Rookie of the Year in 2011 and two more All-Star selections before now-Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James’s return. Irving’s production still didn’t drop when James returned to Cleveland and Love was traded to the Cavaliers for Bennett and Kansas forward Andrew Wiggins, scoring 27.1 points in the seven games of the Cavs’ finals run.
Though not near the top of any Cavaliers’ statistical categories, Irving still ranks in the top ten of over 20 all-time Cavs categories, according to Basketball Reference. He ranks eighth all-time in field goals made for the Cavaliers and in total points scored, beating out Nance in both categories.
He may have matched some of the more common aspects of a Cavs jersey retiree, but Irving’s controversies on and off the court and willingness to stick with the Cavs could prove to be the most damaging for his Cavaliers legacy.
“(James and I) didn’t talk during that time,” Irving said of his departure from Cleveland and relationship with James in a May I AM ATHLETE interview. “When I look back on what I was going through at that time, I wish I did, because it would’ve been a good understanding of what the future will hold for both of us and we know how much power we both had together.
“Me and him in the league together running Cleveland, and then being able to put a better team together every single year would’ve definitely been worth it.”
Irving’s tenure lasted six years across 381 games with the Cavaliers, two seasons shorter than Kevin Love, three faster than Price and two shorter than Daughtry. Along with off-the-court issues, including promoting an antisemitic film and posting a 2002 clip from conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, on top of his demands for a trade a few short years after winning a championship, Irving’s change from a hero to a villain for the Cavs will likely prove to be the most important deciding factor in how he will ultimately be remembered in Cleveland and beyond.
Even Love thought his Cavaliers tenure would be shorter than it has.
“To be completely honest and transparent with you, no,” Love responded when asked if he expected his career to be as long as it was with the Cavs.
And yet, here he still is.
Through five head coaches, multiple general managers, the second return of a hometown hero and the franchise’s first NBA Championship in 2016, forward Kevin Love has always been the Cavs’ biggest constant.
Love has seemingly seen every up and down Cavaliers fans can recall from recent memory: He and center Tristan Thompson were the first to embrace James after battling through a grueling seven-game series in 2016, he stuck through the contract he signed in 2015 and resigned with the Cavs four years later as the only remaining member of the championship big three and continuously supported his new and old teammates when the young and rising Cavaliers jumped out to fourth in the Eastern Conference.
Though James dominates nearly every franchise category for the Cavaliers, Love found his way to the top ten of a multitude of stat boards after eight seasons in Cleveland: He passed center Zydrunas Ilgauskas for third on the all-time defensive rebounds list, surpassed Price for second on 3-point field goals and overtook Nance for the ninth-most points scored.
He’s made the playoffs on multiple occasions, played for eight seasons with the Cavaliers, placed on the top 10 boards in essential categories and has a leg up on the other contenders, save for LeBron James, with an NBA championship and three Finals appearances under his belt.
Will Love, Irving or both have their Cavs jerseys retired and find their way into the Cavaliers Wall of Fame and beyond?
Only time will tell.