For as much as Kevin Love has publicly resisted the discussion of free agency this season, it has been on his mind. He has never been completely comfortable in Cleveland, with his role, nor his connection to those around him. Throughout the year, league sources say, one destination grew in possibility as his exit strategy: The Boston Celtics.
Boston has been no sure thing to lure Love, but it had a better shot than most had believed. If Love left the Cavaliers, the Celtics had closed the gap on the Los Angeles Lakers, league sources told Yahoo Sports.
The Celtics were waiting for July, and the chance to let coach Brad Stevens lay out Love's expanded role in his system. General manager Danny Ainge wanted a chance to sell Love on a vision for surrounding him with complementary talent, on maximizing his popularity as New England's next star.
And so, suddenly, maybe everything changed on Sunday. Kelly Olynyk and Love tangled, Love's left shoulder apparently separated and clearly he's beyond furious. He called the play "bush league," and insisted that Olynyk "did it on purpose."
Within the Celtics, those defending Olynyk privately suggested on Sunday that "he's sort of uncoordinated and awkward" and that played a part in the mishap. Eventually, someone with Boston will probably need to convince Love about that theory too. Love could be lost for Games 1 and 2 of the second-round series against either Chicago or Milwaukee – or longer – based on the results of an MRI exam in Cleveland.
It is only natural that if Love lost something significant in Boston – his season, for instance – embracing a free-agent move to the Celtics could be complicated, if not completely compromised. Love left the Garden with legitimate loathing of the Celtics on Sunday, and how that lasts could shape the future of the Cavaliers and Celtics.
Something else happened, too, on Sunday and maybe it turns out to be a benefit for Cleveland's partnership with Love: The Cavs had his back. They went a little crazy, but they had his back. Kendrick Perkins leveled Jae Crowder on a screen, and J.R. Smith floored Crowder with a hellacious backhand to his face. They tried to hurt the Celtics back, and that doesn't happen much in the NBA anymore.
In the playoffs, futures and fortunes can change in a moment. All hell broke loose in Game 4, and it could take weeks and months to understand the fallout.
When Love was pushing Minnesota for a trade a year ago, he spent a weekend in Boston trying to get a sense of the city. He hit the bars, the box seats at Fenway Park and left intrigued with the possibilities. Boston never had the parts to make a deal with Minnesota, which moved Love to Cleveland for the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft. The Cavaliers never would've traded Andrew Wiggins had Love offered team owner Dan Gilbert and general manager David Griffin the slightest uncertainty on his commitment to stay long-term. Cleveland wasn't trading the No. 1 overall pick – in fact, two of them counting Anthony Bennett – for a Love rental.
Nevertheless, Love's commitment at an NBA-sanctioned July meeting in Las Vegas was non-binding. Around the NBA and within the Cavaliers, they understand: Love wouldn't hesitate to bail on the franchise. Love can opt-out of his contract into free agency this summer, or stay one more year and hit the market in 2016. There isn't a team in pursuit of Love who hasn't done significant research and left unconvinced that Love won't minimally explore the market this summer. That was the case before the playoffs, anyway. Before Sunday.
Teams know that Love would want to do something he never had the chance to do pre-trade with the Cavaliers: Sit down, meet with the coach, management and hear how it'll fit for him. That's when those who know Love and Stevens well believed that such a setting would've strengthened the Celtics' candidacy, would've made them the franchise to beat in free agency.
The best chance the Cavaliers had of re-selling Love on a Cavaliers future had been this postseason. He never knew the feeling of winning in the playoffs, nor how things could change once he started making plays in the postseason. If people started to see Love as a winning player making winning plays – not merely an individual chasing stats and endorsements – perhaps that would influence Love about how he feels about his role in that Cleveland system, about his fit in the environment. Around the Cavaliers, there has been a sense of separation this year. Love never seemed fully integrated into the team, nor it with him.
How a free agent feels about his situation in December and January and February can change in April and May and June, and that's what Cleveland had hoped with him.
Everything is unclear now. Love will get an MRI in Cleveland, and everyone will wait to discover the damage done to his shoulder, the damage done to Boston's free-agent pursuit. All hell broke loose at the Garden on Sunday, and suddenly Kevin Love's future became even murkier.