One year after joining the Cleveland Cavaliers in a blockbuster summer trade, Kevin Love has elected to decline the $16.7 million player option he holds for the 2015-16 NBA season, according to ESPN.com's Marc Stein. As a result, the 26-year-old power forward will hit the market as an unrestricted free agent.
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This is a decision that just about everybody involved saw coming. Despite Love saying back in January that he didn't plan to opt out, it never made much sense for him to take the other two paths on the table.
A long-term extension with the Cavs was a non-starter for much the same reason that it didn't make much sense for LaMarcus Aldridge to re-up with the Portland Trail Blazers. The collective bargaining agreement limits extensions on veterans' contracts to just four years, or three following the final year of the existing deal, meaning Love could only extend through 2019, with year-over-year raises on a lower base salary that meant he'd be leaving tens of millions on the table.
Ditto for opting in, which would have cost Love a little over $2 million in base salary next season on a new-salary-cap maximum contract:
Kevin Love was due to make $16.7M next season. With 2015-16 salary cap at about $67.1M, Love, by opting out, can start at $18.9M next season
— Jeff Zillgitt (@JeffZillgitt) June 24, 2015
By opting out and entering the market unfettered, he affords himself a wider variety of options, as I wrote back in April:
He can opt out and look to negotiate a long-term maximum deal with the Cavaliers, who could offer him a fifth year at higher annual raises by virtue of holding his Bird rights, meaning he can command a significantly higher total salary by staying in Cleveland than he could anywhere else. He can look to re-up with Cleveland on a shorter-term extension that would keep him in the fold alongside LeBron James and Kyrie Irving but build in an opportunity to re-enter free agency in the summer of 2016, when the influx of revenues from the league's new $24 billion broadcast rights deal hits and expands the salary cap to an unprecedented $89 million.
If he decides he's had it in Cleveland, Love can opt out and pursue another suitor with a roster structure that would return him to the sort of primary offensive role he had in Minnesota, albeit at the expense of one fewer year (four years maximum) and smaller annual raises (4.5 percent instead of the 7.5 percent that his Bird rights holder can offer).
Love could well turn right back around and ink a brand new lucrative long-term deal with the Cavaliers, but Yahoo Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski has reported that teams around the league believe Love's interested in at least exploring his market value this summer, and that they want the opportunity to pitch him. Among those likely interested in sitting down with Love, according to Woj: the Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns and Boston Celtics. (Stein also reports that the Blazers could look to woo the Oregon-raised power forward if Aldridge elects to skip town in free agency.)
The Celtics, of course, would be an awfully interesting destination, considering how Love's 2014-15 season ended. He suffered a dislocated left shoulder while getting tangled up with Boston big man Kelly Olynyk in pursuit of a rebound during Game 4 of the Cavs' first-round playoff sweep of the Celtics. At first, Love was only ruled out of Cleveland's second-round matchup with the Chicago Bulls, leaving hope he could return at some point during the Cavs' playoff run. After further testing, though, player and team determined that surgical repair was the best course of action, sending Love under the knife and onto the shelf for four to six months.
Love initially said he believed Olynyk intentionally clamped down on his arm in a "bush league" play. Olynyk denied any intended malice. They later squashed the beef, though, suggesting that Love might, at least, be interested in listening should Danny Ainge give him a ring come July 1.
Yet Love has insisted throughout the season that he'd like to stick around in Cleveland for the long haul, and told ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne after the Cavs' loss to the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the 2015 NBA Finals that he wished he'd been able to be out there in wine and gold:
"I had so much fun watching it because I want to be in a moment like that," Love told ESPN [...] "I'd rather be out there helping those guys, and I saw a lot of places where I could help.
"I've never wanted to be in a game more than that one," said Love, who had never been on a playoff team in his six prior NBA seasons.
Asked specifically whether that meant he wanted to be back in Cleveland next season, Love said, "Yes. I want to win."
Despite a heroic effort from James, a Cavaliers squad missing both Love and Irving, who suffered a broken kneecap in Game 1 that ended his season, fell to the Warriors in six games. After a season that saw LeBron, Blatt and company struggle at times to integrate Love — or, perhaps, Love fail to integrate himself — the Cavs looked desperately in need of a second capable scorer or shot creator. It's possible that Cleveland wouldn't have reached the Finals if not for the beastly rebounding and defensive work of Tristan Thompson, who slid into the starting lineup when Love went down and saw his role (and, in all likelihood, the final value of his restricted free agent offer sheet this summer) increase exponentially. It's also possible, though, that Love's shooting, passing and face-up game could've made a world of difference in puncturing that small-ball Warriors defense.
To some degree, then, it was a fitting end to an awkward and uncomfortable first year in Cleveland that saw Love struggle to adapt to being a third or fourth offensive option working primarily on the perimeter, and that was often marked by an odd tension between Love and James. There was LeBron questioning Love's confidence, that whole weird "fit-in/fit-out" fiasco, LeBron perhaps intentionally leaving Love out of the "clique up!" photo shoot, Love acknowledging that he and James were not BFFs and that he'd have picked former UCLA teammate Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder rather than James as his 2014-15 NBA MVP, and so on.
And yet, despite the frustrations that mounted on either side of that particular divide, and despite a marked decline in Love's individual numbers — the former Minnesota Timberwolves superstar's scoring average dropped by nearly 10 points per game in his first season in Cleveland, and he posted the worst full-season shooting percentage and lowest rebounding percentage of his career — the Cavs were great with Love on the floor, scoring a scintillating 109.5 points per 100 possessions in his 2,500 minutes of floor time.
Cleveland turned in the best record in the NBA after Jan. 15, and as general manager David Griffin noted during his season-ending press conference last week — which, you'll recall, focused much more on the relationship between LeBron and Cleveland head coach David Blatt — they went 33-3 with James, Irving and Love all in the lineup after the midseason trades to import Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert.
Things might not have worked out perfectly for all parties involved, but you'd be hard-pressed to say that they weren't working out pretty damn well on the court by the end of the line, with Love scoring 23 points on 8-for-16 shooting, including a 6-for-10 mark from 3-point land, to go with nine rebounds and three assists in the Game 3 win over Boston — his final full game before tangling with Olynyk early in Game 4.
That in mind, for all the chatter about rising cap figures, short-term deals, long-term goals and July visits, Griffin said last week that he expected both Love and James to opt out of their deals, and that he expects to re-sign both players.
“We very much intend to keep this group together,” he said, according to Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal. “You look at that as a group that has the potential to be special, special good.”
And yet, in keeping with all the back-and-forth about leadership and fit this season, LeBron seems unwilling to extend himself to keep Love from leaving town:
LeBron James won't be re-recruiting Kevin Love, I'm told. He believes Love understands he can be a part of something special. It's his call.
— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) June 24, 2015
Well, all right, then. Let's get weird, NBA offseason, and see where the former All-NBA Second Team power forward is standing when this particular game of "Fit-In or Fit-Out?" wraps up.
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