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After LeBron James decided to head west and join the Los Angeles Lakers, observers around the NBA wondered whether the next move on the docket for the Cleveland Cavaliers would be to explore the trade market for Kevin Love. With the game’s best player gone again, would Cleveland shop its remaining All-Star power forward around the league in pursuit of a deal for young talent and/or draft picks that could help kickstart the rebuild that seemed certain to follow James’ exit?
Rather than putting Love right on the block, though, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert and general manager Koby Altman decided to lock Love up for the long term … even if it doesn’t necessarily mean that he’ll be in Cleveland for the long term.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Brian Windhorst reported Tuesday that Love has signed a new four-year, $120 million contract extension to anchor the post-LeBron Cavaliers. The new agreement will tear up the player option Love held for the 2019-20 season under his previous contract, which would have allowed him to enter unrestricted free agency next summer. In its place: a new pact totaling $145 million that will keep Love under Cleveland’s control through the end of the 2022-23 season.
Love signed the deal at an impromptu ceremony on Tuesday morning, in front of a crowd of construction workers in the process of renovating Quicken Loans Arena:
— Cleveland Cavaliers (@cavs) July 24, 2018
Love will play out the final year of the last deal he signed with the Cavs, which will pay him just over $24.1 million next season, before the extension kicks in for 2019-20. According to Windhorst, Love got max money up front, but gave a little something back on the back end:
Kevin Love’s 4-year, $120M extension, stating in 2019-20, is $9.7M less than his 4-year, $129.7M max extension (and way less than 5-year, $221M max contract he could’ve theoretically received as a free agent next summer). He can’t be traded for six months.https://t.co/ryWZnT8bk4
— Albert Nahmad (@AlbertNahmad) July 24, 2018
Max as FA re-signing in 2019 based on current projections would be circa $221.3 mil over five years, or $170.9 mil over four.
Max as FA, new team, would be circa $164 mil over four.
Max extension after opting in is $125,111,782.
Max extension after opting out is $129,663,878. https://t.co/ehdgrs9cKo
— Mark Deeks (@MarkDeeksNBA) July 24, 2018
The deal locks in a lucrative payday and some stability for Love, who turns 30 in September, and has missed 45 games due to knee, back and hand injuries over the past two years. (Love has also had concussion scares in two of the last three postseasons.) It also takes one marquee name off the board for next summer’s potential free agent bonanza, and ensures that — unlike the last time that James left Cleveland in free agency — the Cavs will have one All-Star-caliber option on the roster to rally around, and will retain the possibility of remaining competitive next season and beyond.
Kevin Love is now the Cavs’ No. 1 option, for better or worse
It’s easy to forget now, having watched him serve primarily as a pick-and-pop outlet, transition trailer and floor-spacer for all-world creators James and Kyrie Irving over the last four years. But when Love joined the Cavaliers in a blockbuster trade in the summer of 2014, he did so as an elite individual player who had long since proven he could produce like a superstar.
He hadn’t yet elevated a middling Timberwolves team into the playoff bracket in the Western Conference, but Love was a bona fide monster in Minnesota. He averaged 26.1 points, 12.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game during his final season with the Wolves, while shooting a shade under 46 percent from the floor and 38 percent from 3-point range on nearly seven long-range tries a night. Minnesota’s Love provided a rare combination of glass-cleaning and playmaking; the only players who’ve ever posted defensive rebounding and assist rates as high as Love did in his last Wolves campaign were peak Kevin Garnett, pre-Achilles tear DeMarcus Cousins and pre-foot injury Bill Walton.
Even on a Cavs team without much other top-flight talent, Love’s got the tools to be a versatile and potent offensive fulcrum. He’s a bankable back-to-the-basket threat on either block, tying for eighth in the league last season in points scored per post-up possession used among players to finish at least 100 such plays, according to NBA.com’s stat tool. Even at 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds, he can run off pindown screens to serve as a dynamite catch-and-shoot option on the move.
Love’s a sniper, averaging almost exactly the same number of points per spot-up shot last season as Stephen Curry. And the touch he’s long shown on his post-rebound outlet passes plays in tighter spaces, too. Love’s a crafty high-low passer, a smart distributor of the ball when double-teamed, and a big man with a knack for leading cutters into scoring chances.
He just hasn’t gotten all that many chances to show that stuff recently.
Love’s usage rate (a statistic measuring the percentage of his team’s plays that he finished with a field goal attempt, turnover or foul drawn) has dropped well below his Minnesota levels over the past four years. That was to be expected for a player who, like Chris Bosh before him, was going from his team’s unquestioned top scoring option to a clear No. 3 behind James and Irving, and especially one whose specific function — spacing the floor from the perimeter — often meant a migration away from some of the areas of the court in which he’d been most comfortable operating.
Even so, the drop-off in Love’s offensive touches — especially from the foul-line-extended area, where he could take an entry pass, pivot, survey the defense and decide whether to shoot, drive, drop passes over the top to cutters, work a dribble handoff to a curling guard or spray the ball back out to the perimeter — was drastic. The last four years effectively reduced one of the league’s most prolific interior point producers to a complementary specialist:
Touches Per Game
86.5 (7th in NBA)
51.1 (2nd in NBA)
8.0 (6th in NBA)
8.6 (11th in NBA)
It’s tough to argue with the results of the design. After all, the Cavs did field a top-five offense in each of the last four seasons, making four straight NBA Finals and winning the 2016 championship by feeding LeBron and Kyrie first, with Love picking up the leftovers. But with Irving in Boston, James in L.A., and nobody else still in a Cavalier uniform worthy of consideration as a focal point — no matter what Jordan Clarkson tells you — it sure looks like the time is now for Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue to go back to the drawing board and start designing an offense built around the many things Love is capable of doing, rather than the specific thing the LeBron-era Cavs needed him to do.
The big questions now: after four long, hard years full of postseason miles and injuries, can a 30-year-old Love still do all those things, and at an elite level? And, even if he can, is what’s left in Cleveland — holdovers Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver and Channing Frye, late-coming additions Clarkson, George Hill, Larry Nance Jr. and Rodney Hood, youngsters Ante Zizic, Cedi Osman and rookie point guard Collin Sexton — enough to stay in the playoff chase next year and in the future, even in a watered-down East?
Come to think of it, there’s another big one:
Did Cleveland lock down Kevin Love, or just lock in Love’s price tag?
As noted by ESPN’s Bobby Marks, among others, Love’s new extension means he can’t be traded for six months. Once that moratorium’s up, though, if the Cavs’ hoped-for playoff push looks to be dead in the water and all signs appear to be pointing toward getting that rebuild going in earnest, Gilbert and Altman could look to re-route Love before next February’s trade deadline.
That might not be the plan at the moment; I don’t doubt that Gilbert’s exceptionally eager to prove the Cavs can stay afloat even without the rising tide of LeBron to lift them, and that he sees Love as his best short-term means of doing so. But then, that wasn’t the Los Angeles Clippers’ plan when they went all-in on Blake Griffin last summer … and yet, by late January, he was packing his bags for Detroit.
Nobody thought the Clippers would ever be able to move Griffin’s five-year, $173 million contract when he signed it. It was off their books before the next Valentine’s Day, because teams thirsty for stars can sometimes be convinced to take great big risks when one becomes available — especially if they know that star’s not going to bolt as soon as the weather gets warm.
Before Tuesday, Love was one of a slew of All-Stars with the ability to enter the unrestricted free agent market in the summer of 2019. Now, he’s not. Any team that might be interested in his services now knows he’ll be in the fold through 2023, and at something less than the full freight of his max over the final two years of that deal. If you’re a team in a non-glamour market without much of a history of landing top-notch free agents, and you’re looking for a stretch big man who can augment your existing core, and who can be an asset in pretty much every postseason matchup except one … well, the Cavs might not be open for business, but if you called them to inquire, I’m guessing they wouldn’t hang up the phone.
Whether or not a player with Love’s injury history and defensive issues at both the power forward and center spots will be worth that much money as he enters his early 30s — $28.9 million in 2019-20, $31.3 million in ’20-’21 and ’21-’22, and back down to $28.9 million in ’22-’23, according to Early Bird Rights — will surely be a matter of significant debate around the league. Regardless, the Cavs and the rest of the league now know how much he’s going to cost over the next four years, and can plan accordingly.
If Love looks like the fire of old next season and a suitor’s willing to pony up to spice up their roster with the knowledge that they’re getting somebody for the long haul, the Cavs can recalibrate their interest in rebuilding. If nobody’s dialing the phone, then you’ve kept a pretty-to-very-good player in-house for a few years, while still having the chance to open up as much as $25 million in cap space next summer, and $70 million in two years’ time. Extending Love doesn’t help push Cleveland toward a rebuild, but it doesn’t wholly prevent the Cavs from moving in that direction, either.
It also might help Cleveland avoid a hasty return to the depths of despair through which it slogged earlier this decade, and should help answer a question that’s been stuck in the minds of NBA watchers for the last four years: is the old Kevin Love still in there somewhere? If he is, we ought to see him early and often next season. If he’s not … well, the Cavs might have just locked themselves into a deal they’ll come to regret.
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