Kevin Love was a man of the people back in July, when he signed a four-year, $120.4 million extension to stay with the Cleveland Cavaliers, then posed for an impromptu selfie with construction workers at Quicken Loans Arena.
Between Love’s contract and a $140 million arena renovation, that’s more than a quarter of a billion dollars poured into the post-LeBron James Cavs. The way things are going so far—at 8-32 the Cavs have the worst record in the league—one has to wonder whether Love will actually be around to see this rebuilding project through.
Probably not. But that also depends on a difficult question: What’s the trade market for a 30-year-old, five-time All-Star described by one Western Conference executive as a “dinosaur”? Challenging, to put it mildly, according to multiple executives around the league.
“It’s a lot to ask someone to take on $144 million for a 30-year-old with an injury history,” one of the execs told Bleacher Report. “You’re dealing with a very small, narrow marketplace for him.”
Love’s extension, which kicks in next season, brought his five-year guaranteed salary to $144 million. He’ll make $28.9 million next season, then the deal levels off at $31.3 million the next two years and goes back to $28.9 million in the final season, when Love will be 34.
If nothing else, acquiring Love would come with cost certainty for a player whose three-point shooting, rebounding, veteran leadership and postseason experience could prove useful to a team that feels it’s one piece away from making a deep playoff run.
Still, it’s a hefty sum to swallow for multiple years.
One of the executives who spoke with B/R said Love’s deal and John Wall‘s four-year, $170 million extension are “the two worst contracts in the league.”
“How many teams are really looking for a dinosaur face-up 4-man, or a 5 who can’t switch pick-and-roll?” the exec said.
Nonetheless, Marc Stein of the New York Times reported last week that Love trade chatter will be heating up over the next few weeks, and that some teams view him as a potential missing piece for the “right price.” But finding a team to agree with the Cavs on that price will be challenging.
“The problem is: You have a rookie GM (Koby Altman)—who’s a really good guy and has done some really good things and is trying to prove himself. And you’ve got a delusional owner [Dan Gilbert],” a Western Conference executive said. “And they’re going to think they’re supposed to get something for the guy. You’re not getting an asset for him under any circumstances.”
Let’s understand some of the logistical obstacles to a Love deal.
First, he has missed all but the first four games this season after undergoing toe surgery on his left foot. He had been aiming for a mid-January return but said Monday he’s still “weeks away” from returning to the floor, per Tom Withers of the Associated Press.
Based on when he signed the extension, he can’t be traded until Jan. 24. That leaves a maximum of 15 days before the Feb. 7 trade deadline to consummate a deal—fewer, potentially, if he’s not playing by then.
So if something happens with Love this season, it’s going to have to happen fast. And it’s almost certainly going to have to involve a contending team that isn’t afraid to take chances. Two teams that make sense on both fronts are Oklahoma City and Houston, one of the execs said.
The Thunder already have committed to being a tax team, and they have a defined window to get the most out of Russell Westbrook and Paul George. Adding to the intrigue, Westbrook and Love were teammates at UCLA. The Thunder also have a defensive-minded center, Steven Adams, which could make it easier to hide Love defensively at power forward. It doesn’t hurt that GM Sam Presti essentially has lifetime job security, so even if acquiring Love didn’t produce the desired result, he’d have plenty of time to figure out how to offload the contract or rework it some other way to minimize the damage down the road.
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“He’ll figure it out in three years when Russell and Paul are coming to the end of their run,” the Western Conference GM told B/R.
Under GM Daryl Morey, the Rockets have been anything but risk-averse. Although the Carmelo Anthony experiment didn’t work and Chris Paul is starting to break down physically, Houston came within one game of knocking off the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals just several months ago. Love is a rich man’s Ryan Anderson, who was traded to Phoenix over the summer, and he would seem to be a nice fit for Mike D’Antoni’s pace-and-space offense.
“They have their dive guy in [Clint] Capela,” the Western Conference executive said. “And they’re really missing a lot of perimeter shooting right now.”
Also in the West, consider the Nuggets, who, as Stein pointed out, have long coveted Love and may view him as a way to double down on their surprisingly torrid start. Plus, Paul Millsap’s $30 million contract can come off the books next summer, creating a slot for Love’s salary. The Blazers could use another three-point shooter to create more space for Damian Lillard to operate—and to help emerge from a pack of six teams within three games of each other in the loss column.
In the East, consider Indiana, a playoff team that probably couldn’t hope to attract a five-time All-Star via free agency.
“It’s going to have to be a playoff team in a non-destination market,” one of the execs said. “A team that has a couple of stars that isn’t going to get anybody in free agency because they don’t have the room or nobody’s going to go play there.”
Said another Western Conference exec: “It’s most definitely going to have to be a good team that feels they’re one player away. It’s not going to be a team like Atlanta or Phoenix.”
Once you’ve narrowed the field to the few who fit the above criteria, you still have to ask yourself: What could the return be in a trade for Love?
“If Kevin Love were a free agent this summer, how much would he get?” one of the execs said.
In all likelihood, nowhere close to the deal he got from the Cavs.
“We’re living in a world where Brook Lopez had to take the bi-annual [exception],” the exec said, referring to the Bucks center and 2013 All-Star who could only score a one-year, $3.4 million deal this past summer despite becoming a legitimate three-point shooting threat over the past three seasons.
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The best-case scenario for the Cavs is finding a contending team with a couple of bad contracts that is willing to swap those for four years of Love. What asset could the Cavs realistically hope to get back? Not much.
“The asset would be saving the last two, or maybe three years of the contract,” one of the execs said.
Just two-plus years after the Cavs paraded through downtown Cleveland celebrating their first championship, they’re likely preparing to ship out one of the last remaining pieces of that team. But both Love and the Cavs have only themselves to blame for the situation. After the departure of LeBron for L.A., Cleveland needed something to rally around, and perhaps talked itself into the idea that a full-scale rebuild wouldn’t be necessary. For Love’s part, the money was there…so why not take it?
But if you’re a contending team considering making a deal for Love, you have to consider not only the onerous financial obligations, but also the basketball side. In a league where offense is taking over, where do you hide Love defensively? When he rose to prominence in Minnesota, the stretch 4 was all the rage. Now, it’s almost obsolete, as even 5s are expected to shoot threes, or teams will just play smaller to field five shooters.
“He just can’t defend,” a Western Conference assistant coach said. “Guys like him and Ryan Anderson—even though they’re stretch 4s—if they can’t get it done defensively, those type of guys can’t survive.”
If teams are unwilling to take on multiple future years of salary in a trade, four years and $120 million are a huge liability, especially for an aging player who struggles defensively. Opposing players shot 5.3 percent above their season averages with Love defending them in 2017-18 and the Cavs’ defensive rating fell by 1.4 points when he was on the floor, according the NBA Advanced Stats.
“When we need a bucket against Cleveland, that’s who we attack,” the assistant coach said. “Guys like him become hard to hide. There’s always been a premium on pick-and-roll defense, but even more so now. Everybody is spreading the floor and driving and kicking and trying to generate something going downhill.”
It wasn’t so long ago when Love was the prototypical player who every team wanted. Then again, it also wasn’t so long ago when the Cavaliers were playing in the Finals. The game evolves quickly. Some players adapt. Some go extinct.
Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KBergNBA.