In early June, TMZ had a brief conversation with Kevin Love as he walked around Los Angeles.The interviewer mentioned that when you Google Kevin Love, trade rumors come up. Love’s response was simple.
“That’ll never change,” he said. “Never change.”
Love is right.After coming to the Cavs in 2015, Love was linked to trade rumors throughout LeBron’s second tenure.And when he signed his four-year, $120 million extension with Cleveland before last season, part of the analysis of the deal was that it might make him more tradeable to a team who views him as that missing championship piece.
That’s where he stands now. Cleveland is in a rebuild — renaissance is the word it’d prefer — and coming off a season where Love was off the court more often than he was on it. And the Cavs were unquestionably better when he did play — 6.6 points per 100 possessions better, in fact. Per Cleaning the Glass, that’s in the 86th percentile of players last season. That’s in the same stratosphere as Bradley Beal, Draymond Green and Kyrie Irving. With Love, Cleveland posted an offensive rating of 113.4, per nba.com/stats. That would have been fifth in the league over the full season. Without him, they were one of the league’s seven or eight worse offenses.
Those numbers — and having an All-Star-caliber player to prop up an otherwise young, flawed roster — is the argument for keeping Love. Say Love is traded tomorrow and the Cavs get picks and a young player back. With him gone, the most proven creator on the Cavs’ roster is maybe Larry Nance Jr. based on some intriguing stats from last season. Aside from Nance, Cleveland would be betting on big leaps from both Collin Sexton and Cedi Osman. They’d need Darius Garland to be capable from day one and maybe Kevin Porter Jr. and Dylan Windler too. Jordan Clarkson would be the most proven NBA scorer on the team. There would be no one even close to All-Star caliber.
John Beilein’s offense, though, should make things easier for a young team. A system like Beilein’s that utilizes ball movement and structure to create good looks will be an improvement on what the team ran last year, which didn’t do the players any favors. But it can’t solve everything. Love isn’t a guy who can carry a team entirely on his own, but he is someone the team can go to when they need a bucket. There is no one on the team if he’s not around that can do this reliably right now, unless Clarkson isos are your preferred offensive safety valve:
If nothing else, Love will be the adult on the roster. It’s rare that a rookie has a Donovan Mitchell-like season and leads a productive offense from day one. Love can do that while the Cavs figure out the rest. They were also better when he was paired with a young player last season.
Per nba.com/stats, the Cavs were 8.3 points better per 100 possessions when Sexton and Love played together vs. when Sexton was on the floor without Love. When Osman and Love played together, the Cavs were 8.1 points better per 100 possessions vs. when Osman was on the floor and Love wasn’t. Sexton, Osman and Love together was 10.1 points better per 100 possessions vs. Sexton and Osman together without Love. The sample sizes aren’t big — less than 10 games worth of minutes in all three cases — but stark.
And for Sexton and Garland this year, having a reliable catch-and-shoot threat like Love has value. He was only 31.3% on catch-and-shoot three-point attempts last year, but was over 10% better in 2017-18. Maybe he won’t be as good as he was in LeBron’s last Cleveland season — the gravity just isn’t the same — but he should be better. And if defenses start paying more attention to him, opportunities will open up elsewhere on the floor.
Even so, Love probably won’t raise the Cavs’ floor too high. He’s not going to help them on defense — his engagement wasn’t consistent when he came back and he’s never been a good defender — andthe Cavs don’t project as anything resembling a good defense. It was historically bad last year and adding three offense-oriented rookies to the mix won’t make it better. It could even be worse. Even if the Cavs settle in as league average with Love for a full season, that’s not the profile of a team that makes the playoffs, even in the Eastern Conference.
Last year, that’s what Beal’s Wizards were. They finished 32-50, good for 11th in the East. Still: that would be an improvement for the Cavs and would resemble a step forward and towards decency.
The idea that trading Love makes sense because it creates cap space doesn’t hold up either. Yes, getting his money off the books would help. But a) Cleveland has never been a free agency destination for top-end talent and b) they can already create almost $50 million in cap space next summer. Even if an Osman extension and other moves eat into that, the Cavs will have money to play with. The luxury tax should also be easy enough to avoid paying without having to move on from Love.
If the Cavs were to deal Love, the argument is that it would better set them up for the future. Ideally, they could get two good assets back from him without taking back salary that eats up cap space without being as valuable. There’s also a fair argument that Love, while projecting as a slightly positive player for a few more seasons, doesn’t match-up with the Cavs’ timeline. Love will turn 31 this year. Sexton, Garland, Porter Jr. Osman and Dylan Windler are all 23 or younger.
Love also has reasonable injury concerns. He has a checkered history already and is coming off a serious injury. One more and it’s highly unlikely that he’s tradeable in a way that gets the Cavs something good back. He’s in the late stage of his prime and, despite putting a lot of work into his body, probably has to be managed. If there’s a time to trade Love, it’s probably now or sometime in the season if he stays healthy and looks like an All-Star again.
The market for Love also might never be theoretically better than it is right now. Even if the Clippersare favorites, there are more teams than ever right now that seem like they could make a legitimate run at the title next season. Not all of those teams have the assets to make a deal for Love, but some do. Between now and the 2019-20 season trade deadline, the market for Love might never be better. There’s not a ton of Love trade chatter at the moment, but that could change. A strong performance in international play this summer and/or in the first chunk of the season could be what drives his value up and makes a team come with an offer that Koby Altman deems worthy.
There’s also the question — the most important one — of what Love wants. In that TMZ interview, Love didn’t say he wanted out, but he didn’t declare his allegiance to the Cavs for life either. To date, he’s not gone to the Cavs and said that he wants out and to be traded to a team like the Trail Blazers or Jazz or someone else who think they can make a run at a title next year.
Still, Altman will have to consider if flipping Love now is the right move. What Cleveland could get back for Portland for example — Zach Collins, salary filler, pick(s) — isn’t the five first-round picks the Thunder got for Paul George. But it’s possible to get foundational pieces as they build with Sexton, Garland and the others.
Collins, were he the best young player coming back in the deal, is 21 years old. That puts him on the same timeline as the current young Cavs, albeit with more proof of playing time on a good team. He has two more years of team control before he’d be eligible for a contract that would come nowhere near what Love makes barring a huge, unexpected leap. If Collins isn’t the guy coming back from Portland, Nassir Little or Anfernee Simons fit similar molds.
On other teams, it’s hard to find the exact right guy. Maybe the Heat make Justise Winslowavailable. Could the Suns — and GM James Jones, a close friend of Love’s — come calling with Mikal Bridges, picks and/or Dario Saric? Maybe a team like Dallas (Maxi Kleiber, Dorian Finney-Smith and multiple picks) or Boston (Gordon Hayward, Grant Williams, picks) could offer up something interesting. Again, these aren’t sexy packages. But they are something.
Nabbing more picks isn’t a bad option either. It’s more shots at players and/or fuel to trade up in the draft and acquire specific players the Cavs like. Look at what the Hawks just did in June. Travis Schlenk acquired picks and then cashed them in to get his guy in De’Andre Hunter. Trading Love could be a way for Altman to stockpile the needed assets were that move to present itself over the next few years.
In the meantime, one thing is true: speculation of Love’s future isn’t going away. It’ll be unclear until it finally isn’t, whenever that might be.