Cleveland Cavaliers

Kevin Love stays put, takes on challenge of Cleveland Cavaliers' new era

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Kevin Love (Getty Images)

One last time, LeBron James will suck all the oxygen out of Northeast Ohio. As ever, but especially today, no one will begrudge him that distinction.

James was in Akron today to witness the grand opening of the I Promise School, a partnership created through his LeBron James Family Foundation and the Akron Public Schools to serve students in the city who have been academically challenged at other schools. It is another achievement of significance for James, who has already pledged to send thousands of Akron kids in the I Promise program to college through a deal with the University of Akron. And, as it is the first time James will speak publicly since signing with the Lakers at the beginning of the month, there will be some media present.

Meanwhile, 40 miles or so up Interstate 77, the Cleveland Cavaliers will continue the renovation of Quicken Loans Arena, quietly, with no fanfare, the franchise again relegated to the digital back pages. But the Cavs had their own media availability last week. It wasn't exactly adding Chris Paul to the Houston Rockets and James Harden, but getting Kevin Love's signature on a reported four-year, $120 million extension that kicks in next summer was vital to the franchise.

After 11 total seasons of James in town, the Cavs, finally, have to build a franchise without him. No one expects Love to carry the team to the heights James did. But having a five-time All-Star in Love to build around means they won't go through the floor again as they did after Decision 1.0, when James went to the Miami Heat and the Cavs went through the floor.

The less said about that 2010-11 Cavs team, which lost 26 straight games and wound up 19-63, the better -- although their futility that season did land them Kyrie Irving in the 2011 Draft. Speaking of whom: 13 months ago -- June, 2017, right after the Warriors beat the Cavaliers in five Finals games to take back the NBA championship -- who would have thought that Love would be the last among James and Irving to be left standing in Cleveland?

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Sure Not Now

Love staying was a huge victory for General Manager Koby Altman, whose first minutes as GM last year after taking over for David Griffin were filled by the shocking news that Irving wanted out and demanded to be traded, rather than stay and potentially be the franchise's lynchpin if James departed. And Altman's entire first year at the helm was filled with the fallout from that demand -- making a deal with Boston that brought Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder and Boston's unprotected first-round pick via the Brooklyn Nets to town, then jettisoning Thomas and Crowder at the trade deadline, neither fitting in any way with James and Love and the rest of the team.

But Love had his own drama to deal with. He disclosed in a first-person Players Tribune story that he suffered panic attacks that forced him to leave the Cavs' bench during a game. And he had to face teammates during the season in a players-only meeting who accused him of tapping out and making up a story about being sickd uring a blowout loss to Oklahoma City in January. In that game, Love left after playing just three minutes and went home before the game ended.

Yet Love, rather than demanding his own trade once James left for Los Angeles, or opting out of the final year of his deal and becoming an unrestricted free agent next summer -- or, at least insisting the Cavs pay him a full-blown max in order to stick around -- re-signed, quietly, and for less than full market value. It even surprised the Cavs.

Love had to go full circle, from the third wheel who sacrificed much of his game to fit in with James and Irving, to deciding to be a leader for a rebuilding team. He'd gotten hurt, most notably in his first season in Cleveland in 2014, separating his shoulder during that first-round playoff series with Boston. He watched James and Irving take the Cavs to The Finals without him.

Nobody is going to lead a team with LeBron James on it other than James. But Love seemed to shrink even more than you'd expect playing next to him. He put up numbers, but he wasn't engaged. Yet Love continued to grow on and off the floor, and by the time the Cavs got to The Finals in 2016, Love was able to play a significant role in Cleveland's Game 7 win at Golden State. He came back from a concussion to back up James with 20 points and 13 rebounds, getting a key stop on Stephen Curry in the game's final minutes.

Still, after the players' meeting last January, Love certainly could have demanded to be relocated. He's still a very efficient player offensively, shooting 41.5 percent on 3-pointers last season and 88 percent from the line, and an elite rebounder. But, he didn't. He stuck it out. And, gradually, he's started to put his own imprint on the franchise.

He invited teammates to his home for dinner for the first time last year. Veterans like Channing Frye and Richard Jefferson helped him immensely to come out of his shell, to be more of an alpha on the team, even with James still present. James came to respect the sacrifices Love had made, like playing center while Tristan Thompson was injured early on last season, to help the team.

That didn't stop James from leaving, though. The Cavs immediately turned to Love to see if he would think about staying long-term. There had been rumblings around the league that Cleveland had been shopping him -- which the Cavs strenuously deny. But Love became their major free-agent target, if you will, this summer.

With or without Love, there was no chance Cavs owner Dan Gilbert was going to move Love for picks or young players, or let him walk in 2019, leaving Gilbert to revisit the empty buildings and horrific play he saw at Quicken Loans Arena from 2010-14, before James returned.

Yet Love left a lot of potential money on the table in signing the extension with the Cavs. He could have gotten up to 35 percent of the cap as a 10-year vet next year, with a max deal to stay in Cleveland of five years and $221 million. Of course, the Cavs would have never given him that, but there's still a lot of room between $120 million and $221 million.

He also left his last best chance at unrestricted free agency during his prime. At age 30 by next opening night, Love would have hit free agency next summer had he just played out the last year of his current deal, paying him $24 million next season.

If he hadn't done the extension Love would have entered a free agent market in 2019 full of huge names, but also saturated with teams that will have cap room and will have to spend it. He probably wouldn't have been anyone's first call, but he would definitely have been among everyone's first two or three. He has his own story to tell and he was one of the few Cavaliers (besides James) who showed in The 2018 Finals against Golden State, averaging 19 points and 11.3 rebounds per game in the series.

But Love short-circuited all talk of 2019 by quickly taking the security of four more seasons after next season. Not only that, but he took a deal with flat raises in the middle and which declines in the final year, from $31.2 million in 2021-22 to $28.9 million in 2022-23 -- while extensions for other star players end in the mid-$40 millions. (That final year's salary for Love also dovetails nicely with a potential first year of an extension for Collin Sexton, the Cavs' first-round pick this year.)

Many have pointed to Love's injury history as a primary factor in his decision, and maybe it was. But his history wouldn't have kept other teams from putting huge offers on the table for him next season.

From Cleveland's standpoint, extending Love -- especially at that number -- makes all the sense in the world.

If the Cavs had let Love get to free agency next summer, he mostly certainly would have bolted, leaving the Cavs basically with nothing to build around other than Sexton. The chances of Cleveland attracting free agents in that scenario would be bleak. Those chances still aren't great with Love; it's still damn cold in Cleveland in the winter -- but they're a little better.

Coach Tyronn Lue can build a credible offense around Love just as the Minnesota Timberwolves did in Love's first six NBA seasons, when the pickings around Love were much slimmer than they are for Cleveland now. Then, he had to count on the rapid emergence of a young Ricky Rubio and hope that Rick Adelman and Flip Saunders could find some more tread on the tires of Kevin Martin or Andrei Kirilenko.

The Cavs found some hybrid ways to utilize Love on the floor with James and Irving over the years, getting him looks early in the game in the post, then trusting James or Irving to find him when open spotting up. Last season was more of a struggle with Irving gone. With James now gone as well, Lue will give Love a lot more touches.

Despite Love's money on the books for the foreseeable future, the Cavs can clear significant cap room for 2019 quickly.

Guard George Hill is only guaranteed $1 million of the $18 million on his contract for 2018-19 if waived before next July, and will be a prime trade candidate all year, moreso if another team suffers a serious injury to their starting point. Only $3.8 million of J.R. Smith's $15.6 million salary is guaranteed for 2019-20 if he's waived by the end of June next year.

And Kyle Korver only has $3.4 million of his $7.5 million salary for '19-'20 guaranteed, though he'd be more likely be kept around by a potential trade partner. At 37, Korver is still lethal behind the arc (44 percent last year for the Cavs) and keeps himself in incredible shape. The Wizards and 76ers, among many teams, have already tried to pry Korver from Cleveland.

If Hill, Smith and Korver are each simply waived after next season before their 2019-20 salaries are fully guaranteed, that would only cost Cleveland $8.2 million total in dead money for 2019-20. (The Cavaliers could further reduce potential savings on each by using the stretch provision to waive any of the three, of which Smith would likely be the prime candidate. If Cleveland stretched Smith after this season it could spread the $3.8 million he's guaranteed over three years rather than absorb it all next summer, reducing his cap number to $1.26 million a year through 2021.)

All these potential machinations would leave Cleveland in position to go after a max-level free agent in 2019 to pair with Love and Sexton. Failing that, the Cavs would at least be a potential repository for a bad contract, which almost always includes the carrot of a future first-round pick -- and Cleveland's 2019 first just became more likely to go to Atlanta because of the Love signing.

The pick is protected for the Cavs 1-10, and a bottom-10 finish was certainly in the cards had Cleveland traded Love this summer and just had Sexton. Love's presence next season increases the chances that the Cavs may just be garden variety bad rather than godawful, and that the Hawks will get the pick. But the Cavs have chosen to live with that.

And Love has chosen to keep living with them. He will organize the team's minicamp in the fall, picking the location and what the players will do collectively after workouts together. His four years with James and three with Irving have impacted his own already-spartan workouts. He isn't the Kevin Love that came from Minnesota. He's still on the quiet side, but he's been part of some big winning in Cleveland the last four years -- and there's no pressure on him to deliver that long-sought Cleveland championship.

That's in the past, along with James.

Love's deal doesn't preclude Cleveland from moving him, too, sometime down the line. But for the next couple of seasons, in a dilapidated East, a Kevin Love-led Cavaliers team can't be dismissed entirely as a potential playoff contender -- no longer championship material, but a team worth putting on a coat and going to see on those cold Northern Ohio nights.

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