OK, you guys: I think it’s safe to say that the Cleveland Cavaliers are set at the power forward spot for a little while.
Kevin Love announced in a first-person piece published Wednesday afternoon at The Players Tribune — where he’s a “senior editor,” natch — that he’s going to stay with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team he joined in a blockbuster trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves last summer.
After suffering a dislocated left shoulder at the hands of the Boston Celtics’ Kelly Olynyk, Love missed the final three rounds of the Cavaliers’ run to the 2015 NBA Finals. The 26-year-old power forward told ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne after the Cavs’ Game 1 loss to the Golden State Warriors that he had “never wanted to be in a game more than that one,” and that he wanted to return to Cleveland because “I want to win.” He doubled down on that sentiment in his announcement.
“After Game 1 of the NBA Finals, that’s when it really struck me,” Love wrote. “Sitting on the sidelines, I never wanted to play in a game more than that one. I had dreamed of playing in the NBA Finals and I just wanted to help my guys win. I couldn’t have been prouder of them as they poured their blood, sweat and tears onto the court.
“Yeah, of course I’ve heard the free agency rumors. But at the end of the day, and after meeting with my teammates (it turns out pools are great meeting places) and with the front office, it was clear Cleveland was the place for me. We’re all on the same page and we’re all in. We have unfinished business and now it’s time to get back to work.”
Poolside meetings and shared motivations are great. So, too, is getting a nine-figure contract after opting out of the final year of your existing deal:
In accepting that five-year, $110 million deal, Love stays true to the spirit of agreement he reportedly reached with Cavs brass prior to his trade last summer. He also forgoes the opportunity to take a shorter-term contract — say, a two-year deal with the first year fully guaranteed and the second year featuring a player option, like the one teammate LeBron James just opted out of — that would allow him to re-enter unrestricted free agency either next summer, when the influx of revenues from the league’s new nine-year, $24 billion broadcast rights deal will send the cap spiking to a projected $89 million, or in the summer of 2017, when it’s expected to reach an unprecedented $108 million.
While the deal may well wind up below the full value of what he could get on the open market in the years to come, Love elected to get as much money as he could and as many years as he could right now. While it wouldn’t necessarily be fair to call Love injury-prone, he has undergone multiple surgeries over the course of his first seven seasons; perhaps that informed his decision to go the full five right now.
Whatever the inspiration, Love’s “unfinished business” missive makes it clear that, after a season marked by struggles to adjust to being a third offensive option behind Love and All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving and apparent disagreements, clashes and frustrations in his relationship with James, he doesn’t want the final word on his time in Cleveland to be, “He had the worst statistical season of his career and the Cavs made the Finals without him.”
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That’s a bit of a harsh read on things, of course. As I wrote multiple times, Cleveland’s offense was on the level of the league-best Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers with Love on the floor, and as Cavaliers general manager David Griffin reminded reporters after the Cavs’ six-game NBA Finals loss to the Warriors, Cleveland went 33-3 with James, Love and Irving all in the lineup after his midseason trades to import center Timofey Mozgov and swingmen J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. Even if it wasn’t all beer and Skittles, things worked pretty well with Love on the court, and given his shooting, scoring and passing talents, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that he’ll perform better in Year 2 than he did in Year 1.
That said, though, the Cavs did turn into a punishing defensive team over the final three rounds of the postseason, thanks in large part to sliding Tristan Thompson into Love’s spot in the starting lineup.
The No. 4 pick in the 2011 NBA draft was much better equipped than Love to defend opposing guards on the perimeter in the pick-and-roll game and did a better-than-many-expected job of protecting the rim to boot, all while remaining an absolute beast on the boards, especially on the offensive end:
After Thompson’s tremendous postseason — and after he and his agents, Rich Paul and Mark Termini of Klutch Sports, who just so happen to represent LeBron, turned down a four-year, $52 million extension of his rookie contract last October — it seemed likely that he’d be in line for a pretty monstrous pay bump in restricted free agency. As it turned out, though, the Cavs backed up the Brinks truck to his door to prevent any prospective suitors from knocking on it:
The deal will cover five seasons, according to Stein and Windhorst.
That is an awfully large chunk of change for a player who throughout his career has rarely exhibited top-shelf gifts in any one offensive or defensive area beyond his ability to lock in on the boards, and whose work during this regular season seemed to indicate that he’s much better suited to deployment as an third big man providing energy and rebounding than as a cornerstone. But the playoffs change things, and so does LeBron’s imprimatur; when the man with the franchise in the palm of his hand says, “Tristan should probably be a Cavalier for his whole career,” the only real remaining question is, “How many zeroes do we put on the check?”
That might be true of the negotiation, but this decision sure does seem to leave plenty of questions for head coach David Blatt, who must now find an optimal way of juggling a four-five rotation featuring Love, Thompson, Mozgov, the returning-from-injury Anderson Varejao and (assuming his return) James, who will need to see at least some time at power forward to maximize the effectiveness of what ought to be another lights-out Cavaliers offense. After watching Love’s persistent struggles throughout the season, finding more ways to get him more fully involved in the offense rather than watching him turn into a perimeter-floating spectator needs to be one of Blatt’s primary priorities heading into their second year together.
It also could present some thorny issues for Griffin, whose roster now looks awfully imbalanced — after committing to spend roughly $55 million for power forwards and centers next season (again, without considering James), he’ll now have to either re-up or replace Shumpert, Smith and backup point guard Matthew Dellavedova, as well as outgoing vets Shawn Marion and Kendrick Perkins on the end of the bench. He figures to have some salary-cap exceptions to work with — the taxpayer’s midlevel exception of just under $5.5 million, for example, as well as the biannual exception of just over $2.1 million — but he may also find himself having to flip one of those frontcourt pieces down the line to bolster a ball-handler/wing rotation that proved perilously thin after Irving went down in the Finals.
While those prospective minute- and roster-management quandaries persist, though, one major question’s been clearly and loudly answered — owner Dan Gilbert seems very, very committed to spending well into the luxury tax in pursuit of the first championship in franchise history. Eight-figure-per-year pacts for both Love and Thompson in addition to the already-looking-like-a-bargain max that Kyrie signed last summer and the multi-year extension he gave Varejao before the start of the season indicate a willingness to shoulder a perhaps-record-setting tax bill come the end of next season, all to prove to LeBron — the prodigal son, the hometown hero who returned to bring glory but who understands exactly how much leverage he has and is determined to use it — that this is the place to be, and to stay.
James was reportedly taking a “wait-and-see” approach to making his own contract decision in free agency. Well, now that ownership’s opened up the vault for Love and Thompson, he’s seen. Now, the rest of us wait.
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