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Max-Contract Questions a Fact of NBA Life for Kevin Love

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterJanuary 12, 2015

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If David Blatt's doubts about Kevin Love's max-contract worthiness are giving you deja vu, then you're not alone.

When asked about the ongoing struggles of his Cleveland Cavaliers—losers of five in a row and nine of their last 11, including a 104-83 loss to the Sacramento Kings on Sunday—even with two max salary-type players (i.e. Love and Kyrie Irving) on the roster, Blatt responded, per ESPN.com's David McMenamin, "Well, Kev's not a max player yet, is he?"

Blatt later explained, via Chris Haynes of Northeast Ohio Media Group, that he was merely sticking to protocol as it pertains to discussing contract details publicly:

Chris Haynes @ChrisBHaynes

David Blatt says he meant Kevin Love is not a max player on their roster because they aren't allowed to talk about future contracts.

Blatt also stated Love didn't take issue with what he said once Blatt filled him in on the context of the comments, per McMenamin:

Dave McMenamin @mcten

Blatt said he talked to Love about his max contract comment: "He had no problem with it"

In any case, Love's current salary is, indeed, the max insofar as it's the most he could've earned given the parameters of the particular extension he signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign. The deal itself, though (i.e. four years, upward of $60 million), was not the absolute richest for which Love was eligible.

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The Wolves, then helmed by general manager David Kahn alongside team owner Glen Taylor, could've inked their All-Star to a five-year pact but had their doubts about affording Love such luxury. Kahn later suggested that Taylor was wary of investing so heavily, in terms of both dollars and years, in Love.

As Kahn told the Minneapolis Star Tribune's Jerry Zgoda back in May 2013, shortly after the Wolves cut ties with him: 

I think it actually took me some time to tell Glen it was imperative he receive max money. The only issue, the only quibble came down to that last year and as I’ve said countless times, for us the danger was if you commit for five years, you’re really committed for six because of the lockout year, which he was playing. It’s an awfully long time to string a contract out with all the variables that can occur mostly due to injuries and oftentimes to big men.

As if Minnesota, a franchise now more than a decade removed from its last playoff appearance and not known for attracting top-shelf talent, could quibble with the one surefire superstar in its midst. Love, for one, was well aware of the reservations toward his game harbored by the man who signed his paychecks.

"I don't know who labels people stars, but even [T'wolves owner] Glen Taylor said: I don't think Kevin Love is a star, because he hasn't led us to the playoffs," Love told Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski in Dec. 2012. "I mean, it's not like I had much support out there."

Steve Yeater/Associated Press

Taylor seemed to think otherwise when he took his parting shots at Love last summer, after the blockbuster trade between the Cavs, Wolves and Philadelphia 76ers was official. Taylor told reporters at the Minnesota State Fair, via 1500 ESPN Twin Cities' Derek Wetmore:

I question Kevin if this is going to be the best deal for him because I think he's going to be the third player on a team. I don't think he's going to get a lot of credit if they do really well. I think he'll get the blame if they don't do well. He's going to have to learn to handle that.

I think he's around a couple guys [who] are awful good. Now I'm not saying that Kevin's not good, but I think where maybe he got away with some stuff, not playing defense on our team, I'm not sure how that's going to work in Cleveland.

To some extent, Taylor's concerns have been borne out in the way Love has played in Cleveland. Love's numbers have declined pretty much across the board. His scoring (17.9 points) has hit its lowest level since his second season in the Association, his rebounding (10.5 boards) its lowest since his first. Save for the forgettable shooting percentage (35.2) he posted during an injury-riddled 2012-13 campaign, Love's current mark (44.2 percent) would be the worst of his seven-year pro career.

Some of that slippage was to be expected. Playing alongside other high-usage stars like LeBron James and Irving would require significant sacrifice on Love's part. No longer could he expect to get the ball down low or launch a shot from long range whenever it pleased him to do so.

"It's going to be very difficult for him," Chris Bosh warned Love this past October, via Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick"Even if I was in his corner and I was able to tell him what to expect and what to do, it still doesn't make any difference. You still have to go through things, you still have to figure out things on your own. It's extremely difficult and extremely frustrating. He's going to have to deal with that."

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - OCTOBER 11: Kevin Love #0 of the Cleveland Cavaliers handles the basketball against Chris Bosh #1 of the Miami Heat during a game at the HSBC Arena as a part of NBA Global Games on October 11, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  NOTE
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

Clearly, that hasn't come so easily to Love. Defensively, Love has struggled, albeit predictably so. According to NBA.com, Love allows his opponents to convert 57.2 percent of their shots at the rim—the highest percentage among those who've faced at least seven such attempts per game this season.

Love, though, has always been far more effective as a positional defender than as a protector of the basket, as ESPN Stats & Information's Ryan Feldman noted to 1500ESPN.com's Phil Mackey when the trade to Cleveland went through:

Love may have struggled protecting the rim, but he was actually a good 1-on-1 defender. On post-up plays, Love allowed the 3rd-fewest points per play, minimum 200 post-up plays.

Fewest Pts per Post-Up Play Allowed - Min. 200 Plays Last Season
Greg Monroe -- 0.68
Markieff Morris -- 0.70
Kevin Love -- 0.72
Al Jefferson -- 0.73
Jonas Valanciunas -- 0.74

More telling is the way in which Love has responded to his role in Cleveland's uneven offense. At times, he's done everything from clapping his hands to stamping his feet to out-and-out pouting when the ball doesn't swing his way. 

Those behaviors, along with Love's defensive deficiencies, aren't indicative of a player who should be paid like one of the league's elite. 

Kevin Love vs. Other Max-Salary Power Forwards in 2014-15
MinsPtsFG%RebAstPERSalary ($M)
Kevin Love35.917.9.44010.52.419.2$15.7
Chris Bosh35.321.6.4827.82.122.1$20.6
David Lee17.99.9.5195.10.919.1$15
Blake Griffin35.422.7.4927.75.022.2$17.7
LaMarcus Aldridge36.422.9.45710.51.921.7$16
DeMarcus Cousins3323.9.48912.33.026.7$13.7
Amar'e Stoudemire26.413.1.5587.41.119.7$23.4
Basketball Reference

Love's new team isn't short on talent, so it's not organized around him. Rather, he's now a pawn (and a big one at that) on James' side of the chessboard.

To that end, Blatt's doubts about Love's max status make some sense. Fair or not, Love has never carried a club beyond the lottery.

Neither has Irving, who jumped on a five-year max extension with the Cavs this past summer. But that was before the LeBron-a-thon returned to northeast Ohio, back when Cleveland was desperate to find whatever star power it could and retain what measure of it the team had.

To be sure, the Cavs should be plenty eager to keep Love around. There's been no indication that the team won't do everything in its power to do just that. If nothing else, Cleveland wouldn't want to be left empty-handed come July after giving up Anthony Bennett, Andrew Wiggins and a 2015 first-rounder to pry Love from Minnesota.

It's possible, too, that Blatt's comments will light a fire under Love. As Wojnarowski wrote when detailing Love's strained relationship with Taylor and Kahn in Dec. 2012: "In some ways, Taylor and Kahn have done Love a favor. They didn't do it intentionally, because they're simply not savvy enough, but there's an anger pulsating with Love, a ferocity that they've indirectly fueled."

Indeed, Love has developed a knack (out of necessity) for dealing with doubts and silencing slights, real or perceived.

It wasn't until his third season that Love was afforded the leeway to start regularly, despite having already established himself as a bona fide double-double machine in Minnesota before then. Nor were coaches always so keen on Love as a perimeter threat.

"Randy Wittman told me not to shoot 3-pointers. That got me very uncomfortable," Love revealed to Wojnarowski more than two years ago. "There were certain labels tagged on me very early in my career, spots on the floor where I felt uncomfortable. I continued to put myself out there in those spots."

That defiance worked out well enough for Love. He hit a remarkable 41.7 percent of his 2.9 threes per game in 2010-11 and saw his attempts skyrocket thereafter, to 5.1 in 2011-12 and 2012-13 and 6.6 in 2013-14. Now that shooting at all positions is paramount, Love's reliability from beyond the arc has made him a hot commodity—a true stretch 4 in a league so desperately short on them.

If anything, though, that only made Love a clearer choice for what he deemed to be the "'White Guy' award" from NBA's GMs, courtesy of their annual survey:

Steve Kerr @SteveKerr

“@kevinlove: GM survey: Love is player who makes most of 'limited natural ability.'” Other than being 6-10, insanely strong w/velvet touch?

All he did was follow that up with his finest season to date: 26.1 points, 12.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game for a Wolves team that won 40 games—and might've won more if not for a harrowing rash of injuries.

Love has proven that he can dominate the game of basketball at its highest level, and he's done it while replacing his once-pudgy frame with a more muscular one that's better suited to the NBA. He's won at every level at which players don't get paid, including on the international stage, where he's an Olympic gold medalist and, as of last summer, a FIBA World Cup champion.

The only thing he hasn'done is the one thing against which the wisdom of max contracts is most commonly judged: He hasn't been part of playoff success in the NBA.

Just don't expect that to stop anyone—the Cavs included—from offering Love the max when he opts out of his current contract this summer, as the Akron Beacon Journal's Jason Lloyd says he likely will. 

More money won't make Love any more of a "winner" than he already is. Instead, it'll only further raise expectations for Love to become one.

Which, given how low the bar was once set for Love and how he's cleared it time and again, might not be such a bad thing.

Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. 

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