Kevin Love deserves a medal for the unremitting uncertainty he's endured over the past four years of his career alongside LeBron James on the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Annual trips to the NBA Finals aren't enough of a reward for his troubles. Nor is his 2016 title. You wouldn't know he's a five-time All-Star who's in the thick of his prime based on the frequency with which he's been viewed or treated as expendable.
The Cavaliers tried to move him last summer as part of a three-team trade with the Denver Nuggets and Indiana Pacers that would have brought Paul George to Cleveland, according to Ramona Shelburne, Dave McMenamin and Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com. With James now preparing for another free-agency tour after he declines his player option, Love's future again hangs in the balance.
"They start over. They fully make Kevin Love available," Windhorst said on The Hoop Collective podcast in reference to what the Cavaliers will do if James leaves (h/t RealGM). "I bet they would look for a first-round pick in that trade. He's on the last year of a deal, so they don't want to take on money."
Even if the Cavaliers re-sign James, it doesn't guarantee they won't look at rerouting Love. Other than the No. 8 pick in this year's draft, he's their best trade asset. His name will end up bandied about the rumor mill regardless, either as an agency for change around James or as part of a fire sale.
These proposed deals plan for the latter scenario. For our purposes, James has already absconded from Cleveland a second time, and the Cavaliers are looking to hit reset. Their targeted returns will cater to that about-face, emphasizing the combination of picks, prospects and salary-cap relief.
Every package will be constructed as though the Cavaliers are pulling the trigger after the start of free agency. Some permutations of these deals can be pushed through beforehand if James forces an opt-in-and-trade. But unless he's joining the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets, the Cavs likely won't know he's leaving before the NBA's books reset.
To make the mechanics more palatable, each deal that includes a 2018 first-rounder will be presented as if it's being completed at least 30 days after the player signs his rookie-scale contract. This way, his 2018-19 cap hit counts toward the salary-matching logistics, while teams that couldn't previously trade their selection can now flip the player itself.
Los Angeles Lakers
Cleveland Cavaliers Receive: SF/PF Luol Deng, SG/SF Josh Hart, SF/PF Kyle Kuzma, No. 25 pick ($1,746,840)
Los Angeles Lakers Receive: PF/C Kevin Love
Signing James would likely take the Lakers out of the running for Love. Landing Paul George or whiffing superstars altogether would not.
Adding Love elevates the ceiling without compromising long-term flexibility. He has a $25.6 million player option for 2019-20, which he's likely to decline so he can enter free agency.
Though the Lakers have the wiggle room to absorb Love's salary without sending back anything, this trade protects that breathability. They're tacking on less than $2 million in extra salary, so they can snag Love after burning cap space on the open market or stay similarly lean for midseason trades.
Losing what amounts to three first-rounders would sting. Hart and Kuzma proved to be capable rotation staples as rookies, and jettisoning the prospect they take at No. 25 exhausts the stable of non-Lonzo Ball, non-Brandon Ingram trade chips.
Lopping off the final two years and $36.8 million on Deng's contract is worth it. Love can help the Lakers now, and removing Deng's 2019-20 salary positions them to be free-agent players again next summer even if they sign some combination of George, Julius Randle (restricted) and another marquee name.
The Cavaliers may balk at rostering a contract that extends past 2018-19, but they'll be working with a suboptimal asset base if James bolts. The No. 8 pick, Cedi Osman and Ante Zizic isn't much of a foundation.
Grabbing Hart, Kuzma and another 2018 prospect gives them a semblance of an infrastructure. And Deng's salary will be long gone by the time they're ready to play for anything special.
Portland Trail Blazers
Cleveland Cavaliers Receive: SG/SF Justin Anderson, SG/SF Jerryd Bayless, No. 10 pick ($3,522,480)
Philadelphia 76ers Receive: SG CJ McCollum
Portland Trail Blazers: SG/SF Kyle Korver, PF/C Kevin Love
Cutting out the Sixers and trading for McCollum straight up could appeal to the Cavaliers. He's far more of a sure thing than whomever will come off the board at No. 10. However, he also turns 27 before the start of next season and is owed $82.8 million over the next three years.
Beginning a rebuild with a top-10 prospect, a flier on Anderson and salary-cap relief is more constructive.
This deal shaves more than $17 million off the Cavaliers' 2018-19 bottom line. Factor in James' departure, and they go from light-years above the luxury tax to within a heartbeat—or a Bayless and George Hill buyout—of dipping below the $101 million salary cap altogether.
Bringing in McCollum is a solid contingency for the Sixers if George and James sign elsewhere. They're wasting a chunk of cap space, but not the whole shebang. They'll still have around $15 million or so to throw around following this deal, and sign-and-trade packages built around Robert Covington's salary remain in play should George or James be poking around Philly.
Taking on Love and Korver represents a risk for the Blazers. They're adding close to $6 million of salary in the face of the luxury tax. But Love nullifies the need for them to re-sign both—or even one of—Ed Davis and Jusuf Nurkic (restricted). He might find new life as a more stationary presence in head coach Terry Stotts' defense and pairs nicely on offense with Portland's other primary frontcourt options (Al-Farouq Aminu, Zach Collins and Moe Harkless).
Korver doesn't replace McCollum, but his penchant for living off the ball makes it easier for the Blazers to incorporate the ball-dominant Evan Turner. Love takes care of the No. 2 juice behind Damian Lillard, and his own bystander experience in Cleveland should translate to better floor balance around Portland's All-Star point man.
San Antonio Spurs
Cleveland Cavaliers Receive: C Pau Gasol, SG/SF Derrick White, No. 18 pick ($2,337,000)
San Antonio Spurs Receive: PF/C Kevin Love
Rescuing the Spurs from Gasol's deal goes against the Cavaliers' bare-bones mentality in the post-LeBron era, but their commitment will be short-lived. Only $6.7 million of his 2019-20 salary is guaranteed, and he should be willing to give back some of this year's money ($16 million) in eventual buyout discussions.
Derrick White and the No. 18 pick are not cornerstone commodities, but the Cavaliers must be prepared to indulge the lowball end of the Kevin Love spectrum. Teams won't mortgage the future for a star big man approaching his 30th birthday and free agency, especially when they know Cleveland has no use for him.
Slotting Love next to LaMarcus Aldridge would be a quintessential Spurs move. Both spent a lion's share of their time at center this past season, according to Cleaning The Glass, but they don't need to inhabit the same offensive space.
Head coach Gregg Popovich is a whiz at integrating dual-big lineups, anyway. Surviving on defense is the larger concern. Neither Love nor Aldridge has the gait to hang outside of the paint. Even there, though, San Antonio is covered.
Aldridge is good enough to be the last line of defense in the Spurs' system. He held opponents to 54.7 percent shooting at the rim last year, which was the ninth-best mark among the 62 players to average 3.5 or more point-blank challenges per game.
Having switchable length on the perimeter in Danny Green (player option), Kawhi Leonard and Dejounte Murray offsets some of the immobility incumbent of an Aldridge-Love partnership. San Antonio is thin enough up front to stagger their minutes and run with a small-ball 4 as well.
Subbing out Gasol's contract for Love's quasi-expiring deal is an added benefit for the Spurs. They'll have a harder time dredging up cap space if Leonard signs a designated veteran extension this summer, and the ability to renounce Love if he opts out beats paying Gasol at least $6.7 million in 2019-20.
This becomes a moot comfort if the Spurs shell out multiyear deals to Green and Kyle Anderson (restricted) over the offseason, but the bare minimum, it gives them a reasonable path to ducking the luxury tax once Leonard's super-max takes effect.
Cavaliers Receive: SG Alec Burks, PF Jonas Jerebko, C Ekpe Udoh, No. 21 pick ($2,056,580), 2020 lottery-protected first-round pick
Utah Jazz Receive: PF/C Kevin Love
This same package would look so much better to the Cavaliers around draft day of the previous collective bargaining agreement. Striking the No. 21 pick's salary from consideration wouldn't kill the deal when using 2017-18 cap hits, and Cleveland would be able to save a boatload more money by waiving Jerebko and Udoh before July 9, when their 2018-19 salaries become fully guaranteed.
Waiting out James' decision doesn't make it look that much worse. Jerebko and Udoh both become buyout candidates, and the Cavaliers still aren't burdening themselves with major money beyond 2018-19. Besides, any deal that includes two first-rounders has to pique their attention.
Utah, meanwhile, is one of the few squads that will see immense value in securing Love's Bird rights ahead of free agency. Gaining the inside track on his return means everything to a franchise not known for poaching superstars in their heyday.
Two firsts is a lot to give up for Love seeing as he plays Rudy Gobert's best position, but the Jazz profile as exceptions here. They have ample experience deploying two bigs.
Head coach Quin Snyder adapts pace and defensive decision-making for different lineup configurations. On this team specifically, Love will more than make up for his lapses at the other end, as The Ringer's Haley O'Shaughnessy underscored.
"If any defense can afford to take on his slow feet, it’s the one Quin Snyder used to snuff out the Thunder. Derrick Favors will be a free agent this summer; putting Love next to Rudy Gobert in Favors’s place would give the Jazz a new scoring dimension without losing the rebounding Favors provided. Being reunited with Ricky Rubio would mean Love would get the ball more often, and being paired in the same offense as Donovan Mitchell would lead to a lot of open shots."
The Jazz could push to use their 2019 pick if this year's selection is being moved as an actual player and they're worried about Love leaving next summer. But his departure clearly needn't be a concern:
Good luck finding a better post-LeBron fit for Love. It doesn't exist.
Cleveland Cavaliers Receive: C Marcin Gortat, PF/C Jason Smith (assuming he opts in), No. 15 pick ($2,725,680), 2022 second-round pick
Washington Wizards Receive: PF/C Kevin Love
Oh, and here's guessing he won't complain about the Wizards getting rid of Gortat:
Love does nothing to improve the Wizards' rickety defense, as he's a rim-protecting downgrade when placed at the 5. But Gortat's own mobility is on the decline, and Love can get by in bigger lineups with Ian Mahinmi at center.
Supercharging the offense with as much spacing as possible needs to be the Wizards' greater priority.
Wall betrays his own driving lanes and passing angles when he's shooting under 30 percent on too many long twos. Surrounding him with Love, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter and either Markieff Morris, Kelly Oubre Jr. or Tomas Satoransky has 4.5-and-a-half-out potential if Wall sniffs league-average efficiency from beyond the arc.
The Cavaliers could demand more in this deal—like Oubre or Satoransky. The Wizards shouldn't bite. They're giving Cleveland two expiring contracts who could give money back in buyouts and a fringe-lottery pick.
Most offers won't get much better. The ones that do, as we've outlined here, will try to sneak in some more expensive or longer-haul obligations.