Kevin Love’s days in Cleveland appear to be numbered. The 31-year-old star forward has been the center of the rumor mill after reportedly being fined by the Cleveland Cavaliers for a Dec. 31 outburst on the bench and publicly challenging first-year head coach John Beilein with on-court, well, demonstrations. He has since apologized for what he characterized as “childish” behavior. Then, on Wednesday, things in Cleveland somehow got worse.
Love seems likely to move. The question is where?
Love’s contract seems to be the first roadblock. Suitors will have to absorb a deal that will pay Love an average of $30.5 million for another three seasons after this current one. For many, that’s a steep price to pay for a player on the wrong side of 30. Also, teams have to match Love’s current salary number of $28.9 million in any deal, either by bundling smaller deals together or swapping out an equally large salary.
Love’s injury history could also give teams pause. He has missed 110 games over his last three-and-a-half seasons primarily due to issues with his left foot, left knee and back. These aren’t major injuries like a ruptured Achilles or a torn ACL, but they do add up.
Given these three conditions, the trade market for Love has cooled considerably. “There just aren’t many, if any, teams that see him as the piece that puts them over the top,” said one East executive.
But Love has the skill level to be an effective player, even if he’s not as bouncy as he once was. After an up-and-down start, Love has re-established his status as one of the premier power forwards in the league. On the season, he is averaging 16.8 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.9 assists while shooting 54.5 percent on 2s and 38.5 percent on 3s. And that’s without a veteran point guard to organize the offense.
Cleveland could still hold onto Love and revisit the trade market this summer, but that poses its own risks. Love could get hurt again and submarine his trade stock like it did last season when he missed 60 games. Things could fester in the locker room if the Cavs don’t turn things around; only the Knicks and Hawks have more 20-point losses than the Cavs. Love hasn’t publicly demanded a trade, but forcing an ugly exit can’t be out of the question amid Love’s very public frustrations.
At this point, it’s best for Cleveland and Love to part ways. So where will he go? Here are my best fits for Love ahead of the Feb. 6 trade deadline.
Portland Trail Blazers
To me, bringing the Portland native home is the most likely scenario. After inking Damian Lillard to a supermax extension this past summer, the injury-riddled Blazers are in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since Lillard’s rookie season, a steep dropoff from last season’s Western Conference finals. As Yahoo! Sports’ Chris Haynes told me on last week’s Habershow podcast, this isn’t exactly what Lillard signed up for.
At 16-22, the Blazers are desperate for bigs with Jusuf Nurkic (broken leg) still sidelined and Zach Collins facing potentially season-ending shoulder surgery. Carmelo Anthony, though he’s played admirably after a year away from the game, is not a long-term solution.
The Blazers are sitting on two lottery tickets that could go up in smoke if they aren’t used in the next month. Hassan Whiteside’s $27 million expiring contract and Kent Bazemore’s $19.3 million expiring contract can be traded for star players on teams that may be looking to clean up their cap sheet.
Without max-level cap space this summer, a trade at or before the deadline is the Blazers’ only realistic option to acquire a third star-caliber player alongside Lillard and C.J. McCollum. It’s unclear if they want to make such a move, but executives around the league would be stunned if the Blazers don’t move at least one of those contracts to lock in a big-name player.
The Blazers could use Whiteside’s contract to go after former Blazers All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, who has one year and $24 million left on his contract after his $26 million ticket in 2019-20. Or they could target Danilo Gallinari and his expiring $22.6 million contract as a rental, with the potential to keep Gallinari long term.
But to me, Love is the most sensible choice for the Blazers.
If the Blazers have title aspirations, they need to shore up their ball-movement issues and spacing. The Blazers currently rank dead-last in the NBA in assist percentage. Coincidentally, that’s also where the Blazers ranked in 2017-18 before an embarrassing first-round sweep at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans. Love’s playmaking would be an ideal fit. The Cavs’ assist percentage has improved with Love on the floor in each of the last three seasons, per NBA.com.
Love can space the floor and free up the paint with his shooting, especially in the corners where he has converted over 40 percent of his attempts in three of the last four seasons. The UCLA product has a knack for fitting a crisp pass in tight spots in the high or low post. Though Nurkic isn’t as springy around the rim, Tristan Thompson has been Love’s top assist target this season, tied with Cedi Osman.
Lillard and McCollum could also benefit greatly from the attention that Love would garner in the offense, generating more open looks for sharpshooters and loosening up actions. This season, Darius Garland and Collin Sexton are shooting 44.4 percent on 3-pointers off of Love’s passes and just 32.5 percent on passes from all other teammates, according to pass tracking data on NBA.com.
Love would provide a multi-dimensional lever for coach Terry Stott when things get bogged down in his pick-and-roll heavy offense. This season, Love has delivered 13 assists to Garland, a rookie point guard trying to find his way in the league. By contrast, Anthony has sent merely two assists to Lillard, one of the best superstars in the game. And we haven’t even talked about Love’s Wes Unseld-esque outlet passes that he’s been launching since he was a kid.
The Blazers could theoretically stand pat and stick with Collins as their starting power forward next season, a solid Plan B if the Blazers don’t go big-game hunting at the deadline or this summer. The Blazers may balk at adding Love’s contract considering they already owe about $300 million to Lillard and McCollum after this season; only the Golden State Warriors and Philadelphia 76ers have more money on the books after this season. But when you have star players in their prime, you have to break the bank.
Olshey has kept all of Portland’s future No. 1 picks in the treasure chest, something that on-the-cusp franchises like Dallas, Houston and Miami all lack. A package consisting of Whiteside, Portland’s 2019 first-round pick Nassir Little (still just 19 years old) and Portland’s 2020 lottery-protected first-rounder makes sense for both Portland and the rebuilding Cavs. In that situation, the Blazers would also hang onto top prospect Anfernee Simons and Collins, who just turned 22 years old and will be 25 when Love’s contract expires.
Acquiring Love’s contract would hamstring the Blazers’ books. Lillard’s supermax salary balloons to $43.8 million in 2021-22 and Collins’ inevitable extension is looming as well, but small-market teams like Portland can’t be too picky about acquiring stars.
Being on the playoff bubble should be a wake-up call for the Blazers. Nothing in this league is guaranteed. Adding Love would be costly, but the opportunity cost of not doing anything might be just as dangerous.
Could Love be this year’s Marc Gasol? The Raptors went all-in last season and acquired the All-Star big man to load up for a title quest. Now, with Pascal Siakam establishing himself as a bonafide star next to Kyle Lowry, the Raptors could arm up again for a repeat run.
The Raptors have two large expiring contracts in Serge Ibaka ($23.3 million) and Gasol ($25.6 million) to grease the transactional wheels, but moving Ibaka makes more sense with Gasol’s defensive skills serving as a complement to Love’s shortcomings on that end of the floor. If everyone’s healthy, a starting five of Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Siakam, Love and Gasol would be a formidable matchup for any of the other East powers.
It’s also become obvious that Toronto is in need of some additional offensive firepower. Already of the fiercest defensive teams in the NBA, allowing the second-fewest points per 100 possessions in the NBA, the Raptors are just 16th in offensive efficiency behind the Detroit Pistons. Any team that puts up a 76-point clunker in the NBA’s bucket-friendly environment needs to look in the mirror and evaluate some stuff (only Chicago has scored fewer in a game this season).
Also, like Portland, Toronto has the expiring deals to plop down in a trade and won’t have the cap space to acquire a star in free agency this summer. They also have promising talent that could appeal to Cleveland in 22-year-old O.G. Anunoby, stretchy Chris Boucher and undrafted stud Terrence Davis. Anunoby should be off the table in a Love deal, but a deal centered on Ibaka, Boucher and a heavily-protected first-round pick might get Cleveland interested.
Of course, Gasol’s health could complicate matters. The soon-to-be-35-year-old has been out for weeks with a hamstring injury and doesn’t appear to be ready to play anytime soon. His iffy status at his age could make Toronto nervous about pushing their chips to the middle again. The Raptors might also believe Siakam is better suited to play the power forward slot full-time, which would allow Anunoby to continuing blossoming at the wing. The Raptors have every reason to believe that; the Lowry-VanVleet-Anunoby-Siakam-Gasol lineup has scored a healthy 117.2 points per 100 possessions in their 11 games in action together, per NBA tracking.
The question is whether the Raptors trust Anunoby in the playoffs over the allure of Love (and the contract that comes with him). The Raptors have faced so many injuries this season that they may just pack it in and keep developing their blossoming group of young players. If Siakam and Gasol’s injuries linger, it’s not out of the question that they become sellers, not buyers, at the deadline. Barring an injury at the top of the East that cracks open the door wide open for Toronto, I don’t see the Raptors banging down the door to commit to Love long term.
The Suns have come back to Earth after a hot start that, even at the time, appeared unsustainable. Still, the Suns, sitting at 14-23 as of Thursday, are only two games of the eighth-place San Antonio Spurs, and Love could make sense as a change-of-scenery acquisition that punches the Suns’ first playoff ticket since the Steve Nash-Amar’e Stoudemire teams of the late 2000s.
Offensively, Love would be a fun fit next to Devin Booker. He would offer an immediate improvement for Phoenix in both 3-point shooting and rebounding, where the Suns rank in the lower-third of the league. Of course, putting Love and Booker on the court together could be a defensive fiasco, but the bottom of the West playoff picture is an absolute mess and after four straight miserable seasons in the NBA’s basement, owner Robert Sarver could get antsy and make a win-now decree from up on high. Signing Ricky Rubio to a three-year, $51 million isn’t something that rebuilding teams do.
Putting together a deal isn’t easy, but the Suns should try to hold onto Aron Baynes for some muscle up front and instead use Tyler Johnson’s expiring $19.2 million contract to get in the salary-matching neighborhood. Here’s the framework of a possible deal: Johnson, Frank Kaminsky, Mikal Bridges and a protected first-round pick to Cleveland for Love. Playing backup to Kelly Oubre, Bridges is an elite defensive prospect on the wing that would fit nicely next to Collin Sexton and Darius Garland.
The Suns are in a tricky spot this summer, because they’ll be able to carve out just over $25 million in cap space -- not enough to go big-game hunting but just enough to overpay for a smaller fish. Of course, many around the league see Love as just that. If reuniting Love with his former Timberwolves running mate Rubio helps the Suns end a near-decade-long playoff drought, it would be worth it.
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