The three best Kevin Love trade destinations

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NBC Sports

The three best Kevin Love trade destinations

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.

Toronto Raptors

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. 

Phoenix Suns

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.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

David Stern leaves behind an international legacy

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NBC Sports

David Stern leaves behind an international legacy

David Stern was a born-and-raised New Yorker, a Manhattanite through and through. He grew up a Knicks fan and was a regular at Madison Square Garden. He attended law school at Columbia, and when it was time to find a headquarters for the NBA, the league chose 645 Park Avenue in midtown Manhattan.

When Stern died Wednesday at the age of 77, the tributes flowed in the same way they would for a former head of state. The former NBA commissioner wasn’t just a basketball executive. He was an international giant with a legacy that stretched from the United States to China and throughout South America, Europe and Africa.

The brightest, and maybe best example of Stern’s impact lies in the rise of Giannis Antetokounmpo, a potential two-time MVP with Nigerian roots who was born in Greece. Fans from around the world marvel at how he moves, how he slaloms around defenders like a skier and how he stretches the vertical limits of human ability. Antetokounmpo’s growth from bony teenager playing in tiny gyms across Greece to mammoth NBA megastar lighting up screens across the world is a glowing manifestation of what Stern envisioned decades ago. Now, Antetokounmpo and international stars like Luka Doncic, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic dominate a global basketball landscape that was seeded and groomed by Stern’s innovative and ambitious leadership. 

When Stern took over in 1984, there were 23 teams in the league. Now, there are 30, including the defending champion Toronto Raptors. The majority of those teams are worth billions of dollars, with the Houston Rockets selling for $2.2 billion two years ago. The salary cap that started at $3.6 million (now about $9 million adjusted for inflation) in 1984 has ballooned to $109.1 million for the 2019-20 season. 

While Stern certainly benefited from the rise in the value of TV and media rights for professional sports leagues, the league’s domestic and international growth was spurred by the NBA’s decision to send professional players to the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. Alongside current Golden State Warriors president and former league office executive Rick Welts, Stern helped market the Michael Jordan-led Dream Team. The result was a global sensation that is widely known as the greatest team ever assembled and is credited with helping spur the international growth of the game. 

By the time Stern left office in 2014, the league had opened offices in 15 cities outside America and had TV deals that spanned across over 200 countries in the world, according to the New York Times. Ten of the last 25 No. 1 overall picks in the NBA were born outside the continental United States, covering five of the world’s seven continents; China (Yao Ming), Australia (Andrew Bogut, Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons), Bahamas (Deandre Ayton), Canada (Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett), Italy (Andrea Bargnani), Tim Duncan (US Virgin Islands) and Michael Olowokandi (Nigeria). Contrast that with the NFL, which has zero top picks that were born outside the United States over the same time. 

When the San Antonio Spurs, led by Duncan, French guard Tony Parker and Argentine guard Manu Ginobili, played against the Detroit Pistons in 2005, Stern said of the Spurs, “Our push on globality continues, and in some ways the Spurs are sort of a United Nations team.” 

There were 76 international players from 34 countries that season. A decade later, in 2014-15, the NBA cracked 100 international players for the first time, doubling in size since 2000-01 (45) and nearly quintupling since 1990-91 (21). The NBA’s international players list now sits at 108 players, leveling off after a surge under Stern’s leadership.

To me, this is Stern’s legacy. Instead of closing doors and insulating himself in Manhattan, Stern opened them. Stern fashioned the NBA as its own New York City, attracting people and businesses from all corners of the world. Under his stewardship, the NBA became America’s global game. It takes a strong, but delicate hand to pull off that kind of change and growth, both things Stern had in spades. 

Long-time reporters and executives alike can all tell their coming-age-of-story when Stern first chewed them out on the phone. And one only need to look back through the pair of lockouts that Stern oversaw in 1998 and 2011 to find examples of his ruthlessness when faced with an obstacle to his business objectives.

But for every tale about being on the receiving end of Stern’s wrath, there are scores of tales highlighting his compassion. Stern wanted to reach as many people around the world, but he wanted most to reach the people closest to him.  

In Welts’ coming-out story in the New York Times, he told the story of how Stern, his long-time boss at the league office whom he called “Uncle Dave,” had personally called him after Welts’ long-time partner, Arnie, died of AIDS in March of 1994. Welts had grieved privately to keep his sexuality private, but the morning after Arnie’s death, he received a phone call from Stern, offering his condolences. In Arnie’s obituary, Welts, writing anonymously, had asked donations to be made to the University of Washington in honor of Arnie. Later, Welts opened up his mail and found a check written to the college. From David and his wife Dianne Stern. For the amount of $10,000. David and Welts had never explicitly talked about his sexuality.

Stern’s tenure as commissioner was marked by breaking down barriers, both globally and socially. In 1997, he gathered enough support amongst NBA owners to found the WNBA following the popularity of the 1996 U.S. women’s national team. When Magic Johnson announced in an NBA press conference that he was HIV positive, Stern sat directly to his left and the commissioner supported Johnson privately and publicly, instrumental in America’s education and awareness of the disease. When a sidelined Magic was the top vote-getter for the 1992 All-Star Game, it was Stern who rallied powerbrokers up and down the NBA to allow him to play. Magic ended up being the game’s MVP, a groundbreaking moment not just in the NBA, but across the world.

Stern also navigated some rocky waters that swirled under his watch. The NBA survived the Tim Donaghy scandal that nearly upended the league. The 2005 decision to institute a league-wide dress decorum that was seen in some circles as a coded attack on Allen Iverson and African-American culture. There were also two lockouts that disrupted labor peace between the league and the players association, leading to two shortened seasons.

But Stern, above all, was a giant among giants. The 5-foot-9 grey-haired New York lawyer commanded respect in every gym and conference room in which he stepped. And from his towering Manhattan office, he saw beyond borders and bridged countries and continents together like no other American commissioner. He made the National Basketball Association international.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Why the NBA season should start on Christmas

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NBC Sports

Why the NBA season should start on Christmas

The sheer joy of the NBA on Christmas Day can’t come soon enough. Injuries to Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Zion Williamson and other stars have sidelined some of the league’s top box-office draws, throwing a wet blanket on ratings and challenging audiences to find their bearings in the early going.

The dip in viewership has stirred up a sticky “What’s wrong with the NBA?” debate among those inside and outside the sport. The NBA added to the conversation with a reported schedule proposal that would include a midseason tournament, a play-in for the playoffs, a reseeding of the four conference finalists and a reduced number of overall games.

Talking about reform can be healthy, especially when framed as a way of making the on-court product better. But I have an idea to make the NBA even more compelling: Make Christmas Day the NBA’s Opening Day. Like, actually start the season on December 25.

Christmas Day in the NBA is incredible. For many across the world, the NBA has become as synonymous with the holiday as Santa Claus and candy canes. The most compelling stars and teams are matched up on network television for the first time all year, announcing to the larger audience that the NBA season has officially arrived. 

But of course, the NBA arrives much earlier than Christmas Day. The regular season starts two months before that, in mid-October. 

It’s hard to quantify how much juice the NBA loses by officially starting in October and unofficially starting on Christmas Day. It feels like millions of fans are missing out on the excitement and surprise of finding out about Luka Doncic, the L.A. partnerships and the other revelations of the early season. 

It’s a little like looking under the Christmas tree on Christmas morning only to find that the presents have already been unwrapped. You still get the presents, but isn’t the surprise half the fun?

When I go to holiday parties this time of year and tell people what I do for a living, it’s usually met with “Oh, cool! I love the NBA … but I’ll start paying attention to it on Christmas” remark that feels more like a half-hearted apology than anything.

It’s a bummer. The more this exchange happens, I ask myself: Why does the NBA start its season in October? For other sports, the answer to that question comes down to a very real and obvious thing: the weather. The NBA doesn’t have this problem. Unlike the NFL, MLB, tennis or the PGA Tour, the NBA is exclusively played indoors, making it seasonally agnostic.

Starting the NBA season in October is therefore a choice. And I’m not sure it’s the best one. 

There’s a reason why the NBA keeps all of its national broadcasts on cable networks until Dec. 25. The NFL hogs the national sports conscious for the entirety of the fall season. On top of that, the MLB playoffs are in full swing. The NBA regular season tipped off on October 22 this year, the same night as Game 1 of the World Series. According to Sports Media Watch tracking, Astros-Nationals drew 12 million viewers as compared to the 3 million who watched Lakers-Clippers. And that was the NBA’s juiciest matchup, by far.

Starting the NBA season on Christmas Day would sidestep the autumnal crush. Even more, a Dec. 25 launch would capitalize on the undeniable allure of a grand opening event. Look no further than the lockout-shortened year of 2011, when the NBA saw its highest average Christmas Day ratings since it expanded to a five-game slate in 2008.

At the time, conventional wisdom suggested that casual NBA fans had largely checked out after a very ugly and painful labor dispute. Instead, the NBA drew monster ratings on Christmas Day, averaging 6.3 million viewers, according to Sports Media Watch tracking, which is still the highest mark of the last 11 years.

Some of that jump can be explained by an absolutely loaded Christmas Day menu, filled with compelling stories in every marquee market. Reigning MVP Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls faced off against the Los Angeles Lakers, while LeBron James’ Heatles watched the Dallas Mavericks receive their championship rings in an NBA Finals rematch. There was also the Lob City Clippers, an actually good New York Knicks team and a plucky Thunder squad featuring a young trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.

“A Christmas Day start could have its benefits, mainly cutting out those lower-rated early months of the season,” Jon Lewis, the sports ratings guru behind Sports Media Watch, told NBC Sports. 

More important to this discussion, the success of the 2011 Christmas Day opener carried over through the season. According to Lewis, 2011-12 was a record-setting year for ABC, TNT and NBATV, despite a crunched 66-game schedule that saw teams play games on three consecutive days. 

Of course, a Christmas start would inevitably mean a later finish to the season, and Lewis warns that the deeper the season goes into the summer, the tougher it will be to draw fans’ interest. This is where we have to follow the NBA’s lead and agree that the 82-game schedule isn’t ideal anymore. In its latest proposal to teams, the NBA reportedly suggested reducing the season to 78 games in order to add a 30-team midseason tournament.

However, it’s my belief that the NBA should go further and lean into the “less is more” model that has buoyed the NFL’s bottom line. In 2017, Rockets GM Daryl Morey wasn’t sold that 82 games was the optimal number from a business sense, telling me, “the idea that the NFL would make more money with 82 games is absurd. A shorter schedule increases the importance of each game, which drives TV ratings, which drives the lion's share of money for most top pro leagues."

To that end, it’s hard to see how a modest reduction from 82 games to 78 games would make regular-season games matter more from a fan’s perspective. It also remains to be seen whether a brand-new, in-season tournament would do enough to drive up the interest to make up for the missing four games (per team) of revenue.

So how many games is enough to make the regular season matter? To me, a 66-game schedule -- a more spaced-out 2011-12 season -- that runs from Christmas to July would hit the sweet spot, making regular-season games more meaningful and drive up advertising premiums on a per-game basis. Here’s a general framework of my proposed season:

Season opener: Dec. 25
Trade deadline: Early April
All-Star: Mid-April
Playoffs start: Early June
NBA Finals: Late July
NBA draft: Early August
Free agency: Mid-August
Vegas Summer League: Early September 

With fewer games in its inventory, local team revenue as a whole may take a hit in the short term, but long-term gains could follow with the elimination of the back-to-back scourge (and all the load management talk that stains the conversation), leading to a healthier and more exciting product. 

It also makes sense to institute a gradual multi-year shaving of games to ease stakeholders’ concerns. The league could start with 78 games in 2021-22, then move to 72 games in 2022-23 and 66 games in 2023-24 with a Christmas Day start. 

There are other benefits from the Christmas Day bump that goes beyond avoiding the NFL and MLB overlap. Shifting the season later would keep the All-Star game in the springtime (hint: not freezing) and nudge the increasingly-buzzy Vegas Summer League into a time when stepping outside doesn’t feel like the heat of a thousand suns. There’s a reason why the NFL is doing the Super Bowl in Miami this February. It’s about making these signature events as attractive as possible for sponsors, investors and stakeholders.

This drastic change to the schedule doesn’t come without risk. Shifting the season would undoubtedly be met with resistance from those who like things just the way they are (a stance one NBA executive already publicly mocked). Historically, the league has tried to avoid playing games in July, when viewership tends to drop during summer vacation, but, with a host of international superstars spread across the league, the NBA Finals might be so compelling it could earn “summer-proof” status. Pushing the season back might also discourage some players from participating in the Summer Olympics, although this would likely only apply to the Finals teams (the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris begin on July 28). That said, the NBA is the only major American sports league that currently allows its top professional players to play in the Olympic games with no regular season conflicts.

But if the NBA is looking for ways to optimize the schedule and get more eyeballs on the sport, prioritizing a Christmas Day start feels like an exciting strategy worthy of consideration. A new audience is just tuning in when much of the season has already been decided. By now we know the MVP candidates. We largely know which teams are good and which teams aren’t. In 2017, I found that 80 percent of the variability in the final standings can be explained purely by the standings halfway through the season. In other words, NBA standings don’t change much after a couple months. This doesn’t happen in other sports.

The NBA has long been praised for its forward thinking. With the league looking for ways to optimize the game and its business model, it’s time to change the way it looks at the schedule. Let’s start the season on Christmas Day and unwrap the presents together.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.