At his peak, Kevin Love was an incredible centerpiece and an incredible third star. With the Minnesota Timberwolves, averaging Moses Malone numbers, Love was an incredible inside-out scorer and rebounder. After being traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers and after some growing pains, Love slotted in as a great complement to LeBron James and Kyrie Irving as they made four straight NBA Finals and won a championship.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports that the Cavaliers are now ready to listen to trade offers for Love, two years after Kyrie fled and a year and change after LeBron bolted and Love signed a contract extension.
The Cavaliers are deep in their post-LeBron rebuild, with no clear evidence this take is going any better than the post-2010 version. Love is the best of several expensive veterans that don’t really fit with the timeline or version of a new guard-led team. If Cleveland can extract useful resources by trading Love — draft picks, young prospects — it seems like a no-brainer to move him. This was even understood back when Love signed his contract extension while Cleveland was staring down a rebuild.
The question is what Love actually is these days, and how much any given team should give up to land him.
We know why Love’s gaudy numbers shrunk as he became the third banana alongside LeBron and Kyrie. What’s odd is that the production hasn’t returned to pre-Cleveland levels since Kyrie and LeBron have left. Per-minute, Love currently has his lowest scoring rate since 2015-16, his second season in Cleveland. He scored more last season (22 points per 36 minutes), but was closer to his LeBron/Kyrie years than his best Minnesota years.
The worry is that his time outside the centerpiece role has changed who Love is as a player, meaning we’re never getting the days of 25-15 back. In related news, he’s now 31 years old. While his game has never been predicated on superior athleticism, his size and a long history of injury are plausible causes of a physical slowdown.
Of course, the context of his future is important to consider: there’s little chance a team will trade for Love expecting a return to 25-15 form. He will likely be acquired by a team with a star or two already in place, and will be expected to reprise his role from the best Cleveland teams, not those iffy Minnesota squads.
The past year-plus in Cleveland has been quite meaningless for most involved, Love most of all. His usage is nearly at a career low even though these Cavaliers really need a star. If Love were slowing down in his 30s, we’d have no way of knowing.
In that way, any team that trades for Love will be rolling the dice that his decline hasn’t already begun. He’s due $91.5 million over three years after this season: that’s a huge salary cap load that needs to pay off. If a team like the Portland Trail Blazers rolls the dice and it doesn’t pay off, that’s the type of deal that could sink the team’s chances to improve for the rest of Damian Lillard’s expected peak. Teams in the mix for Portland will be making a bet that Love’s production has fallen because he has no real purpose in Cleveland, and hasn’t since LeBron left — and not that it’s fallen because Love’s aging.
So other than Portland, eternally and inextricably linked to Love, who are the teams where he might make sense? Miami should be in the conversation — the front office might consider Love the missing piece to push the Heat into true contender status. Love would be a really interesting fit with the Utah Jazz, given their offensive struggles even after adding Mike Conley. The Mavericks don’t really need more offense, but there’s a hole at power forward and putting shooters around Luka Doncic is a textbook blueprint for maximizing his talent. The same applies to the Houston Rockets with James Harden, but the salary matching would be wild to contemplate.
The best target in my book is the Phoenix Suns, who could make a legitimate run at the top offense in the NBA by adding Love. It wouldn’t do much to help the defense, which is the Suns’ limiting factor right now. But Phoenix can’t really afford to be picky with its stars, and a Devin Booker-Kevin Love battery would be absolutely magical …
… assuming, of course, Kevin Love can get his juice back after leaving Cleveland.