When the Cavaliers traded for Kevin Love in the summer of 2014, it was clear what the goal was. They wanted him to team up with Kyrie Irving and LeBron James to form an imposing trio that would be able to contend for championships and bring the city its first title since 1964.
It worked. While they were only together for three seasons, they achieved their goal, making it to the Finals each year, winning it all in 2016. But just two years later, Love was the last man standing from that trio. In 2017, Irving, then as now, was eager to indulge his wildest whims, and requested a trade to escape LeBron’s ever-growing shadow. LeBron himself went to the Lakers the next summer, opting for the oceanside over the lakeshore.
Just a few weeks after LeBron left Cleveland for the second time, the Cavaliers extended Love through 2022, adding four years and $120 million to his existing contract. Again, it was clear what the goal was: to keep the Cavaliers competitive and avoid falling into the same pit of ineptitude that swallowed them so thoroughly when LeBron left the first time. That did not work. In the three years since he signed that extension, Love has missed more games than he has played. And when he has played, he has not looked much like the All-NBA talent he was when the Cavs first acquired him.
Now, they owe him $60 million over the next two seasons and have seemed to ignore his presence altogether while putting together their roster. If the front office considers him a part of the team’s future, they are doing a very odd job of showing it. In January, Cleveland acquired Jarrett Allen in the James Harden deal and, this summer, they drafted Evan Mobley in addition to trading for Lauri Markannen. These are not the moves of a team that is happy with its starting power forward.
What is next for Kevin Love and the Cleveland Cavaliers?
If the Cavaliers are not thrilled to still have Love on the roster, then judging from Love’s body language, the feeling is mutual. In a game against the Raptors last season, instead of catching the ball and then inbounding it in to a teammate following a Malachi Flynn basket, Love swatted at it, turning it over to the Raptors who promptly hit a 3-pointer as he wandered aimlessly in the mid-range, showcasing frustration and apathy in equal measure.
There was another play the year before when, frustrated with Collin Sexton’s interminable dribbling with the shot clock running down, he walked out to the perimeter and demanded the ball. Upon receiving it, he fired a hard and low pass to Cedi Osman who was forced to take a well-guarded 3, though Osman was fouled so I guess it worked out for the team after all in this case.
Perhaps the addition of these young frontcourt players will inspire Love to care again, spurring him forward. Perhaps he will see their promise and be more willing to adopt the leadership role he has seemed to shirk the last three seasons. Maybe their growth and potential will force him to fight for the minutes he is no longer assured. Or maybe the Cavaliers are already moving on, rebuilding in spite of his presence.
While Love is no longer good enough for a team to build around, or even be the best player on a team as mediocre as the Cavaliers are, he could still provide value to a playoff team. He was almost exclusively a spot-up shooter last year — over 60 percent of his shots were 3’s — but teams can almost find a spot for a stretch big who can shoot and rebound. There is also the possibility that, on a contender, he would be more energized and play better than he has the last three seasons.
The tricky part would be finding a team willing to take on his remaining salary. It’s likely that there will not be any suitors until next year when Love’s contract will be about to expire. It is not that he is useless in Cleveland, but for a team focused on the future, it’s difficult to find a place for someone who will never match what he has already accomplished.
I do not know what Kevin Love expected the state of the Cavaliers to be when he re-signed with them in the aftermath of LeBron’s westward move. Perhaps he was excited to be the undisputed star of a team again, as he was in Minnesota. Maybe he thought that the Cavaliers would be able to win immediately rather than undergoing a long rebuilding process. Or it’s possible he was just a man about to turn 30 who had missed over 20 games each of the last two seasons and felt like he was not in a position to turn down $120 million dollars. Regardless of the motivation, the last three years have not gone how either side would have hoped even if the outcome has been unsurprising to those of us looking in from the outside.
The Cavaliers have put together an intriguing team, one that Love feels separate from. He is no longer the player he was in 2014 or 2018, either symbolically or statistically. Yet due to his past success and the money owed him, he looms over the team even if he is not likely to be part of its future. It’s an awkward situation for the former star to find himself in, but it’s also a chance for him to restore his reputation after three lackluster seasons, potentially a prelude to a more impressive final act.