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CLEVELAND — The metaphors were apt. Surrounded by construction equipment and an army of individuals in hard hats, Kevin Love stood in front of a makeshift Cavaliers banner where he signed a four-year, $120 million contract that will keep him in Cleveland through the 2022-23 season.
“When I first came to Cleveland, I came with a long-term mindset,” said Love in a press release. “I came here to win. We developed a culture here that reflects that. I’m super excited and I couldn’t be happier. It’s a big commitment for me and it’s a big commitment from the Cavaliers. … I enjoy playing here, I’m excited about the team that we have and look forward to our future together.”
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Surrounded by the dust and rubble of an arena undergoing a transformation, Love stood in his freshly pressed suit. The wine-colored seats—at least those still remaining—are covered by giant beige tarps. The destruction outside of the arena looks like the “after” image of a movie set fit for the Fast and Furious series.
While not a total rebuild of Quicken Loans Arena, the team is using this summer to turn the venue from its former self into one more fit for the NBA in 2018 and beyond. In signing the 29-year-old Love to a multiyear deal, not only does it signal that the Cavs have their face of the franchise for the foreseeable future, but any stop along the way will not include an extended stay in the NBA lottery as it did during the first time LeBron James left town.
How Did They Get Here?
When LeBron James’ declaration to join the Los Angeles Lakers was made, the reactions ran rampant. With an idea that speculation could eventually become reality, the Cavaliers were prepared for the news that shook the rest of the NBA.
In a highly detailed story from ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne, Cavs general manager Koby Altman made a handful of phone calls to various members of his front office, coaching staff and team. One of the phone calls that was not mentioned, however, was the hour-long conversation he had with Love that Sunday afternoon, the product of a lengthy exit interview following a tumultuous 2017-18 season that saw things end with a four-game sweep at the hands of the Golden State Warriors.
“When LeBron decided to leave, I called Kevin first,” Altman said. “I said ‘Kevin, I’m not trading you. I want you to be here and be a part of this thing.’ And he was all in then, too. He’s never wavered in his commitment. To me, that’s really meaningful. He wants to be a leader and he’s earned that. He’s an elite player, an elite rebounder who can hit threes at a 40 percent clip. We can play through him through the post. We can play through him through the elbows. I don’t know how you get better by moving that. When he was willing to commit to us, it was an easy decision to make.”
As Love recently took part in a shoot for Banana Republic, his phone was vibrating throughout with his agent in talks with the Cavaliers to make the power forward the face of the franchise. All of the Love trade talk was, in the end, nothing more than media driven as both parties wanted to move forward with added security and certainty surrounding the culture of the team.
When Love arrived at Quicken Loans Arena on Tuesday morning, he assumed he would just be signing a contract in private and both parties would be on their way. What he arrived to was a host of construction workers turning his home arena into a state-of-the-art facility in which he will get to lead the team into the future.
“Not only did we keep the contract quiet—I didn’t know what I was walking into,” said Love. “It was a full surprise. I thought I was going to meet with Koby in his office, sign the papers, take a photo and that was it. But this was really, really special.”
Rebuild or Reload?
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For as much of a known commodity as Kevin Love is—a sharpshooting stretch forward with elite rebounding skills and some of the best outlet passes viral highlights have ever seen—his role in Cleveland will be much different than when he was simply spacing the floor for James and Kyrie Irving.
Over the past four seasons, Love averaged 17.1 points and 10.0 rebounds per game, a significant drop from his production while in Minnesota but production in line with a reduced level of usage (23.9 USG%). Compare this to Love’s final year in Minnesota when he averaged 26.1 points and 12.5 rebounds, turning 28.8 percent usage into high-volume stat production.
According to B/R’s Tom Haberstroh, in 19 games without LeBron James, Love averaged 18.9 points and 11.0 rebounds per game but did so with a host of players meant to play alongside James. This season and beyond, Love will be the focal point of the team’s offense, but as he told Bleacher Report, he also endeavors to be a medium for the coaching staff to reach his younger, lesser experienced teammates.
“Hopefully I can find a way to be a step removed, or an extension of the coaching staff, Love told B/R. “Just be a lot more vocal, because that’s what’s going to be expected. There are going to be a lot of long dinners, long nights, long talks with Ty [Lue] about what he’s going to want moving forward, but I’m excited to connect with him and go from there.”
What this production provides, however, is the wild card. As a member of the Timberwolves, Love was a three-time All-Star but never led the team to the postseason. This chapter in Love’s career will provide him with a much different landscape than the one he faced in the Western Conference, as the lower-tier teams in the NBA tend to reside in the East.
With the Cavaliers’ path back to the playoffs littered with the Orlandos, New Yorks and Detroits of the world, a frontcourt of Love and Larry Nance Jr., coupled with their aggressive, new point guard in Collin Sexton, potentially paves the way for the new-look Quicken Loans Arena to house at least one round of playoff basketball.
Once multiple highly compensated veterans come off the team’s payroll in the next 12 months, the dust will begin to settle and the path to perpetual contention will look much clearer.
Show him the money?
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As it stands, Kevin Love will make a lot of money over the next four seasons. But as with any contract, the devil lies in the details.
Out of the team’s three-man core that won an NBA championship in 2015-16, Love was the player most linked to trade rumors midseason and during the summer. Thought to be the first Cavalier to eventually head to the Lakers, Love is ironically the last one remaining. For his efforts (and for some of his skill), Love received a $120 million extension.
Set to be a free agent after next offseason, Love could have signed a five-year, $221 million deal to stay in Cleveland. Instead, he signed a four-year deal that will not only pay him roughly $8 million less than a four-year maximum contract would, but he agreed to a deal that pays him less in Year 4 than in Year 3 and does not include the ever-popular player option in the last year of the deal, according to Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon.
Rare is it that All-Star players take less than the maximum compensation allowed, but according to both Love and Altman, the deal inked on Tuesday was done with the future in mind.
“For flexibility purposes,” Love said about his new deal. “Signing that level of extension was more than I could ever dream of. For us to be better as a team and add pieces to help us, whether a veteran or a guy coming off his first contract, it’ll be interesting to see where it goes.”
“It’s rare that an All-Star of his caliber takes less to stay,” said Altman. “It speaks to him as a human being and him wanting to be a winner. It’s now about building around him and adding pieces in the future. He gave us flexibility and we hope to reward him with the team in the future.”
An important variable here is that while Love is locked up beyond what would have been a potential walk year, the numbers do not do anything to crater the team’s flexibility going forward in the event things don’t pan out as hoped in 2018-19. Attractive buyout options for both George Hill and JR Smith are set to free up nearly $35 million. Kyle Korver, who is under contract through 2019-20, could be waived (according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks), providing the Cavaliers with even more flexibility to add cost-controlled talent beyond the Love-Nance-Sexton trio.
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With LeBron James in tow, the Cavaliers played under an epic microscope with all decisions—both on and off the court—analyzed daily. The front office was under pressure to win a title. The coaching staff was under pressure to find the right rotations to win in the modern, fast-paced NBA. And the players were expected to execute at high levels regardless of competition or schedule.
In 2018-19, the Cavaliers come with much less in the way of expectations. When the likely scenarios waver between blowing up the roster and trying to compete, flawless execution would be more of a surprise than anything. Success will be a function of effort and enjoyment much more so this season than any of the four years that preceded it.
“We’ve always had a culture here that has been very hard-working,” Love said. “You see what’s going on at the Q, we’re going to be at the forefront of a lot of new things. I think we’re going to see a lot of guys really having fun and being themselves, having fun and playing hard-nosed basketball. Guys getting the best out of each other and the best of themselves.”
Not discussed much in all of the fanfare and selfies surrounding Love’s new contract was that one of the individuals in attendance for Tuesday’s contract signing was Larry Nance Jr. Rare is it that the Cavaliers do anything by accident—there’s a reason Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ jersey retirement took place on a night when LeBron James could attend.
While Nance was not involved in the ceremonies, having him look on as his father’s jersey hung from the rafters above the crowd was as much a tug on heartstrings as it was a sign of things to come.
When Koby Altman pulled the trigger on a series of trades that sent six of his players to third parties, their targeted acquisition—the one that was worth a future first-round draft pick—was Nance. And according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, an extension for Nance is next on the team’s priority list, providing even more in the way of cost control.
While smart money in today’s compete-or-collapse NBA would have recommended the Cavaliers blow up their roster—including the trading of Love instead of extending—the team has preached competition from the moments James’ Lakers-based announcement hit the wire. Many teams can preach one thing and practice another, but Altman and the Cavs are putting their money where their mouth is.
“I was looking at the photo of me taking the selfie,” Love told Bleacher Report of Tuesday’s event. “It’s not a rebuild because we have talent and championship-caliber guys. But guys putting on their hard hats and coming to work every day, that has to be the identity of our team. I think we have guys cut from that cloth who are going to be willing to go out there and prove themselves. A lot of teams preach that, but we have a lot of guys with that certain quality.”