All has been quiet on the Kevin Love front for several weeks now.
Since the soon-to-be 33-year-old Love left Team USA ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, he has not spoken publicly. It’s also been a month since USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo put Love on blast, saying that Love wasn’t in shape.
Now, there’s about a month until NBA training camps open and about two months until the season starts. For Love and the Cavaliers, that means there’s still a question of what his future looks like. As a reminder, Love still has two years left on his contract extension that he signed in 2018. He is still Cleveland’s highest paid player and the last player on the team left from the 2016 title winning team.
Love is also in a complicated position on the roster. The team recently drafted Evan Mobley and Mobley is expected to play significant minutes at power forward as he begins his career. Longterm, he may end up being best as a center once he adds muscle and adjusts to the NBA’s physicality. But right now, he’s a lean 215 pounds and has talked openly since being drafted about needing to add muscle.
On Friday, the Cavs also reportedly acquired Lauri Markkanen in a three-team deal that sent Larry Nance Jr. to the Trail Blazers. In the deal, Cleveland inked Markkanen to a four-year, $67 million contract that, per multiple league sources, has only $6 million guaranteed in the last season.
Markkanen is eight years younger than Love. They share the same best skill — three-point shooting, something Cleveland desperately needs — and struggle on defense. It’s hard to imagine them being able to successfully play together for a significant amount of minutes. Throw in Dean Wade — who had a solid season last year as a three-point shooting backup four, but whose salary isn’t guaranteed for next season yet — and there’s a lot of overlap in the Cavs’ frontcourt if Love is on the team.
In a vacuum, Love is probably still better than Markkanen. He’s a better passer in the half court and off of live rebounds to kickstart fastbreaks. Love is also a much better rebounder, ranking in the 91st percentile last year vs. the 47th percentile for Markkanen, per Cleaning The Glass. Love, in fact, has never not ranked in the top 10% of rebounds (at least in terms of raw numbers) per his position.
What Markkanen has over Love is youth and upside. He’s had a rough few years in Chicago, first under Jim Boylen and then under Billy Donovan as he also dealt with injuries. (Love, of course, has also been unable to stay healthy since he signed his extension. It’s entirely unclear right now what his health looks like now two months into the season.) The bet the Cavs are making with him is that they can help Markkanen improve in a new environment as he heads into what should be his prime years. Love, by comparison, is entirely on the downside of his career.
So what does Love’s future in Cleveland look like exactly? If he stays on the roster at least to start the year, it would make sense that he takes on a smaller role and come off the bench. Compare it to the Blake Griffin situation last season in Detroit. There, Griffin played in 20 games, starting all of them, and averaging 31.3 minutes per game. With Mobley, Markkanen and Jarrett Allen, there may not (and probably should not) be that many minutes available to Love. Is he ok with that?
A buyout, one would think, would make sense for everyone. (A trade seems impossible at this point considering Love’s contract and injury issues.) But can the sides meeting somewhere towards the middle? When Griffin was bought out, he gave back $13.3 million of the $75 million he had left on his deal — just a titch under 18% of his deal. Love has $60.2 million left on his deal over two years. If he were to give back 18%, that would mean sacrificing $10.8 million.
Maybe he’d be willing to give up $15 million or so in order to get to Brooklyn or Los Angeles or Portland or wherever he wants to go. But he has no real obligation to do so — the Cavs signed him to this deal and he’s owed every penny. Right now, sources indicate that the two sides have discussed a buyout, but that nothing is imminent. If this happens, it may extend into the season a la Griffin.
So what happens next? It’s unclear. It may not be clear until the next time Love speaks.