The Cleveland Cavaliers just signed Kevin Love—their “new” franchise player—to a four-year, $120 million extension. It’s a monstrous contract that exists as a compromise, both exceeding what Love would likely make as a free agent next summer while also coming in about $20 million less than another team would be allowed to offer him.
If your initial reaction was surprise, that’s understandable. But don’t view this agreement as a symbolically stubborn stand for Cleveland to stay in the playoff hunt and avoid the lottery. Odds are strong that they’ll still succumb to an inevitable tank job. Extending Love should instead be seen as their first step to get there.
Love is a very good but divisive player who two years ago won a championship playing beside arguably the greatest player who ever lived. He was an All-Star last season and the one before it, a double-double machine with three-point range whose defensive weaknesses would not be a focal point every time his name came up in conversation had it not been for the Golden State Warriors and the way they spent four straight Finals torturing him on that side of the ball. Offensively, his game complements other stars, though, and he impacts winning without the ball in his hands.
Love also turns 30 in September, and various injuries forced him to miss 45 games since 2016. He has bad knees, a bad back, a history of concussions, and seems to fracture his finger once every few months. The contract is an obvious grand-slam for him, and allows Cleveland to get more in a trade than they would dealing Love on an expiring contract (or letting him walk for nothing).
Similar to Blake Griffin’s situation with the Los Angeles Clippers, a blockbuster transaction feels more “when” than “if.” Every team with max cap space won’t fill it with an All-Star free agent this summer; assuming Love is healthy and productive, those that swing and miss will give Cleveland a call when he's eligible to be dealt in six months. Here are a few possible candidates.
The Sixers had a bad offseason. They failed to sign LeBron James or Paul George, watched Kawhi Leonard get traded to an Eastern Conference rival, and were forced to preserve their cap space for next summer, when most of the league will be able to afford the most glittery free agents.
Let’s assume they renounce their free agents and strike out again, unable to lure Leonard, Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, or any other marquee headliner to Philly. That would be a disaster; it's their last chance to fill cap space with a substantial piece before Ben Simmons and Dario Saric enter their second contract. But if they're feeling desperate and don't have a ton of confidence in Markelle Fultz or Zhaire Smith evolving into dependable contributors, the Sixers should be able to fit Love’s deal into their space.
The two most important questions they need to ask themselves before parting ways with any assets are: 1) Does Love complement our two best players? and 2) Can Love make us an immediate championship contender? The answer to number one is an emphatic "yes," with Joel Embiid helping Love out on the defensive end while they space for each other on post-ups when Philadelphia has the ball. For the next two years, at least, Philadelphia would be able to stagger three stars in their rotation and still deploy humongous and versatile lineups at all times.
The second answer is harder to know, especially as Love starts to decline. If that contract turns into an anvil, the Sixers will be overly reliant on Simmons and Embiid’s continual and dramatic improvement from year to year, which may not be enough. It’s not an obvious decision either way, but with no other opportunity presenting itself as their window closes faster than most people realize, it’s a trade they should pull the trigger on, so long as Cleveland doesn’t ask for Simmons, Embiid, or Fultz (pending how he looks in his sophomore year).
This would be an old-school Knicks move (not a compliment) for a variety of reasons, and one already telegraphed if they don’t land any free agents next summer. Kristaps Porzingis’s next contract should be the franchise’s priority, and assuming they offer him a max extension it stands to wonder how patient New York will be with its youth movement as a supporting cast. Do the Knicks attach one of Frank Ntilikina or Kevin Knox to either Joakim Noah or Courtney Lee’s contract? A sane organization mulls it over for a few seconds before saying "no." But we don’t yet know if the Knicks have elevated into that category.
(For the record, Porzingis and Love would be an awesome frontcourt and if they can trade for a third star, New York could be onto something pretty interesting.)
It’s all about patience with this organization. Is their plan to tread water, stay marginally competitive, and enter the summer of 2020 as a shark (assuming they don’t re-sign Goran Dragic, and Justise Winslow’s next contract isn’t unreasonable)? Or are they willing to attach someone like Winslow to one of their larger, shorter contracts and land Love? The former feels like a good bet, but Pat Riley is 73 years old, and the sooner any non-Boston/Philadelphia team can strike in the LeBron-less Eastern Conference the better. The Heat should always be considered in this type of conversation.
This is the most intriguing candidate for a mid-season trade. Let’s say the Raptors are playing well and Kawhi is having fun, but they still feel a tier below the Boston Celtics, let alone whichever team comes out of the Western Conference. Will Masai Ujiri double-down to show his new franchise player how committed he is to winning with an all-in play that packages a couple young pieces for Love?
A deal that lets Cleveland tank in 2019, escape Love’s contract, then add someone like Pascal Siakam to their rebuild should be a thumbs up. The Raptors are risking quite a bit, but even as a worst-case scenario Love represents some form of insurance should Leonard leave (it's not much, but he’d at least keep the organization relevant and competitive). In the meantime, they’d probably be viewed as a favorite to emerge from the East, with slightly more than a puncher’s chance in the Finals. Ujiri doesn’t make that trade unless he’s feeling desperate, though. And right now he has no reason to feel desperate. We'll see if that changes before the trade deadline.
If Cleveland can’t get anything better than expiring contracts attached to either a future first-round pick, Kelly Oubre, or Troy Brown, then sure. The Wizards won’t think twice about digging themselves out of a hole with even more long-term money. This is what they are. Love on that team would simultaneously be hilarious, awesome, and depressing.
Several other teams are fun to think about, particularly bad ones that might view Love as legitimate way to expedite their rebuild—Someone with Phoenix should restrain Robert Sarver if Cleveland calls; throw Orlando into this discussion, as well—but most aren’t very realistic. Playoff teams with expensive long-term payrolls and little flexibility—like Oklahoma City, Houston, New Orleans, Portland, and Minnesota (Love for Wiggins would be so awesome)—will fish around. So will mediocre/decent teams that also lack flexibility but already have one All-Star and want another (Milwaukee, Indiana, or Charlotte).
Who knows, maybe Cleveland actually thinks it can build around Love, Collin Sexton, and a roster that just went to the NBA Finals (stop laughing). Maybe Love spends this entire contract in Ohio and helps the Cavs tread water... whatever that means. It's a possibility that can’t be ignored. But a trade makes better sense for everyone involved: Love gets to enter a more competitive situation, the Cavs get to kickstart their rebuild with future assets, and whoever trades for him gets a damn good player for at least a couple seasons. Expect it to happen, sooner or later.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.