If Cleveland was the biggest loser of LeBron James’s free agency, then Kevin Love wasn’t far behind. Or so it seemed for the 29-year-old. The Cavaliers appeared headed for a rebuild after four straight NBA Finals appearances. So a new contract for Love, who had served as LeBron’s sidekick since leaving Minnesota, certainly wouldn’t be as fat as his career had once projected. But all that proved to be wrong Tuesday: Love signed a four-year, $120 million contract extension with the Cavs, the team announced. The deal is $8 million less than the maximum and will decrease in its final year, according to ESPN. Including the final year of his current contract, that’s five years and $145 million.
A couple of thoughts come to mind when considering that Love will rake in $30 million annually. First, why? Owner Dan Gilbert and GM Koby Altman appear intent on keeping Cleveland in the playoffs in the wake of James’s departure. Locking down the franchise’s best remaining player will help those aspirations, sure, but the remaining roster is nowhere near capable of going deep in the playoffs, if they make it at all.
Signing Love to maximize the current window parallels Houston’s decision earlier this month to keep Chris Paul. He inked a four-year, $160 million max contract with the Rockets to keep the core of their Western Conference finals roster intact, but it’s a long-term investment for what could lead to only short-term results: Houston will be paying a 36-year-old Paul $44 million in 2021-22. It’s GM Daryl Morey doubling down on “win now.” The Rockets were one CP3 injury away from having a real shot at the Warriors. Re-signing him will ensure Houston has another chance to knock them off.
Without LeBron’s gravitational pull, Cleveland is not the free-agency destination that Houston is; the Cavs front office’s decision basically boils down to either keeping Love or building through the draft. But there’s also much less at stake. Even if the Cavs can salvage a playoff appearance, what would be the point? Rookie Collin Sexton is 19, and other young Cavs like restricted free agent Rodney Hood and Larry Nance Jr. have yet to make the jump. (Nance is reportedly next on the Cavs’ extension priority list.) There is a young core in place, but the rest of the roster is made up of leftover veterans from LeBron’s former “win-now” teams. Sixth man Kyle Korver is reportedly on the market, but J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson, and George Hill are all under contract through the 2019-20 season. (Though Korver, Smith, and Hill carry guarantees of only $3.4 million, $3.9 million, and $1 million in their final year.) By re-signing Love, Cleveland is making the push with a team that couldn’t make do with LeBron.
The return of Minnesota Kevin Love—the good-stats, bad-team guy—is almost inevitable. But Love returning to form won’t necessarily help Cleveland’s mission. Only stars with chameleon capabilities can thrive next to LeBron (Chris Bosh’s transformation to stretch 4 is perhaps the best example). Love sacrificed shots and dedicated a higher percentage of his shot attempts to 3s. His raw numbers may have dipped wearing wine and gold, but Love showed whenever it was asked of him that he maintained the ability to rebound, make it to the line, or post up. Becoming the no. 1 option again should lead to more of that. In 2013-14 with the Timberwolves, Love averaged 26.1 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 4.4 assists.
Still, building a team around a player who has spent a large chunk of his prime in a reduced role makes its overall identity unclear. With the roster as is, an already terrible defense may be even worse when Love takes on a heavier load offensively. All that was true last season, including the Cavs’ success with Love at the 5, was based on playing around LeBron. The Love extension is the first big step in moving on from the LeBron era, but committing long-term to his former sidekick may make the process of reaching those heights again last even longer.