It’s fitting that Marc Stein of The New York Times reported that there is “fresh optimism” for a Kevin Love trade just 48 minutes after the new year began. (I, too, was deep in reporting business at midnight on New Year’s Eve.) New year, new Cavs: Love is the final star from the second LeBron James era in Cleveland. When the Cavs signed Love to a four-year, $120 million extension in 2018, it indicated lingering hope that the team could still be an influential force in the East. Seventeen months later, that contract is Cleveland’s biggest roadblock in the way of a much-needed fresh start.
Love is 31 years old, has missed 88 games over the past three seasons, and is lacking on perimeter defense, save for one glorious possession against Steph Curry in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals. (It’s an underrated moment on what has now become a criminally underrated game during an underrated Finals. Shame on you if this wasn’t your sports moment of the decade.) Love’s injury history and monetary burden has made teams hesitate since Adrian Wojnarowski’s initial report on December 6 that Cleveland was finally ready to let go.
That’s not to say Love would be a liability for other teams. This season, the former All-Star is averaging 16.6 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 2.9 assists; shooting 37 percent from 3; and performing well enough for a competitive team to take the risk ahead of the February 6 deadline. He can offer spacing, allow a team to go small, or match up well with a more traditional big.
Fresh optimism! This is the universal purpose of the new year, the gift from ancient mythology’s Janus, the god of doorways and new beginnings and NBA trades. Here are three teams that might bite on a deal for Love, for better or for worse.
The Nuggets spent the first two-thirds of the season with a solid defense and substandard offense, to the surprise of virtually everyone. But Denver always had the tools to be more of an offensive team than a defensive team, and over the past 10 games, they’ve been one of the worst defenses in the league and the best on the other end. Love wouldn’t help defensively, but he’d ensure that the scoring momentum sticks. Pairing Love with Nikola Jokic could create a frontcourt capable of mimicking a backcourt, and while the defense may permanently dissolve without Paul Millsap’s presence inside (he’s the most sensical swap), Denver ultimately needs scoring production to survive.
Millsap is on the last year of his contract and is owed $30 million, surpassing Love’s $28.9 million this season. Expiring contracts are irresistible to most rebuilding teams, but the Cavaliers aren’t a popular landing spot for big-name free agents, so there’s little upside to the cap space for them. Denver doesn’t have its 2020 first-round pick to add (it’s top-10 protected but likely headed to the Thunder thanks to a previous trade), nor any second-rounders until 2022. (Even in 2022, they have a mess of stipulations with other teams from past trades that could land them an unfavorable pick.) The Nuggets could throw out a first-rounder that’s well into the future, but considering the pause teams had earlier on trading for Love, doing so would be unlikely.
Despite the adoration I have devoted this season to Aron Baynes—the greatest 3-point shooter to ever live, the man Curry grew up watching and aspired to be one day but unfortunately will never surpass—I can admit the Suns could use more deep shooting. Dario Saric is hitting a very sporadic 33.1 percent from deep; Deandre Ayton, who is still not Luka Doncic but is back from his 25-game suspension, doesn’t have a 3-point shot in his arsenal. And while Cameron Johnson and Frank Kaminsky pitch in around Devin Booker and Kelly Oubre Jr., Love would add a new dimension to the offense. He would also provide a boost in veteran leadership—specifically as someone who’s won before, which the majority of the Suns know nothing about, even in the regular season. Though 13-21, the Suns are finally not bad, an opinion I stand by even after an eight-game losing streak that ended last week. Let’s ride.
Phoenix has many pieces that a team starting completely over would be interested in, including two Johnsons, Tyler and Cameron, and draft picks that they may be more willing to part with than the other teams on this list. The Suns are a team of the future, one that is finally beginning to materialize; the Nuggets are used to contention by now, and the Blazers may be waving their contender status goodbye sooner than they’d like. It’s different in Phoenix, where all they’ve known for years is the draft.
The Trail Blazers
In early December, after Woj’s report, The Ringer’s own Kevin O’Connor reported that Love wished to be sent to Portland, his hometown. Closing out a career in one’s hometown is a lovely sentiment, and it’s even better when the player can return while he’s still highly operable. Love would help the Blazers, who are an unexpectedly poor 14-21, and who need a frontcourt infusion after multiple injuries. (Melo’s return has helped generate scoring; he’s contributing an average 16.2 points and is shooting a career-high 40.3 percent from deep. But for Portland to have a chance, he needs to be a backup, not the focus.) Damian Lillard is 29; CJ McCollum is 28. The time is now.
The Blazers could make the salaries match to in a trade to acquire Love. This offseason, they took Hassan Whiteside’s maximum contract off of Miami’s hands; coincidentally, the Heat signed Whiteside’s regrettable deal in 2016, the same summer that later led to much Blazers contract remorse. Whiteside’s contract expires at the end of this season, and his $27.1 million cap hit is just shy of Love’s $28.9 million. Having to take on another large salary—and worse, give up any bit of a more affordable future with rookies—might give Portland cold feet.