Does Kevin Love have more trade value on his new deal?

July 24, 2018, 12:56 PM

What does a new four-year contract extension mean for Kevin Love and the Cleveland Cavaliers?

Love, who could have become an unrestricted free agent next summer had he declined a $25.6 million player option, instead replaced that option with an extension that will start at $28.9 million for 2019-20 and add an additional three years for $95 million in new money total.

The timing of the extension is surprising as Cleveland determines what direction to take after LeBron James' departure for the Los Angeles Lakers. So how will a newly extended Love fit in?

Cavaliers' roster in flux

Losing LeBron has left a gaping hole in a roster built around his unique skills, meaning Love's role will change dramatically next season. That starts with position.

Love played nearly 80 percent of his minutes during the 2017-18 regular season at center, according to analysis of lineup data from NBA Advanced Stats. With Cleveland's roster now flush with 5s ( Channing Frye, Larry Nance, Tristan Thompson and Ante Zizic), Love will probably return to his natural power forward position -- a spot where the Cavaliers don't really have any alternative options right now, having lost both James and veteran backup Jeff Green.

More change is surely in store for the Cleveland roster. While the Cavaliers now have nine players under contract for the 2019-20 season, three of them -- starting guards George Hill and  JR Smith and sixth man Kyle Korver -- have only part of their salaries guaranteed. By waiving all three players, Cleveland could go from the league's highest payroll during the LeBron era to nearly $20 million-plus in cap space in the summer of 2019, even with Love's new contract on the books.

Realistically, the Cavaliers aren't going to be players in free agency during a summer where most big-market teams will be able to sign at least one and in some cases two max free agents. After all, Cleveland can't offer free agents the expectation of contending given the likelihood this year's makeshift roster ends up back in the lottery.

Instead, the Cavaliers are more likely to make trades, sending out the veteran role players assembled to complement James to teams in greater need of their skills. And that raises the question of whether Love will be more tradeable when he's eligible to be moved -- six months after signing this extension -- than he was as a potential 2019 free agent.

Will Love be worth his extension?

Though Love's new deal pays him far less than his maximum contract next summer -- up to an estimated $170 million over four years had he re-signed in Cleveland as a free agent, or $164 million if he signed with another team -- it's still a lot of money for a player who will turn 30 in September, meaning the extension takes him through his age-34 season.

On the plus side, Love's game has always been built more on skill than athleticism, and skill tends to age better. Love's ability to space the floor as a big man will allow him to easily shift to a lower-usage role while remaining valuable offensively. A mid-30s version of Love could look a lot like the late-30s Dirk Nowitzki we've seen the last few seasons with the Dallas Mavericks.

At the same time, further loss of foot speed could be an issue for Love at the defensive end of the court -- as with Nowitzki. His discomfort chasing around smaller, quicker power forwards was already a factor in the Cavaliers shifting Love to center last season, and he seems nearly certain to end up defending 5s as he moves into his 30s. That's problematic because Love is too short and too ground-bound to be much of a deterrent at the rim.

Opponents made 66.0 percent of their shots within 5 feet with Love as the primary defender last season, per SportVU tracking on NBA Advanced Stats, fourth-worst among players who faced at least 250 such attempts. Two of the players behind Love were wings ( Paul George and Andrew Wiggins), leaving Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets as the only true big man who was a less effective high-volume rim protector.

Cleveland's defense, bad enough no matter who was in the middle, allowed 4.0 more points per 100 possessions when Love shifted from power forward to center -- going from a defensive rating that would have ranked 21st in the NBA to the league's very worst defense on a per-possession basis.

Given those defensive limitations, Love will have to remain an elite offensive player to be worth $30 million a year over the life of his extension. We'll have a better idea how likely that is next season.

Will Love thrive in featured role?

Back in his Minnesota Timberwolves days, Love was the kind of offensive force who would be worth max money despite defensive flaws (which have been somewhat overstated when he plays power forward). Love never reached those heights alongside LeBron, playing a lead role only for brief stretches before shifting back to spotting up on the weak side.

With James in L.A., the Cavaliers' offense now runs through Love, and it will be fascinating to see whether he can comfortably ramp his usage back up to the 29 percent of Minnesota's plays he finished with a shot attempt, trip to the free-throw line or turnover during his last three seasons with the Timberwolves. (Love's usage rate has topped out at 26 percent with the Cavaliers in 2016-17, and actually dropped again last season despite Kyrie Irving's departure.)

That was the role Love filled last season in the limited minutes he played when James was on the bench, pushing his usage rate to 30 percent without almost any drop-off in his efficiency whatsoever,  according to data from NBA Advanced Stats. Love attempted 27 free throws in the 123 minutes he played without LeBron, a rate of 7.9 per 36 minutes -- similar to what he posted in Minnesota and far higher than his overall free-throw rate in Cleveland (which peaked at 5.8 per 36 minutes last season).

Tyronn Lue can now build the Cavaliers' offense around Love's skills, putting in sets that provide him the opportunity to make plays from the elbow as he did under Rick Adelman with the Timberwolves. According to NBA Advanced Stats tracking, Love averaged 8.0 touches at the elbow per game his final season in Minnesota, which ranked sixth in the league. While in Cleveland, he's never averaged more than 2.1 elbow touches per game.

The best-case scenario for the Cavaliers with this extension is Love again making the All-Star team by averaging 20-10 next season with a high assist rate and solid efficiency. My SCHOENE projection system forecasts Love averaging 19.7 points and 11.2 rebounds, but it redistributes the usage lost with James' departure equally among all Cleveland players. In reality, Love will likely take on a larger share than role players like Hill, Korver, Smith and Thompson, so that's a realistic possibility and maybe even a likely one.

In that case, with more teams looking to spend in 2019 free agency than All-Stars to go around, dealing for Love might look like an appealing option for a team left out when the music stops. That way, the Cavaliers would get value for Love in the form of draft picks or young players and he would be able to get to a contending team.

There's a downside for Cleveland, however. If Love struggles with the increased role or deals with another major injury -- having missed a combined 45 games the last two seasons, including undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery in February 2017 -- the Cavaliers could find themselves stuck paying All-Star money to a player who's no longer worth it as he ages.