Two years ago, nearly to the day, the Cleveland Cavaliers hoisted the 2016 NBA Championship banner in Quicken Loans Arena. It was the first title in franchise history, and the first title for The Land in 52 years, and everyone felt great.
Fast forward merely two years, and you have quite a different picture being painted. After an 0-6 start, the Cavs fired Tyronn Lue on the heels of a home loss to the Indiana Pacers, and players are upset about it. Vets aren’t playing, Kevin Love is hurt, and rookie Collin Sexton is struggling to find his way in the NBA, fighting through a bad shooting start, some troubles with turnovers, and, inexplicably, long stretches where he refuses to be assertive and is often ignored by teammates in the half-court.
There are basically two schools of thought in terms of how a team like this, in this situation, should proceed with the season and future of their franchise. First, you can fight through it. You can try to mount a winning streak, find something that works, hope that new interim head coach Larry Drew (who’s title situation is reportedly ongoing, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski) can ignite a spark, and see what you’ve got with your roster mostly in tact. The other end of the spectrum is, of course, a full out tank. Basically, how bad can a team possibly be in order to pick as high as they can in the NBA Draft in June. Sure enough, both sides have positives and negatives, and the proponents of each are absolutely going to make themselves heard from now until the trading deadline in February.
If you’re here for a “Cavs should tank” type of fan, you won’t get it. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons that the Cavaliers should, unequivocally, keep Kevin Love.
Love’s extended absence
Kevin Love reportedly (per Wojnarowski) missing a month or more of games does a couple of things. It absolutely makes winning harder than it was with him there, and they were bad with him playing. It also allows the Cavs to retain him as a player, under team control, while still losing a bunch of games in the process. If the argument to trading Love is that the Cavs might win too many games with him, that went out the door after the 0-4 start with him, two more subsequent losses, and now possibly a month or more without him. Simply put, not having your best player, and your reason for most wins going forward, is going to result in a bundle of losses. Bundles of losses are the point of tanking.
The new lottery rules
Under the old lottery rules, the odds of hitting it big on lottery night were greatly slanted to the team with the worst record, providing them a 25 percent chance to pick first overall. The team finishing one spot above them had a 19.9 percent chance, and the team with the third-worst record owned a 15.6 percent chance to land the number one overall pick and a chance to start their franchise over again.
Under the new, and current, lottery rules, the three teams with the worst record share an equal 14 percent chance to strike gold. The following teams come in at 12.5 percent and 10.5 percent. Simply put, the Cavs finishing dead last in the NBA, or finishing fifth from the basement carries a slim 3.5 percent drop-off in terms of their chances to pick first overall. In any sort of reasonable NBA reality, that margin is not enough to move a player like Love, especially when we’ve already seen that the team is fully capable of throwing up duds, missing shots, and getting run out of the building with him playing minutes. Why, you might ask, if they’re so bad with him, not just move him? Great question.
Sacrificing a number of years
Let’s say the Cavs move Love in a package for a young guy, an expiring deal on an overpaid vet, and a couple picks. Tremendous. However, all that they’ve done at that point is assure themselves that guys like George Hill, Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith, and Tristan Thompson also have to be moved due to bloated contracts. In turn, then, all they’ve done is put themselves in position to keep throwing young guys and fringe NBA guys on the floor for the foreseeable future with no veteran presence, no chance to really improve, and no chance to truly be evaluated by decision-makers.
Simply put, going into 2019-2020, if I were running an NBA team, I’d rather have Sexton in year two, an improving Cedi Osman, another top five pick, and Kevin Love than all of those things, but instead of Love, you have someone you drafted in the bottom of round one, a G-Leaguer, or more question marks.
That sort of dynamic lends itself to trying to figure out who’s a good player, who looks like a good player because they have good stats on a bad team, and taking on bad deals as a third team in trades for other teams to get better. This seems like a muddled approach to winning. The Philadelphia 76ers, for all of their disaster seasons, figured this out. They eschewed the veteran player in favor of cap space and picks, tanked out trying to win the lottery, only to win it once, and, up until last season, were abysmal in every sense.
The difference maker for Philly was not only internal player development, but also the addition of veteran players to provide a presence. Current 76ers general manager Elton Brand was one of the first acquisitions made by Jerry Colangelo after Sam Hinkie was jettisoned. J.J. Redick was an addition that, not only provided a lot of shooting, defense, and scoring, also brought with him professionalism. Teams don’t get better without those things, no matter how talented and youthful they are, or how much cap space they have. Speaking of cap space, Philly struck out on every major potential acquisition last summer, sacrificing some depth in the process. Cap space is not a guarantee that you’ll get better. Important, yes, but still just money unspent.
For other examples of this, see the LA Clippers teams that boasted Darius Miles, Corey Maggette, Quentin Richardson, Lamar Odom, Keyon Dooling, and not a whole lot in terms of veterans that had experience winning. The Cavs also figured this out in LeBron James‘ second NBA season, dealing Miles and pieces for veterans like Tony Battie and Erik Williams. Only then were they truly a playoff worthy team that youngsters could thrive as a part of. It boils down to culture.
Loves’s contract is reasonable
The way that Love and the Cavs structured the deal was perfect for both. Love secures the bag and a big pay day for five seasons. The Cavs have a 6-foot-10 player that’s a volume rebounder, outstanding scorer (though inefficient right now), and a high level passer. It isn’t the $40 million/year contract that some stars have gotten, and that makes it much more movable, with it not hitting the $30 million mark until the 2020-21 season. Guys with Love’s statistical ouput, skill set, and pedigree making less than $35 million a season don’t grow on trees. If things continue to go awry, he can be moved then. There’s no need to jump the gun and do it now, though.
Combine that with the Cavs’ books looking clean going forward after Smith, George Hill, and other dead weight fall off, and you’ve got a franchise with two lottery picks, a proven star with championship experience, a ton of cap space to take on contracts via trade (let’s be real, nobody is signing a huge deal with Cleveland as a free agent) and a suddenly very clear path to relevance after a season or two. That sounds like a better alternative than continuing to bank on ping pong balls and 19 year-olds for the rest of time.
A weak Eastern Conference
Let’s say the Cavs keep Love, add another lotto pick, trim some fat, and hit on a couple guys. It isn’t like they’re playing the Golden State Warriors, the Houston Rockets, or any other juggernaut out west every night. Again, the path is clearer to relevance by being competitive quickly, and there’s no better GPS to finding that path than to have Kevin Love in the fold until you absolutely cannot.
What, exactly, is his value? As I said, guys like Love don’t come along super frequently. However, he is often injured, saw his numbers drop as a result of the roster composition in Cleveland for four years, and is heading towards being 30 years old. Selling on Love now would represent selling at a low point. It isn’t exactly difficult stuff to realize that you never sell low. We’ve already seen superstars like Kyrie Irving, Paul George, and Jimmy Butler be traded for far less than their perceived value. Even though those deals seemed to work out for the most part, the perception was a clear loss at the time for the team trading the stud. If anyone thinks the Cavs’ return on Love is going to be anywhere near what those deals were right now, given what I’ve mentioned above, a reality check seems like the next logical course of action.
Kevin Love showed his loyalty by re-upping with the Cleveland Cavaliers instead of riding out the deal and taking advantage of cap hikes in the near future. Sure, he wanted the security of that contract. Sure, that’s a ton of money anyhow. But, if you’re the Cavs, can you really afford, at this point, to be known to players, executives, and agents as the team that baited and switched an All-Star, champion, and potential Hall of Fame guy that was loyal to you?
Trading Love months after an extension – one he signed based on the promise that the team wouldn’t intentionally bottom out – is bad practice. Perception and reputation are everything for NBA front offices. After the last two seasons of turmoil, owner Dan Gilbert, GM Koby Altman, and crew can ill afford to look worse than they have.
In today’s NBA, as it has been for decades, sometimes, the quickest path to being great later is to be awful now. Sacrificing Love, at this point in the adventure, seems like a third, and terrible option: Being bad now in order to continue being bad later.