Kevin Love, even injured, still holds all the leverage over Cavaliers

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Kevin Love will miss the rest of the playoffs, and the high end of his recovery timeline could keep him out through the start of next season.

Does this put a dent on his possible pending free agency?

Nope – at least not as far as the Cavaliers are concerned.

Just as before Kelly Olynyk yanked out his shoulder, Love should still exercise his player option. He’s safe, because Cleveland has nowhere else to turn.

By opting out, Love stands to gain money, protection and flexibility.

He’s slated to earn $16,744,218 next season, but his max salary for next season projects to be $19,027,800. That’s true whether he re-signs or signs elsewhere, signs for one year or five. His max starting salary does not change.

So, even if Love believes having one season remaining on his contract with Cleveland – the scenario if he doesn’t opt out – is ideal, he could give himself a $2,283,582 raise by opting out and then re-signing on a new one-year deal.

Of course, if he’s going to do that, he might as well add a second season with a player option. That’d give him a little protection if, for whatever reason, he’s not primed for free agency in 2016 when the new national TV contracts kick in.

And if Love goes that route, he might as well listen to other offers while a free agent. Maybe he likes Cleveland, but what would it hurt to hear out other teams?

At that point, Love could decide between several options, including (based on the latest salary-cap projections):

  • Signing a five-year contract with the Cavaliers worth about $109.4 million
  • Signing a two-year contract with a player option with the Cavaliers worth about $39.5 million
  • Signing a four-year contract elsewhere worth about $81.2 million
  • Signing a two-year contract with a player option elsewhere worth about $38.9 million

If he takes the short-term deal and opts out in 2016, he could get:

  • About $145.1 million over five years by re-signing with the Cavaliers
  • About $107.8 million over four years by signing elsewhere

So, it’s clear why Love should opt out if he can generate a max offer. But can he still get the max considering his injury?

Yes – at minimum, surely from Cleveland. The Cavaliers would have nowhere else to turn in free agency if they lost Love.

Let’s make some assumptions (using data from Basketball Insiders):

  • The salary cap comes in at the projected $67.1 million.
  • Love opts out and signs elsewhere.
  • LeBron James opts out to re-sign a new two-year contract with a player option.
  • J.R. Smith opts in for $6,399,750.
  • Mike Miller opts in for $2,854,940.
  • Tristan Thompson re-signs at a starting salary at or above his free-agent amount ($12,846,075), so the Cavaliers hold off making it official until other business is done.
  • The Cavaliers exercise Timofey Mozgov’s $4,.95 million team option.
  • The Cavaliers waive Brenan Haywood’s fully unguaranteed contract.
  • The Cavaliers renounce free agents James Jones, Shawn Marion and Kendrick Perkins.
  • The Cavaliers don’t extend Iman Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova qualifying offers and instead renounce them.

Only the last bullet goes against my predictions, but I’m trying to give Cleveland as much flexibility as reasonably possible.

Under that scenario, the Cavaliers would be $11,133,657 over the cap. So, they’d have only the $5,464,000 non-taxpayer mid-level exception to replace Love if they lost him. And that’s being optimistic. Depending how everything shakes out, they very well could have just the $3,376,000 taxpayer MLE.

Either way, that’s not nearly enough to secure a strong replacement for Love.

Cleveland could try moving other salary or trading for a new power forward rather than signing one, but that’s just going to expend assets and/or create new holes while likely leading to a power forward still considerably worse than Love.

So, the Cavaliers essentially must do whatever it takes to re-sign Love – giving him any contract he desires if he opts out.

Plus, if they re-sign Love, they can keep Haywood as a trade chip, re-sign Shumpert and Dellavedova without worrying about cap space and use the MLE on someone else.

Love might not get as many suitors outside Cleveland as he hoped due this injury, because any dollar another team doesn’t spend on Love is a dollar it can spend elsewhere. That isn’t true for the Cavaliers, who have his Bird Rights and can exceed the cap to re-sign him at any price up to a max contract.

And that’s just a sober assessment of the situation.

In reality, emotion and perception matter.

The Cavaliers traded Andrew Wiggins for Love. You think they want to suffer the indignity of losing Love after just one year?

Plus, they offered the best trade package for Love for a reason. Maybe something has changed, but I doubt that much has changed. Cleveland liked Love and still should.

He’s having a down year, but he’s still a borderline All-NBA forward, which speaks to just how good he is. His production – shooting, rebounding, passing – is elite. At 26, he should have several good years ahead of him once he heals.

Still, it’s possible this shoulder injury scares off teams. I doubt it and, without knowing specific medical information, would lean toward it being a mistake. But it’s possible.

It’s essentially impossible, though, the Cavaliers could adequately replace Love if he leaves this summer. They can’t afford to be scared off.

So, he should opt out.

He’ll have at least one – probably more – max-contract offers to choose from. And they’ll pay more than he would have made by opting in.

The injury doesn’t change that.

Report: Making 2020 NBA Finals could swing whether Giannis Antetokounmpo signs super-max extension with Bucks

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The honeymoon between Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks is over.

Milwaukee’s superb season ended tonight with a Game 6 loss to the Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals. Already, attention is turning to the 2020 offseason, when Antetokounmpo can sign a five-year super-max extension that projects to be worth $250 million. If he doesn’t, the pressure will turn way up as he approaches unrestricted free agency in 2021.

Antetokounmpo is already applying some.

Malika Andrews of ESPN:

a source close to Antetokounmpo said that getting to the NBA Finals is not just an ambition, it could tip the scales as he weighs his contractual future.

And if they can reach the NBA Finals next season, the Bucks can improve their chances of signing Antetokounmpo to the supermax in the summer of 2020.

Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon will be free agents this summer. It’s unclear how much luxury tax Milwaukee is willing to pay.

This leak could be Antetokounmpo trying to convince the Bucks to pay to keep this team intact.

Would he actually leave Milwaukee? At every turn, he has praised the city and organization. But the Bucks have also been on an upward trajectory for years. As they get closer to the top, it becomes more difficult to maintain that positive momentum. They’re now entering a crucial season with the clear goal of a conference title. That doesn’t leave much room for error.

The Lakers are rumored to be plotting to get Antetokounmpo. If there are signs he’ll actually become available, many other teams will line up just for a chance to sign him. Antetokounmpo is a special player, a superstar at age 24.

He also needed this loss. Having never advanced past the first round before this year, he didn’t fully grasp the high level of play and intensity this deep into playoffs. He hadn’t felt the heartache of coming so close and falling short, a highly effective motivator. Raptors like Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol had already faced these tests, and that had a lot to do with Toronto winning.

I have no doubt this experience will make Antetokounmpo even better.

Antetokounmpo wants to ensure the Bucks match his desire to win. If they do, he and Milwaukee will remain committed to each other. The honeymoon isn’t the end.

But this is when it gets real.

Raptors’ summer gamble pays off with trip to Finals after Game 6 win over Bucks

Associated Press
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Toronto’s big gambles paid off.

Last summer, after five years of winning at least 48 games and looking impressive in the regular season only to stumble in the playoffs, Toronto’s team president Masai Ujiri went all in. He fired the NBA’s coach of the year in Dwane Casey to hire his assistant Nick Nurse, with the hope of installing a more creative offense.

Then they traded fan favorite and (at least to that point) the greatest Toronto Raptor in franchise history to get Kawhi Leonard, a guy coming off an injury that essentially sidelined him for a season. A guy who would be a free agent after one season. Leonard could bolt — like other stars had done north of the border — and leave the Raptors high and dry.

It was all a massive roll of the dice.

Toronto hit their number with that roll — the Raptors are headed to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.

Toronto stormed from 15 points down in the third behind another monster game from Kawhi Leonard — 27 points, 17 rebounds, 7 assists — and held on to win Game 6 in front of a raucous home crowd, 100-94.

Toronto will host Game 1 of the NBA Finals Thursday night against the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors.

The Raptors may not be familiar with that stage, but Leonard knows both the Finals stage and that opponent (recall that the last time he faced them Zaza Pachulia slid under his foot on a jumper, spraining Leonard’s ankle and ending San Antonio’s playoff hopes that season). Thoughts about July 1 are banished for now in Toronto, the party is on.

“It means a lot,” long-time Raptor Kyle Lowry said about making the Finals. “It’s taken a long time to get here in my career, 13 years, seven years here [in Toronto]….

“But I’m not satisfied.”

This series changed in Game 3 when Nurse changed things up and had Leonard as the primary defender on Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak still got his, but everything became harder, and as the Raptors slowed the pace their halfcourt defense locked in. On the offensive end, Leonard just made plays.

“He’s a great player, he made some very special plays, give him a ton of credit,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said of Leonard.

For the Bucks, who had the best record in the NBA this season and a likely MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo, this was a learning experience about their shortcomings — both his and the Milwaukee roster. He had 21 points and 11 rebounds, but he was not able to dominate the game like Leonard did in crucial moments. That comes with being just 24 and making a deep playoff run.

“In our minds, we feel he’s going to get a lot better,” Budenholzer said of the Greek Freak. “At 24 some guys are… I don’t want to say they are who they are, but at 24 some of the great ones were the same at 30 and 32 and so forth. Giannis we feel has a lot of room to grow.”

So does the roster around the Greek Freak. Antetokounmpo sat just 7:28 in this game, and that proved to be too much — the Bucks were -9 in those minutes. They lost by six.

Eric Bledsoe struggled again, with 8 points on 9 shots. Khris Middleton — who is a free agent this summer — had 14 points on 5-of-13 shooting.

Still, this is a good team on a learning curve. One with some tough decisions ahead for the front office, but a team on the rise.

They showed that early.

Milwaukee came out playing with a sense of desperation – it showed in their energy and second efforts on defense — but they raced out to a 15-point lead early in the second quarter mostly because they just hit shots. In the first half the Bucks did not get the ball inside (only seven shots at the rim) but were 9-of-18 from three and hit 50 percent of their shots from the midrange. Antetokounmpo had 10 points and seven rebounds and Ersan Ilyasova surprised with nine points in the first 24.

That had the Bucks up 50-43 at the half, but it felt precarious. Then in the third, Milwaukee had an 8-0 run and the lead was pushed to 15 at one point. The Raptors were stumbling. Pascal Siakam hesitated on shots, not trusting himself. Danny Green trusted himself but couldn’t hit anything.

The tide turned thanks to Leonard. The Raptors finished third on 10-0 run — with Leonard scoring or assisting on every bucket — and the lead was down to 5 after three.

Early in the fourth was when Antetokounmpo sat again, and the Raptors went on a 7-2 run to tie the game at 78-78. That lead kept growing and then Leonard did this.

Milwaukee would not go away down the stretch, but Leonard kept making plays while Antetokounmpo and company got tight. Milwaukee could never get back in front.

For the Bucks, it’s a lesson.

For the Raptors, it’s the trip to the Finals they bet big on.

Watch Kawhi Leonard dunk all over Giannis Antetokounmpo, highlight of 26-3 Toronto run

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For most of the first three quarters of Game 6, the Milwaukee Bucks were in control of the game and looked to be on the way to forcing a Game 7.

But Kawhi Leonard sparked a 10-0 run for Toronto to end the third, scoring eight and assisting on a Serge Ibaka bucket.

That run carried over into the fourth and became a 26-3 run that was highlighted by this insane dunk by Leonard over Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Insane.

I’d say that’s Leonard’s best shot as a Raptor if not for the series winner against Philadelphia.

The Bucks responded with a 7-0 run and this game is going to go down to the wire.

Bucks play with desperation, lead by as many as 15 in first half

Associated Press
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If you think a 15-point lead is safe, go talk to a Portland Trail Blazers fan and get back to me.

The Bucks will still take it. Milwaukee has come out with a sense of desperation, but more importantly got to play with some pace and couldn’t miss early from three — they started 4-of-6 and were 7-of-13 from three as of this writing — and what we saw were play after play from the Bucks, the kinds of things we haven’t seen the last three games. They led by 13 after one, and the lead got as high as 15.

Can the Bucks sustain this, or will they cool down as the Raptors heat up? It’s going to be a wild rest of the game in Toronto.

The Raptors are up 3-2 in the series and playing for their first ever franchise trip to the Finals. The Bucks are playing to force a Game 7 Monday back in Milwaukee.