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.