The league’s MVP plays for one team and the best player in the world plays for the other, but the NBA Finals might hinge on a guy who doesn’t play at all.
The Cavaliers’ Kevin Love is out for the season with a dislocated left shoulder, and as NBA fans know, he could have been the Warriors’ Kevin Love. Last year, when the Timberwolves finally acceded to his desire to be traded, the two most heavily discussed destinations were Cleveland and Golden State.
Now, in a most Cleveland-like series of events:
1. Love is injured.
2. The Warriors are heavily favored to beat Cleveland.
3. Love seems unhappy, and it would not surprise anybody if he opts out of his contract this summer, despite recently claiming he plans to re-sign.
To understand where this is trending, look at what LeBron James said last week. He talked about the Cavs re-signing their power forward, who “should probably be a Cavalier for his whole career."
But James wasn’t talking about Love. He was talking about the guy who replaced Love in the starting lineup, Tristan Thompson.
James’s agent, Rich Paul, also represents Thompson. Virtually every player has a teammate or rival with the same agent, but it’s different with James—Paul is his childhood buddy, and was part of his inner circle before he even knew he had an inner circle. On some level LeBron probably sees himself as one of Thompson’s agents.
More than any player in the league, and probably in history, James wants to control the basketball market beyond his own career. Last year, he publicly advocated for the Phoenix Suns to give another Paul client, Eric Bledsoe, a maximum contract extension. In 2010, he didn’t just choose a free-agent destination; he and his friends Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh decided to create the core of the team.
So when James lobbies for a contract for Thompson, there was a business aspect to it. But there were implications for Love, too.
We’re reading between the lines here, which is always risky. But James said Thompson “plays his heart out every single night, and he has zero sense of entitlement in this league. All he cares about is coming into work. Whatever is given to him, he relishes the opportunity, and he's a great teammate. So he'll be here for a long time.”
Cleveland could re-sign both Thompson and Love. But James has not spoken this kindly of Love in months, and he probably can’t speak that optimistically of Love’s future in Cleveland. James wanted Love last summer, so this is not a matter of blaming the front office for the deal. It’s more like he is saying Cleveland will be OK if Love bolts, because Thompson is willing and able to give the Cavs what they need.
Now, let’s revisit both trades: One that happened, and one that could have.
It is hard to say exactly what the Warriors had to give up, in the end, to land Love. The pieces in these deals change all the time. If Cleveland had backed out of talks completely, Minnesota’s price might have dropped, but the Warriors surely would have had to surrender Klay Thompson.
Anybody with an ounce of hoops sense can see the Warriors made the right choice, regardless of what happens in the Finals. The Warriors had the best team in the league this season. They should beat the Cavs, but even if they lose, they will be favorites next year. Nobody in California wishes they could break up the Splash Brothers (Steph Curry and Thompson) so they could have Love.
Plus, the Warriors already have an outstanding power forward in Draymond Green. You might not choose Green over Love if you were starting a team, but Green is a better fit for Golden State, because he is a far superior defender and doesn’t need the ball as much as Love to be effective.
Assuming the Warriors re-sign Green when he hits restricted free agency this summer (and they would be fools not to) Golden State made the right choice last year. That wasn’t totally clear at the time, but it’s apparent now.
From Cleveland’s perspective, this is a lot more complicated. Consider these four outcomes in the next six weeks:
1. Win title, re-sign Love. If this happens, it’s hard to quibble with the Love trade. So what if Love didn’t play in the Finals? The Cavs would have their championship and would be favorites to win it all again next year. That’s the goal of the whole enterprise.
2. Win title, lose Love in free agency. If this happens, I think it’s still hard to argue with the trade. Sure, Wiggins may blossom into a star, the way Carmelo Anthony did when the Pistons drafted Darko Milicic ahead of him. But the Pistons won one title and contended for at least two others. The team that drafted Anthony (Denver), did not come close to winning one and ultimately traded him. Winning the championship would validate Cleveland’s decision to go for it all this year. Again, that’s the goal for every team. How you get there is secondary.
3. Lose Finals, re-sign Love. Again: I think this is worth it. As great as James has been in this postseason, you can already see he is not quite the freak athlete he was two years ago. He still has several years left as a superstar, but Cleveland needs to take its best shot at a title in his first four years there (assuming he finishes his career as a Cav). For those four years, including this one, Love is likely to be a better player than Wiggins. You could see the pieces coming together before he got hurt.
4. Lose Finals, lose Love.
Obviously: Not good.
The problem for Cleveland is that No. 4 seems like the most likely scenario. Sure, Love was asked recently if he expects to be in Cleveland recently, and he said “Yes, sir.” This means nothing. His team is in the Finals. He would look like a selfish jerk if he started talking publicly about playing somewhere else. But Love has not seemed happy in Cleveland or with his role—remember his comment about Russell Westbrook being the MVP ahead of James?—and it just feels like he is on his way out the door. We’ll see. Love may not even know what he wants yet.
There is also a fifth possibility—Love could decline his opt-out and stick with Cleveland another year. This would give him his best shot at a title next season. He might learn to love Cleveland and playing alongside James and Kyrie Irving. And— win or lose next year—he can become a free agent in 2016, when the salary cap will rise significantly, allowing him to make more money on his next deal.
That fifth possibility seems unlikely—players tend to choose free agency whenever they can sign a new max deal, as Love surely will. But with the rising cap in 2016 and the unusual situation in Cleveland, he would be wise to at least consider it.
If Cleveland loses to Golden State and Love leaves, the Love-Wiggins trade will be viewed as a failure. But that’s not the same as a mistake. A mistake is when a team misjudges a situation based on the information it could reasonably access at the time. A failure is when a team makes a sensible decision and it just doesn’t work out.
Examples: When Memphis drafted Hasheem Thabeet over Curry and James Harden, that was a mistake. The Grizzlies should have known better; both Curry and Harden were much better, more consistent college players than Thabeet. Memphis chose size and (very) raw talent over elite skill. That is almost always a mistake.
But when the Lakers traded for Dwight Howard in 2012, that was not a mistake, to me; it was a failure. The Lakers acquired one of the top 10 players in the world at the time and figured the allure of the Lakers and L.A. would lead him to re-sign. It blew up, but at least 90% of the time, that works out. So I wouldn’t call that a mistake, even though it ended up being a failure.
I view the Cleveland trade for Love the same way. Sure, we know now that it might fail. But if Love were healthy, the Cavs would only be slight underdogs in this series. The Cavs were starting to play extremely well when Love got hurt, and he was a big reason.
Let’s go back to last summer. Cleveland had just brought back James a few months before his 30th birthday. He wanted Love. Wiggins was clearly talented, but he was also 19. Even if Wiggins became a star at age 23, James would be 34.
The fact is, James gave the best years of his career to Miami—the time when his combination of physical skills and mental toughness peaked. Cleveland knew he had greatness left in him. But how many years of greatness? Three? Four?
Why would Cleveland wait on Wiggins to become a star when Love was already a star? The city had not won a title in 50 years. This was the Cavs’ best shot. I don’t fault them for taking it.