The Cleveland Cavaliers will spend the next few days in a championship haze, drinking from the sweet cup of victory after their incredible comeback after being down 3-1 vs. the 73-win Golden State Warriors. It will be a time of satisfaction, celebration, and comeuppance in the face of anyone who doubted that this team could win a title. (Spoiler alert: I'm a member of that group.)
Then the Cavs front office is going to ask itself the Love Question.
Two rules of NBA management are going to come into direct conflict when the Cavaliers assess whether or not to keep or trade Kevin Love this summer.
1. You cannot afford to be complacent, especially when you have a matchup issue that is glaring.
2. You should not disrupt a championship team. Never break up a great squad.
THE COST AND FAVOR OF LOVE
On the first count, Love struggled vs. the Warriors. That cannot be denied. He looked rattled, uncertain, and overwhelmed throughout the course of the series, especially in Game 6. The NBA has evolved more and more towards flexibility and versatility. Love compromises that with his inability to switch consistently, and there's always been an awkwardness with Love, and LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.
Would the Cavaliers be better with a cadre of role players? Could you replace Love's 3-point shooting and rebounding with defensive versatility, a better slasher, a more physical stretch-four who could also protect the rim?
It's not just, "Would the Cavaliers be better without Kevin Love and with different players?" though. It's also a question of whether or not they would be worse without Love. What's the risk/benefit analysis of trading a former All-Star who gave the Cavaliers several key performances in the Eastern Conference playoffs, without which they would have failed to reach that matchup with Golden State they struggled with?
However, if you think you could replace or supplant that production with different skillsets and make your team better? It has to be considered.
IF IT AIN'T BROKE ...
The Cavaliers won the title with Kevin Love as their starting power forward. That's what it is.
In 2011, the Dallas Mavericks won the title, and then, trying to get ahead of the forecast changes by the new CBA, Mark Cuban and the Mavs let Tyson Chandler, Jason Kidd, and most of that championship core go. That roster was much closer to the end of its NBA lifespan, age-wise, than this Cavs team, but it does illustrate how you can ruin your own chances by getting too cute with your roster.
Meanwhile, in the playoffs, Kevin Love had the third-best net rating (net points per 100 possessions with Love on the floor) of any Cavaliers rotation player behind Channing Frye and LeBron James. And after his 14-rebound performance in Game 7 in which Love made several key plays, including shutting down Stephen Curry on a key final-minute possession, Love finished with a plus-one in the Finals. That's right. The Cavaliers outscored the Warriors with Love was on the floor, for the duration of the Finals.
More than that, you saw the look on LeBron's face when he and Love embraced in winning the title.
Those emotional moments change things. The Cavaliers said to a man that this was the closest team they've ever been on. Disrupting that is no easy thing, and not something James, notoriously loyal to teammates, is going to be behind.
OK, so it's not an easy decision. What are their choices?
1. TRADE LOVE FOR A STAR
Melo for Love? The easy answer here is the proposed 3-way deal talked about at the NBA trade deadline that would send Carmelo Anthony to Cleveland, Love to Boston (who have reportedly shared a mutual interest for years) and various parts from Boston to New York. Presumably, Anthony would waive his no-trade clause from the Knicks to join his longtime friend and compete for a title, Love would give the Celtics a true star to add to their very-good-not-great roster, and Boston would help push the Knicks to a fresh start.
It makes a lot of sense, but bear in mind that Anthony is no stud defensively, needs the ball a great deal of time, and often plays the same role as James. There's a lot to like about this idea, but it has some issues.
Paul Milsap for Love? A much less likely but equally interesting scenario involves the Hawks deciding to blow up the team in the event that Al Horford leaves in free agency. Such a scenario could free up Paul Millsap, who would give the Cavaliers everything they want from Love with better defense and physicality. The deal would have to involve a third partner (Denver, conceivably) to make it work, but if the Cavs were making a wish list of power forwards to replace Love who are star players, it should begin with Millsap.
What about Jimmy Butler? Alternatively, the Cavs could try and find a three-way deal to get into the Jimmy Butler race, but that brings with it complications, especially with Butler's need for the ball and the kind of assets that would have to be surrendered for whoever gets Love to compensate Chicago.
Boogie time in Cleveland? Finally, on the very peripheral of possibilities, DeMarcus Cousins would of course make the Cavaliers better. You could play him and Tristan Thompson together and Cousins is a monster ... but that's a chemistry locker room hornets nest the Cavs likely don't want to inherit, even with its considerable upside.
2. TRADE LOVE FOR VERSATILE PARTS
This is a much more realistic scenario, in terms of what Cleveland would look for in a trade partner. The market for a combination of assets make more sense. But the overall likelihood may be lower given the mismatch of available partners and what Cleveland wants.
What I mean is that the Nuggets are interested in a star and can send some combination of Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, or youngsters Jusuf Nurkic or Gary Harris along with a pick to Cleveland ... but Cleveland doesn't need rookies. And they don't need young guys. And that combination of assets has to surpass Love's value, yet it's impossible to without including a pick.
The Celtics were resistant to surrender Jae Crowder at the trade deadline, and Danny Ainge is always trying to sell teams magic beans in exchange for the deed to their house.
The Magic have a bunch of talented players, but again, they're all young. On and on it goes. There are teams with young prospects that contending team doesn't require, and not enough veteran components to compensate for Love's value ... especially coming off of Game 7.
By the way, there is no scenario in which a trade of Love to a bottom-feeding team makes sense. So count the Lakers out.
The most likely scenario, though, is ...
3. KEEP LOVE AND FOCUS ON ACQUIRING A COUNTER-WEAPON
The Cavaliers have to re-sign LeBron James, which is kind of a big deal, and they have to retain J.R. Smith who is about to make all of the money, in all of the world, after taking a series of smaller deals to set himself up. (Smith is also now represented by Klutch Sports, James' agency.)
With Timofey Mozgov, Richard Jefferson, and Matthew Dellavedova at least temporarily off the books, and with their holding the bird rights (i.e. able to go over the cap to re-sign them) for James and Smith, the Cavaliers could carve out $19 million in cap room. And that's before a potential trade of expendable Iman Shumpert or Channing Frye, or buying out Sasha Kaun or Mo Williams. Great news, right?
Except that LeBron James has a cap hold of $36 million dollars. That number goes on their books and only comes off if he signs elsewhere. So they'll be restricted to the $5.6 million mid-level exception or the $2.3 bi-annual exception. You'd need a Marvin Williams or Darrell Arthur to take a massive paycut in this super-lucrative environment to get there.
They could clear the books of everyone but James, Smith, Irving, Love, and Tristan Thompson to create room ... but then you're turning over almost all of the glue guys from a championship team.
But if they can find a quality veteran (like Richard Jefferson was) to come in for the exception, it might be a better option that replacing Love outright.
Either way, the champagne is still wet, the trophy still shiny, and yet the Cavaliers have a big set of decisions to make about Love in the coming days.