After losing out on LeBron James on the very first night of free agency, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been noticeably absent from the last three-plus weeks of festivities, save for the minimum signing of Channing Frye. That changed in a major way on Tuesday morning, when it was reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Brian Windhorst that the team had come to an agreement with Kevin Love on a four-year extension worth more than $120 million in new money. With questions surrounding the team’s future in the post-LeBron world, this helps to clear things up: the Cavaliers will try to remain competitive with Love at the helm as the team’s top option.
The extension will kick in for the 2019-20 season and will start at $28.9 million, giving Love a significant bump over what he would have made on the final year of the deal he signed in 2015 to remain with the Cavaliers. From there, Windhorst brings word of the rest of the contract, with a jump to $31.3 million in 2021 and 2022 before dropping back down to $28.9 million in 2023. As of this writing, there has been no reporting as to whether Love will have a player option before that final season, at which point he’ll be 33 years old.
In the short-term future, there is very little that changes about the Cavaliers’ cap situation. The extension in no way affects their landscape for 2018-19, other than the fact that Love now cannot be traded for six months following the official signing of the extension. While unlikely considering the money Cleveland put on the table, if Love were to have been able to push negotiations out past the early part of August, he could have made it impossible for Cleveland to trade him before the 2019 trade deadline, but instead, Koby Altman and his staff will retain the option to move Love in late January and early February should the Cavaliers’ season go awry or a team bowls them over with an offer. The Cavaliers remain with $108 million in guaranteed salary and up to four open roster spots, depending on what they do with Okaro White and Rodney Hood. They also retain their full mid-level exception and bi-annual exception to add to the team, though they’ll likely want to duck the $123.7M tax line this season.
After one year operating over the cap, the Cavaliers will still have the option of more than $25 million in cap space next summer. Love was slated to make $25.6 million (if he had opted in next offseason), so this extension only takes away roughly $3.3 million of their cap space and gives them the security in knowing Love will be under contract for that season. If he had opted out, then his cap hold would have gone up to almost $36.2 million and cut out a lot more of their cap space, though they could have always re-signed him first to open up additional space. With George Hill, J.R. Smith, and Kyle Korver owed a collective $8.3 million guaranteed on their $41.1 million deals, Cleveland can pivot very quickly away from these veterans in favor of free agency next summer.
Post-2020, the effects of Love’s extension are felt on the Cavaliers’ cap, but Cleveland still looks to have nearly double-max space in 2020. Tristan Thompson and Jordan Clarkson will both be free agents after the 2019-20 season, which leaves just Love, Collin Sexton and Ante Zizic on the team (though obviously things that happen between now and then will change things drastically, including an extension for Larry Nance and a new contract for Cedi Osman). As of now, the Cavaliers are looking at more than $60 million in space in 2020, though it’s far more likely that that $60 million comes in south of $30 million once they spend on Nance, Osman, and whomever they attract in 2019 free agency, in addition to draft picks made between now and then.
Speaking of draft picks, Love’s extension and subsequent inability to be traded before late January indicates that owner Dan Gilbert has charged his team with remaining competitive this season, which will have an effect on the 2019 draft. Cleveland owns their first-round pick as long as it falls within the top ten, but will have to give it to Atlanta if it does not. There was an opening for the Cavaliers to sell off their best players, including Love, in order to take a one- or two-year dip to the bottom of the standings and keep that draft pick while restocking with young players for the future, but instead they will attempt to remain competitive in a top-heavy Eastern Conference.
While their roster is far from complete, without a trade to bring in another star, it’s hard to imagine how the Cavaliers will compete with the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors, and Philadelphia 76ers, to say nothing of the rising Indiana Pacers and Milwaukee Bucks. Still, Cleveland will be in the mix to make the playoffs. Which is nothing to sneeze at, especially with respect to the revenue it will generate for Gilbert, who has shelled out a gargantuan amount of money over the last few years to keep a championship-contending team together.