Kevin Love has played his last game for the Cleveland Cavaliers this season. The question for him now is whether he has played his last game ever for the team.
Love had left shoulder surgery Wednesday performed by a go-to surgeon for top athletes, Dr. David Altchek. The team announced a recovery timeline for 4-6 months, eliminating the thin bit of hope they had that Love could make a late return to the playoffs after a few weeks of rest and rehab.
With no basketball to be played, Love is headed for a long period of convalescence while thinking about the biggest decision of his professional career to this point. He must decide what to do about his contract, specifically what he wants to prioritize: long-term security, maximum earning potential and/or championship contention.
Here are Love's options and their facets:
Stay in his contract for one more season with the Cavs
Earlier this season, Love told Cleveland.com that he didn't plan on opting out of his contract. He has also said on several occasions that he plans to stay in Cleveland. If he sticks to those previous statements then there is little to discuss and he will opt in by June 30 and he will remain a Cav.
However, once he looks at the numbers and examines the options and discusses them with his agent, there is a chance those stated plans may change and Love will let his contract end and become a free agent this summer.
Though a major injury like what Love just suffered would seem to make just staying in his deal a reasonable choice, the market could dictate otherwise. Love would earn $16.7 million next season by opting in. However, his maximum contract number for next season, if he were to sign a new contract, is expected to be about $19 million. There doesn't seem to be a clear reason why he'd just leave $2-plus million on the table and not give himself the flexibility that unrestricted free agency allows.
If/when Love becomes a free agent it is likely he will be offered a maximum-level contract by multiple teams. Even with a bad shoulder, a sore back and what has been a cranky knee, there is so much cap space on the market this summer that Love will probably still be in demand. The New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns and Boston Celtics are among the teams that could have interest in Love and all have the cap space to make him a maximum offer.
With all that competition and considering the Cavs traded Andrew Wiggins for him, there is little doubt they will also make such an offer. Even with his arm in a sling coming off what was viewed as a subpar season, Love holds most of the cards.
Become a free agent and sign a one-year contract so he can be a free agent again next summer
These are very large numbers but they are also plain. They're based on salary-cap projections, so they are not exact, but the picture becomes clear quickly. Here are Love's estimated salaries based on his choices:
Sign a five-year max contract with the Cavs this summer: $109 million.
Sign a four-year max contract with a different team this summer: $80 million.
Sign a five-year max contract with the Cavs in 2016: $143 million.
Sign a four-year max contract with a different team in 2016: $106 million.
The difference between signing the max deal this summer and next summer is enormous. These are the numbers the whole league is buzzing over. This is why the league wanted to implement cap smoothing. Players are penalized for being a free agent in the wrong year so some will try to make sure they are a free agent in the right year.
LeBron James was the first player to take advantage of this expected jump when he signed a one-year contract last year with a player option for next season. This was such a prudent idea that James may do it again this summer, become a free agent and sign another one-year deal. In fact, he may do it again in 2016 to fully maximize his earnings. If James ends up signing a max contract in 2017, he could be the NBA's first-ever $40 million-a-season player.
With so much money available in the future, Love may put off his long-term free agency decision another year and look to get the massive payday in 2016.
This creates the question: If Love would choose to delay free agency for a season to cash in, why not just stay in his contract for the one season remaining and be a free agent naturally in 2016?
It's not just because of the extra $2 million discussed above but because he could mimic James and add a player option for the 2016-17 season as well. This could act as an insurance policy as he recovers from this shoulder injury.
The Cavs could refuse to enter into such an agreement, saying they want him to take a long-term deal or none at all. But with the market, Love could probably get this so-called "one-plus-one" deal elsewhere on a team desperate to add a talent like him. Just like they did with James, the Cavs would be under pressure to give whatever Love asked if they risked losing him for nothing.
Right now, Love is guaranteed $16.7 million next season. If he opts out and signs a one-year deal with a player option, he would have about $40 million guaranteed. And he would leave open the chance to get that $143 million deal a year from now.
These are such huge sums that cannot be ignored.
Sign a long-term deal with the Cavs or another team
Two years ago and perhaps five years from now, this probably would've been the clear choice for Love. A team is willing to guarantee you $100 million at age 26, leaving the room for one last big contract afterward. This is a well-worn track by dozens of All-Star-quality players over the past several decades.
It is not a bad decision now, either. After seeing the string of injuries Derrick Rose endured, the freak injury to Paul George and Kevin Durant needing three surgeries on his foot in a matter of months is enough to shake any player when projecting their future. Love was chasing a rebound Sunday afternoon in Boston and within 72 hours he was in season-ending surgery. This reality can cut through the clutter of the salary-cap tables rather quickly.
Does it make sense to turn down a nine-figure contract so you can add a few more million to your bank account while adding risk? The answer may be different for each individual player.
All of these numbers don't take into account the harder choice Love has, which is where he wants to play. The subject of so much scrutiny throughout the season, Love expressed during the series with the Celtics how much he enjoyed contributing on a playoff team for the first time in his seven-year career.
The Cavs have Kyrie Irving locked into a contract for the next four seasons and James, although he can be a free agent this summer, has expressed he plans to end his career in Cleveland. Playing alongside these two All-Stars has been taxing for Love and he has struggled to fit in. But they also promise to be a championship contender for the foreseeable future, the type of team players sometimes spend their whole career chasing.
Going elsewhere and starting over, even if it is in a glamour market like Los Angeles where he has family and personal ties, would perhaps be taking a step back in pursuit of a title. But it is also possible Love would be happier in a different setting.
So many things to ponder, so long until he can play basketball again.