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Cleveland Cavaliers' Kevin Love will continue to be at center of trade rumors despite proving worth

By Chris Fedor • Jun 18, 2017 at 4:30 PM

CLEVELAND  Cleveland Cavaliers power forward Kevin Love looked more comfortable this season than at any other point during his Cleveland tenure. With his importance validated after the Cavaliers' championship last June and reaffirmed this postseason -- especially in the Eastern Conference finals -- it seemed like Love had finally quieted any remaining skeptics.

And yet, not even a week after the playoff run came to a disappointing end, a lopsided 4-1 series loss against the Golden State Warriors, Love's name was again at the center of trade rumors.

Welcome to Love's world. He's been asked about it numerous times, his only recourse to shrug it off. It doesn't even matter how well he performs anymore.

The latest round of chatter has gained steam because many are now asking the same questions the Cavs are faced with this off-season: How big is the gap with the Warriors? How can it be closed?

The first question is most important and will determine the off-season approach. Following Game 5 of the NBA Finals, a few minutes after shedding tears in the locker room and not being able to finish his postgame speech, head coach Tyronn Lue was pretty blunt when comparing the Cavs and Warriors.

"I don't see a big gap," Lue said.

If that's the overarching view from the main decision makers (that remains a key question, too, given general manager David Griffin's contract is set to expire at the end of June) then perhaps the Cavs feel keeping the core together and smoothing the edges of the roster is the best approach.

That's the "why-break-up-a-three-time-East-champ" line of thinking.

In this approach, the Cavs would focus on the old bench, which was up and down throughout the season and outclassed by the Warriors in the Finals. They would try to use the minimal available resources to add more two-way players. That, of course, is easier said than done.

"[The Warriors are] going to be around for a while," LeBron James said. "Pretty much all their guys are in their 20s ... and they don't show any signs of slowing down. So there's going to be a lot of teams [seeking personnel upgrades] if they're able to actually face them in the playoff series, both Eastern Conference and Western Conference. Because they're built for -- from my eyes, they're built to last a few years."

So if the Cavs view the Finals loss as decisive, minor moves on the periphery won't be enough. It will take a bigger maneuver, breaking up the nucleus. That's where Love comes back into play.

This isn't about Love being a poor fit as the third member of Cleveland's formidable Big Three. With a bigger role, getting more touches in the post and being able to play the inside-outside game, Love was named an All-Star for the fourth time -- and first with the Cavaliers.

He averaged 19.0 points and 11.1 rebounds while finishing with 41 double-doubles in 60 games, his best season with the Cavs. Then he followed it up with a strong showing in the playoffs, averaging 16.8 points on 43 percent from the field and 45 percent from 3-point range to go with 10.6 rebounds and 1.2 steals.

Surprisingly, he wasn't the problem against Golden State like many expected, averaging 16.0 points and 11.2 rebounds. At times, Love made Draymond Green and other defenders pay for over-helping while his shooting helped loosen the defense for Kyrie Irving and James to drive.

Still, the questions about his fit against the Warriors remain and Love's Game 5 no-show won't help with the overall perception.

Many are already running to the trade machine on ESPN.com coming up with dream scenarios.

Would Paul George's athleticism and versatility be more valuable as the Cavs try to dethrone the champs? Would his speed and quickness allow him to better matchup on switches against Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant? Would Carmelo Anthony's offensive reputation force the Warriors to play a more honest defense? Would either player help keep James from burning out, limiting his responsibility at both ends of the floor?

There's another layer to this. And it's not even so much about Love, but rather Cleveland's lack of flexibility and limited trade assets.

If the Cavs decide their best option is to go fishing for another star this summer, there's no other way to reel him in. Love is the best -- and only -- piece of bait they have.

Deep into the luxury tax, boasting the NBA's highest payroll, the only bit of money the Cavs can spend in free agency is the taxpayer's midlevel exception, which won't net a difference-maker -- unless there's one out there willing to take an exorbitant pay cut for a lesser role on the league's second-best team.

Heck, the Cavs would be lucky to have enough cash to land P.J. Tucker, C.J. Miles or Thabo Sefolosha. It's entirely possible the Cavs would be out of the mix for most free agents, having to use the exception to bring young Cedi Osman from Turkey instead.

They don't have a first-round draft pick so finding an overlooked gem is out of the question. There aren't too many up-and-comers at the end of the bench, guys ready to step into a much larger role, so forget that.

The only route is via trade. Not only do the Cavs have few players that would fetch an impact player, they don't have future draft picks to attach as sweeteners in a potential blockbuster trade, unable to move a first rounder until their pick in 2021, which is a risky proposition given James' uncertain future.

In trade scenarios, James and Irving are untouchable. J.R. Smith is the team's starting shooting guard, the catch-and-shoot threat the Cavs need alongside James and Irving, and his well-established reputation drives his value down. Tristan Thompson is likely most valuable in Cleveland, where his offensive flaws can be masked. At 26 years old and perhaps the best offensive rebounder in the league, Thompson has some value, but not nearly enough.

That leaves Love, the only player to match the criteria of being both expendable and prized enough to start the conversations for George, Anthony or someone else who will eventually be linked to Cleveland.

Forget the idea that Love is some kind of scapegoat for the 4-1 Finals loss. This is about the Cavs not having any other path to substantial improvement this summer, trying to find a way to take down the league's newest empire.

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