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In what was expected to be a call notifying Love of a trade out of Cleveland—a move he wanted—Altman had far different news.
Love was staying, and Detroit Pistons two-time All-Star center Andre Drummond was joining him. It was a trade no one saw coming, including the players themselves.
“I think it was a shock for Andre, and rightfully so,” Altman said.
Love, 31, and Tristan Thompson, 28, are productive veterans with championship experience that no longer fit on a rebuilding Cavs team. They were supposed to be traded to contenders at the deadline.
Drummond emerged in trade rumors before the deadline, but primarily among playoff-bound teams like the Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks and Toronto Raptors. A 13-39 Cavaliers team going nowhere this season? No way.
Cleveland put together one of the most bizarre trade deadlines in recent memory by trading for Drummond and holding on to Love. For Altman, it may be the beginning of a bigger plan.
Drummond’s Future in Cleveland
Drummond, 26, somewhat fits age-wise with the Cavaliers’ young core of Collin Sexton (21), Darius Garland (20) and Kevin Porter Jr. (19), but his contract status is still up in the air.
Drummond has a $28.8 million player option for the 2020-21 season. The Pistons seemed confident he’d pick it up rather than become an unrestricted free agent this summer, which explains why they traded the NBA’s leading rebounder for two expiring contracts and a 2023 second-round pick.
Altman admitted he and Drummond hadn’t talked about what he would do with his option before the trade, but he was fine sacrificing the Cavaliers’ upcoming cap space for him.
“Absolutely, we consider him a potential long-term play,” Altman said. “Obviously, he has a player option that if he picks up, we think we’re in good shape in terms of our cap space. There’s no better money spent than on Andre Drummond if he picks up his option.”
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There’s some belief around the league that the Cavaliers could look to flip Drummond as early as this summer.
“I don’t think [Drummond and the Cavs] will last long,” one former NBA general manager said. “I could see them trading him to a team this summer if he agrees to pick up his option. They could also do a sign-and-trade if he agrees to a new long-term deal. I don’t think he’ll be in Cleveland for long.”
Beyond his production (17.7 points, 15.8 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in 33.4 minutes), Drummond could carry immense value as an expiring $28.8 million contract next year. Teams will be looking to clear cap space before the summer of 2021, when stars such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George (among others) can all become free agents.
While the Pistons were seeking salary relief this summer, the Cavs are believed to want Drummond to pick up his option so they can use him as a trade chip next season.
Love Knew Trade ‘Probably Wasn’t Going to Happen’
Holding on to Love at the trade deadline wasn’t Cleveland’s first choice, but the potential returns didn’t justify moving on from the franchise’s best player.
One league source said before the deadline that the Cavaliers “would have to take a loss” if they wanted to trade Love and the remaining three years and $91.5 million left on his contract after this season, meaning they would have to attach a draft pick or some sort of sweetener in the deal.
That didn’t make sense for a Cavs team focused on asset accumulation at this point.
“Kevin and [agent] Jeff [Schwartz] wanted a trade, but I think both knew it probably wasn’t going to happen,” the former GM said. “It’s something they’ll push for again in the summer. I think he’ll be traded this summer since the free-agent market is so bare and the draft doesn’t look like anything special. Teams need to add talent somehow.”
Love’s value around the league has dropped in recent years because of his age, injury history and contract. While he’s still producing at a high level (17.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 38.0 percent from three), the numbers no longer match the money he’s making.
“He’s not an All-Star anymore,” one NBA scout said. “He’s a complementary player. He’s probably the fourth-best guy on a contending team.”
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A few teams will continue to pop up in trade discussions for Love this summer. The Portland Trail Blazers and Phoenix Suns may have needs at power forward and can offer roles where Love can be the third- or fourth-best player. The Philadelphia 76ers could also be a home for Love if they want to get off one of their big-money deals. The Cavaliers may end up flipping him in a bad-money-for-bad-money deal if they’re willing to keep that kind of salary on their books.
“There’s a lot of bad contracts they could have traded him for. The Sixers would have traded Al Horford for him, but why would Cleveland do that? They want expiring money and picks,” the former GM said. “Portland could have made a deal work, but for what? They would have really had to look at their cap space and tax money for next year and asked how far a trade for Love would really push them. Would it make them a top-four seed in the West? I don’t think so.”
The market for Love didn’t justify a trade at the moment, but the Cavaliers will likely try again this summer or at next year’s deadline, when his remaining contract will drop to two years and $60.2 million.
The Cavs four highest-paid players are now all power forwards or centers. Love, Drummond, Thompson and Larry Nance Jr. are making a combined $88.2 million this season.
Thompson moved to the bench with the arrival of Drummond, which figures to hurt his per-game averages of 12.1 points and 10.3 rebounds heading into unrestricted free agency. The Cavs aren’t likely to buy him out, as they hold his Bird rights and could orchestrate a sign-and-trade to a team that wants him but wouldn’t have the cap space to sign him outright in free agency.
With Thompson and Drummond almost unplayable together due to overlapping skill sets and a lack of spacing, Love and Drummond must coexist for now. This is just another hurdle for head coach John Beilein, who’s already considering stepping down just over halfway through the first season of a five-year contract, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Brian Windhorst.
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In Love and Drummond’s first game together, the Cavs suffered the worst home loss in the franchise’s 50-year history, a 133-92 beatdown against a Los Angeles Clippers team playing without Kawhi Leonard. Love finished with only 10 points and took seven of his eight shots from outside the arc.
“It’s something that’s going to take a little bit of time,” Love said. “I was probably on the perimeter 90 percent of the time. He’s down there gobbling up the rebounds and I’m trying to sprint down the floor. Eventually, I’ll get back to being me.”
For Drummond, his role and city of employment remain similar. While he initially seemed upset when he found out about the trade, he ultimately can decide how long he wants to stay on the Cavaliers.
“I’m not here hanging my head,” Drummond said. “I’m here with a positive attitude and trying to instill that in everyone else.”
For Love, Drummond and even Thompson, it’s about making the best of the final 28 games before all could go their separate ways this summer.
Greg Swartz covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Find him on Twitter here.