What’s next for Kevin Love?

When Kevin Love signed a four-year, $120 million extension with the Cleveland Cavaliers this past summer, they were choosing one of two directions. They either made a savvy move that served as both a public relations splash in the wake of LeBron James’ departure and to transform Love into a more trade-able asset for the lengthy rebuild ahead, or their long-term plan was to build a worse version of Love’s Minnesota Timberwolves teams that failed to make the playoffs for six seasons.

It seems unlikely they chose the worst possible plan, but you never know in Cleveland. Either way, it was inevitable that Love would find himself in trade rumors this season, if only because he has been the subject of them semiannually ever since he joined James in Cleveland. Those rumors were bound to become even more fervent once the Cavaliers careened down the standings, which they did, losing their first six games, firing their coach, engaging in an awkward negotiation with his next in command, trading two veterans, and exiling another for saying what has long been obvious: The Cavs are tanking.

Except, Love’s left toe injury threw a bunion into all of this. What was originally supposed to be a six-week reevaluation period and a mid-January return has now been pushed beyond the All-Star break.

What, exactly, is Kevin Love’s injury timeline?

Asked on Monday if he had a clearer timeline for his return, Love told reporters, according to the Associated Press, “I don’t know. It’s really tough for me to say because I don’t know how my foot is going to respond. Hopefully it will be sooner rather than later.” He has not started running yet, but remains hopeful that the process of ramping up from one-on-one work to full-contact scrimmages could still play out over the “next few weeks.” Love is not planning to sit out the entire season.

What does that mean for his trade prospects?

Between now and the All-Star Game is the NBA’s trade deadline on Feb. 7, and would-be trade suitors (read: playoff contenders who view Love as a piece to elevate their chances) will now be awfully hesitant to deal for a 30-year-old who hasn’t played since Oct. 24 and has missed time in recent years to back problems, multiple concussions and surgeries on his left shoulder, knee, hand and foot.

Love seems to recognize this. More from him on Monday, via the AP:

“We’ll see. If not, we will wait until summer. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’ve said all along I’ve wanted to be here. I’ve said this too, it’s a business. We saw that last year at the deadline. I had never seen so many guys traded from a team really ever. I had seen, playing six years in Minnesota and now this being my fifth year here, I’ve seen a lot of stuff. Think every trade deadline, draft, free agency, always brings something new.

“It’s always different. I would love to be here. Would just love to get through a whole season healthy just because I’ve had nagging things that have taken time and been a little bit unlucky, but I would like to play ball here.”

Would Love really ‘love to be’ in Cleveland?

It is not surprising that Love said, “I would love to be here,” because as J.R. Smith illustrated, saying the opposite will leave you sidelined, wondering where you will play next, if at all, and that’s no place for an NBA player with a legacy on the line. It would be surprising, however, if Love actually believed that sentiment, because wanting to stay on this Cavaliers roster is wanting to waste away that legacy.

The Cavaliers are not good. They are 8-32, riding a nine-game losing streak, holding their noses as they dove to the bottom of the standings and praying that when they come up for air, the Ping Pong balls will deliver a fifth No. 1 pick (fourth this decade!) and Zion Williamson to kickstart the rebuild.

Even then, when the Cavs could pair Williamson or another top prospect with promising rookie Collin Sexton (up to 14.7 points per game on 38.8 percent shooting from distance), it will be a slow grind. Cleveland will not contend again this decade, and they will be fortunate to make the playoffs again before Love’s extension is done in 2023, when he will turn 35 years old. The front office installed last season has shown no indication that it is capable of making a series of sound basketball decisions.

What is on the line for Love’s legacy?

For Love, that would mean a legacy of lottery appearances, other than the seasons he played with LeBron, and that is a serious blow to a Hall of Fame case that was starting to solidify (five All-Star bids and a championship). After four seasons of being the scapegoat for the failures of LeBron-led teams, Love may well be happy shepherding a rebuild in relative NBA anonymity, and that’s totally cool.

If that’s not what he wants, though, you hope his options have not dwindled in the wake of yet another injury. According to The New York Times’ Marc Stein, the Denver Nuggets have “maintained a longstanding fondness for Love.” The Charlotte Hornets and Dallas Mavericks are rumored to be interested. And a trade to the Portland Trail Blazers in his home state of Oregon makes a lot of sense.

What is the trade market for Love?

This interest could dry up by the summer, when the Nuggets will know more about how far their current roster can take them, Kemba Walker could leave Charlotte, the Mavericks will be shopping in free agency, and Portland’s ownership may be in flux. Other trade partners can always emerge, and Love has not yet reached the point in his career where his max-level contract is immovable, but he may first have to prove he can stay healthy for a full season to make that happen. Which could push his purgatory into February 2020 or beyond. Which is a long time to play for a terrible team.

Injury free, Love is still an All-Star-caliber player who can average a double-double, shoot 40 percent from 3-point range and throw some of the best outlet passes you’ve ever seen. Love can still help a contender, but signing his extension ensured that the Cavaliers will be in control of whether he ever gets the chance. Cleveland may be delusional enough to believe it can still compete once everyone returns from the injury list and the lottery odds fall in their favor, and that leaves Love in limbo again.

#FreeKevinLove

All of which is to say: Let Love go. Get him healthy and somewhere he can show us what’s left, even if we have to wait until this summer or next season. Even if it’s Charlotte, at least he’ll have Walker and a two-man game run by someone who wasn’t in elementary school when Minnesota Kevin Love was a thing. Do the right thing, Cleveland. He may be willing to stay, but it’s time to recognize that a parting of ways is what’s best for all parties involved. It’s time to think about Collin, Zion and the kids.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter!

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