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NBA AM: Is Kevin Love Headed To The Lakers?

Are reports of Kevin Love heading the Lakers in July, legit? Doesn’t seem like it….

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Love And The Lakers?:  Yesterday, long-time NBA writer Sam Smith dropped a column over at Bulls.com suggesting a large number of “possibilities.” One of them was that Lakers guard Kobe Bryant could opt for a win-now situation and force a trade versus the dreadful rebuild he is surrounded with in LA. This comes after Kobe himself said he wasn’t going anywhere and that with his “no-trade” clause in his contract he was staying where he was.

The second one, and the one that’s caused the biggest commotion, was the notion that Cavaliers forward Kevin Love would be opting out of his contract in July and strongly considering the Lakers in free agency.

This is hardly a new storyline, as the idea of Love heading to LA has been popular among the fan base and the media for years. The problem is while the story doesn’t imply that it’s a done deal, that’s how it’s being read mainly because many, especially those in LA, are hoping for a major free agent to do exactly what Smith is suggesting: jump ship to the Lakers.

Now before the dream is completely ruined, let’s look at the facts.

Love has one more year remaining on his contract after this one. It’s a player option, so he can choose to become a free agent in July if he wants to. He is not obligated to stay in or to opt out; it’s entirely his choice.

Love has made it pretty clear to all involved that he’d be opting out in July and signing a new long-term deal, which is one of the key reasons the Timberwolves traded him. There were reports when the Cavs trade went down that Love and the Cavaliers had already thoroughly discussed what a new contract would likely need to look like and all parties agreed on that idea. Neither side can make a firm commitment to each other beyond what’s written, but according to all accounts Cavs forward LeBron James played middleman on this and made sure that Love knew exactly what the Cavs would offer him in July, just as the Cavs knew exactly what Love was thinking before they traded for him.

You can say “wink-nod” and that’s likely a good characterization. The Cavs knew when they traded for Love what was going to need to happen to keep him.

So let’s talk about Love.

Carefully and artfully, Love has stayed mostly non-committal about his future beyond his current deal. He has said all the right things about Cleveland, the Cavs and the opportunity in front of him. However, he has a back door if this doesn’t go as he wants it to.

Sources close to Love on the business side were somewhat puzzled by the Smith report, saying that leaving Cleveland has never been discussed. Love is in the middle of several endorsement transactions and all of them are built around the idea of him being in Cleveland and playing with LeBron.

That doesn’t mean anything more than Love and his partners are planning around the exposure the Cavs are currently getting, and all of those kinds of deals account for Love having options in July. However, if he has hinted to anyone that he’s headed to the Lakers, he hasn’t told any of his business partners that are crafting advertising campaigns around him about it.

That’s not in and of itself anything special, as most business partners are in the dark on free agency until that gets closer, mainly because they don’t have to be involved. It is notable in the context of the idea that “he’s decided.” That seems to be the furthest from where things are at now.

According to the same source who is talking with Love routinely, he seems fairly happy with what’s going on around him in Cleveland. The chance to play on a big stage and compete for a championship is very appealing to him. While Love does have options in July, it does not seem like he plans to do anything more than cash in on what’s likely going to be his most successful season as a pro. Now if things go toxically bad in the coming months, or he becomes marginalized in the process, maybe he looks for a new situation, but it seems highly unlikely that Love is going anywhere in July.

The lone caveat here is a lot of people thought the same thing about James this time last year and he is back in Cleveland, so you can never say never. However in this case, the story doesn’t seem to line up with the facts.

Disabled Player Exceptions:  The LA Lakers were awarded a Disabled Player Exception for rookie Julius Randle, who broke his leg during the first game of the season and will miss the balance of the season. The DPE, as it’s commonly called, is worth $1.5 million and can be used by the Lakers to sign or trade for a replacement player with a salary valued around $1.5 million. The exception cannot be used in combination with other exceptions or roster players, but is a significant asset for the Lakers to add to the team.

This particular DPE must be used by March 10, so there is no urgency for the Lakers to use it. Equally, the Lakers roster currently stands at 15 players, so to use the DPE they would have to clear a roster spot by either trading away a player for nothing in return or cutting someone from the roster to create room.

As news of the Randel DPE surfaced, questions regarding the status of guard Steve Nash surfaced. Like Randle, Nash has been ruled out for the season due to nerve issues in his back with many under the belief that the Lakers had applied for DPE on Nash’s contract too.

The problem there is that the Lakers have been somewhat vague on Nash’s status going forward and it’s unclear if the Lakers have indeed applied for a DPE on Nash.

Equally, the NBA’s process for awarding DPE’s is extremely subjective. They look at each situation independently and while the Lakers and Nash may say he is finished for the season, an independent doctor has to agree with that assessment and then the NBA has to rule if this situation merits awarding of an additional salary cap asset.

The NBA tends to be conservative in awarding teams assets on things that may or may not be cut and dry. Randle for instance has a broken leg and it happened in the first game of the season, that’s almost as black and white as you can get. However, Nash’s situation is far murkier. Nash has had injury issues for last two years, and there was talk that the Lakers were going to use the Collective Bargaining Agreement’s “stretch” provision on Nash to release him and spread his contract payments over the next three seasons, however they opted to keep him. He is now being ruled out for the year. Should the Lakers get a $4.5 million DPE as a result?

Laker fans would say absolutely. Nash has been a bad penny since the day he arrived. Getting a $4.5 million DPE is a solid trade asset. The problem is some would argue that’s exactly why the Laker’s didn’t “stretch” Nash this summer, opting to eat his final contract year hoping to get a DPE for their efforts.

This will come down to what did the Lakers know, and when did they know it and is Nash legitimately done. The DPE is designed to allow a team to replace a player who was going to play. If the Lakers knew Nash couldn’t play this year that might block the award of a DPE. It’s a subjective process.

That concept might not sit well with fans, but the league doesn’t give you an asset today for something you knew was broken last year. So again, what did the Lakers know and when did they know it?

With the Randle DPE in place, it’s expected that Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak is going to be pressed on Nash’s status and whether he did actually apply for the DPE. Kupchak has been vague on this subject, despite being much more direct about Randle.

It’s also important to point out that if the Lakers haven’t applied for a Nash DPE yet, they can do that at any point.

If the Lakers do not gain a DPE on Nash, all is not lost. Nash is in the final year of his contract and is scheduled to earn $9.7 million, which could be a sizable trade chip especially closer to the trade deadline in February when the Lakers will have paid roughly 70 percent of the deal.

The Nash situation seems like it is still playing out, with a lot of details still to be determined.

Landing the Randle DPE gives the Lakers some options, and it seems they are going to weigh them, so don’t expect anything immediate on the Laker front with that new asset.

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Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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