By Nicholas Sciria
Kevin Love’s current offensive role in Cleveland is a far cry from what it used to be in Minnesota. He isn’t featured from the elbow anymore, transitioning from the alpha dog he was with the Timberwolves to a floor spacer with the Cavaliers.
When his team needs a big play, Love is a beneficiary, not the orchestrator he used to be. And given Love’s lesser role, he’s become an easy target for fans seeking extra production. Ultimately, when things go wrong, he’s Cleveland’s favorite scapegoat.
To test this theory, just search “Wiggins Love” on Twitter. You’ll see a host of casual fans grappling with the notion that the Cavaliers might have been better off with Andrew Wiggins. These senseless comments are unfortunate and demonstrate just how willing some people are to ignore Love’s impact. (And those people have clearly never watched Andrew Wiggins play in the NBA.)
And Love has been a constant in trade rumors over the past few seasons. Most notably, Love had been linked to a DeMarcus Cousins trade for some time. Despite a questionable fit, some Cleveland fans just seem to want change.
Finally, these rumors died down a bit when the Cavaliers won the 2016 NBA Finals. Love, of course, became a defensive hero when he famously locked down Stephen Curry at the end of Game 7.
Still, this one play didn’t mean Love was completely out of the woods. Remember that the 2016 NBA Finals began to swing in Cleveland’s favor in Game 3 when Love was forced to sit because of a concussion. Love only played 152 minutes in the seven-game series and he averaged just 8.5 points per game.
But despite steady rumors and a lack of appreciation that surfaces whenever convenient, Love never made a scene. Instead, he set out to prove himself as a valuable contributor to his team. In this past offseason, Love spent hours at the U.S. Olympic ski training facility working to earn the respect he deserved.
This season, Love came in more ready than ever to have a substantial say in Cleveland’s championship run. In the regular season, Love turned in his best campaign with the Cavaliers; a true culmination of his hard work in the offseason. He was more involved offensively, posting a usage percentage much closer to what it was in his days in Minnesota than his first two seasons in Cleveland. He scored more on better efficiency, got to free throw line more often and grabbed more rebounds (both offensively and defensively).
In the playoffs, he wasn’t leaned on as much offensively but still produced when called upon. Defensively, he was engaged and active, looking spry and rotating quickly. In the Eastern Conference Finals, Coach Lue talked specifically about his improvements on that end of the floor:
Lue talks about Kevin Love's improved defense over the last three seasons pic.twitter.com/9Q3kqeMqjq
— Ashley Bastock (@AshleyBastock42) May 21, 2017
Although Love’s performance in the first three playoffs series was strong, it never seemed like it was completely adequate—not yet anyways. At this point, Love’s impressive play was merely a consolation prize. The defending champions were supposed to run through the Eastern Conference. The true test would only take place in the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors.
And when the 2017 NBA Finals came and went, Love quietly passed the test. Although many fans will be quick to call out his poor Game 5 performance, his collective efforts were commendable. Sure, he struggled with Golden State’s length inside (he shot only 39.1 percent in the restricted area in the series) and he wasn’t all that efficient (posting a 52.8 percent true shooting percentage) because of it. On the perimeter, he still got beat in space by Durant and Curry. In the paint, his rim protection remained far from intimidating.
But let’s look at the bright side. Kevin Love fought like hell in this series. He deflected lob attempts under the basket. He sealed Draymond Green to force him into his fifth foul in Game 3. He converted on 38.7 percent of his 3-point looks. He grabbed 25.7 percent of available defensive rebounds.
Sure, his limitations are apparent. But as a team defender, even in this series, Love passed the test. He was more than playable. He held up defensively.
As a team, however, the Cavaliers couldn’t overcome the historical collection of talent that the Warriors boast. And now, it’s no longer about how good Kevin Love is—it’s about how good Kevin Love is against the Warriors. When such a clear favorite like Golden State is well on their way to building a dynasty, a worthy rival begins to craft their roster with that foe in mind. And inevitably, that’s where Kevin Loves comes in—as unfortunate as that may be.
So here we are, back at square one. What should the Cavaliers do? Who wants Kevin Love? What can Cleveland get in return?
The rumors are already beginning to amplify. However, it’s hard to make an accurate judgement on how Cleveland should move forward from the outside of the Cavaliers’ organization. Naysayers are certainly quick to force Love away in a trade, but there has to be more to the discussion than that. Love isn’t some sort of liability and trading him isn’t addition by subtraction. Trading him away doesn’t automatically make the Cavaliers better. Cleveland’s return is an integral part of this discussion.
The new favorite trade target is Paul George, although the Indiana Pacers are unlikely to consider those offers at this time. Other than George, it’s hard to imagine another potential trade target who would provide the Cavaliers with the lift the team is trying to find.
But like I said, I’m not in the know. I have no clue what could potentially be on the table for David Griffin. He should absolutely attempt to improve the talent on his team by exhausting all of his options. But he should be careful knowing that Cleveland’s current state, armed with limited flexibility and few tradable assets, might just be the best he can do.
Ultimately, the Cavaliers shouldn’t worry about running back their core (with just a few minor tweaks) even if some fans mistake it for complacency. The Warriors are a tremendous team and it will certainly take a valiant effort to defeat them in a seven-game series. But despite what the 4-1 result in this year’s NBA Finals seem to indicate, Kevin Love might just be Cleveland’s best option in trying to unseat Golden State.