Kevin Love: A predicament the Cavaliers must find an answer to
In winning game three of the 2016 NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers completely flipped the script of the first two games.
Dominated in games one and two by the defending champion Golden State Warriors, they dominated back in game three, and the only difference in personnel was not having Kevin Love available.
Then, in game four, Love returned. And Cleveland lost.
There is no intent here to draw an indisputable and emphatic causative link between the two, nor to assume or try and prove the dramatic reversal is all due to the presence/absence of Love.
But at this point, it is surely somewhat the case that Cleveland is better off without Kevin Love. Against this opponent, at least.
When deployed as an out-and-out star like he was in Minnesota, when offense is tailored around him and defensive shortcomings accounted for, Love is an elite talent.
From the perimeter, post, pinch-post or elbow, and be it off the glass, catch or dribble, Love brought scoring in most facets and many ways, part of the new era of NBA power forwards who heavily, heavily favoured the face-up game.
However, the Love in Cleveland does not work in that way. The Love in Cleveland is more of a shooter than a scorer.
Post touches slow down the pacy offense, so they are mostly gone; the elbow touches that could replace them suitably throw off the team’s offensive spacing so as to be beneficial only to Love’s own personal scoring output, at the expense of the team’s efficiency.
As such, they have never really been employed since he got there. And thus at this point, while Love has the scoring talents of an All-Star talent, he has the responsibility and fit of a role player.
Love doesn’t need the ball to score, whereby “need the ball” is defined as “having plays created for him, and having his favourite areas in the half-court offense be those around which the team is partly based”.
But if he doesn’t have it, he’s not substantially better than other, more established role players who could do the same. If Love is merely spotting up for jump shots, cleaning up around the rim and finishing the looks that others create for him, Love is a role player himself.
And those other established role players could do these things for lesser cost, with lesser star power to factor in, and with better defensive versatility.
With this in mind, the rest of his game becomes all the more important. And therein lies the problem.
Today’s version of Kevin Love is better than he was defensively in Minnesota, making better reads in pick-and-roll situations and employing better footwork to keep up with the speedier opponents. But combined with weak help side instincts and mediocre length, he has never been good on this end of the court, and nor will he ever.
This is what the Warriors are capitalising on. This is what, game three of this series aside, has made them the distinctly better team for two straight years.
The Stephen Curry/Draymond Green pick-and-roll, with Klay Thompson running around it and able to drop a three at a moment’s notice, is now so good that any opposing team must, MUST, be built specifically to stop it.
The Oklahoma City Thunder were, hence why they came one or two jumpshots short of doing so. But Cleveland aren’t. And they never will be with Kevin Love in this role.
A team can win a championship with Kevin Love as something of a centrepiece. But that team isn’t Cleveland. Love doesn’t fit with this Cavs team optimally, nor especially close to optimally.
And while money is no object, pride isn’t. Love doesn’t need to be an especially proudful or stubborn man for it to be a problem when the team directly benefits from him coming off the bench.
Do Cleveland therefore, need to bring Love off the bench? Yes, probably. There is plenty of evidence, statistical and anecdotal, to confirm two hypotheses.
Firstly, in what are hereafter going to be the later years of his career, LeBron is better as a power forward. The transcendent talent who (wrongly) played point guard when he first came into the league is now best suited as a modern era four man, in the way that most tall small forwards end up eventually.
If Cleveland’s championship window is to stay open, LeBron is the man who will keep it so, and so he is the one who must be put in the best situation to succeed. This impacts on Love’s place in proceedings, probably terminally.
Love’s fit in Cleveland would arguably be better if Irving was not the point guard – it is a struggle when both halves of the pick-and-roll defense are questionable – but it is unequivocally true that LeBron James is a better power forward than he is.
Secondly, the Cavaliers showed in game three that their best defense against such a dynamic offense does not have Love in it.
Tristan Thompson exists alongside Love as an illuminating juxtaposition between two very different players.
He cannot space the floor like Love, and nor can he clean up or finish up as consistently or smoothly as Love does around the basket and in the paint. But his offensive rebounding is arguably just as vital to the Cavaliers’ offense and efficiency as Love’s sideline three-pointers are.
In tandem with that, Thompson can track both players in the pick-and-roll action. And he does.
When Kyrie Irving is similarly competitive defensively – and he can be, as he has shown at times in this series – the Cavaliers can slow down the Warriors while retaining enough offensive punch to top this team, theoretically.
To do so means diminishing the already diminished role of Love. And that is problematic.
A team cannot pay the price Cleveland paid to acquire Love, give him the fanfare and the responsibility, further pay the price it cost to keep him, and then just hope it will be fine if you bring him off the bench.
Even if he acquiesces willingly – which is quite the assumption outside of a one game sample size - Love would be the humanitarian of the year if he were able to do that.
This is not a prediction that Love will complain if brought off the bench for the remainder of the series – has that ever happened in an NBA Finals? – but it will be at some point. At the very least, it is an inefficient use of assets and money to do so.
The problem of how to make Love fit in future years, or how to excoriate and replace him, is a discussion and a problem for the summer.
Cleveland surely know by now that they need not a power forward, but a three-and-D wing of some prestige who moves James to his best position, balances the team, and projects better against the Warriors. [So basically, they need Andre Iguodala].
Until then, however, they have the immediate short term problem.
The Cavaliers have to do the borderline impossible and win three straight games. They can only do so by playing nearly perfect basketball with the exact pieces in the optimum places.
At one time, Love and his perimeter skills were emblematic of the new style of NBA power forward. But the position has evolved once again.
The best power forwards in this series are small forwards. And so, pride be damned, Cleveland must adjust accordingly.