With Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert back in the rotation, the Cleveland Cavaliers are at full strength for the first time since their seemingly never-ending string of injuries began in last season’s playoffs. The result is a team that looks like the juggernaut they were projected to be when they were first put together, winning 14 of their last 16 games and separating themselves from the pack in the Eastern Conference. The Cavs have as much star power and depth as any team in the league and there doesn’t appear to be a team that can challenge them before the NBA Finals.
The good news is they have proven they can storm through the East without their full complement of players. The bad news is that doesn’t really matter when you have LeBron James in his prime and a payroll north of $100 million. It’s championship or bust for the Cavs and they are likely going to have to go through either the Golden State Warriors or San Antonio Spurs, who are playing basketball at as high a level as has ever been played. Cleveland can’t afford to not maximize all of their personnel if they are going to have a shot against either team, which brings us to Kevin Love.
Getting the most out of LeBron and Kyrie Irving is relatively easy - they are going to have the ball in their hands for most of the game and they are going to put up huge stats if they have enough shooters around them. The question is how Love fits into the mix and whether he’s going to be anything more than one of those shooters or whether there’s a way to get him back to the guy who looked like one of the top 10 players in the league when he was with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The most striking difference between Love in Minnesota and Cleveland isn’t his lower per-game averages. It’s that his efficiency numbers have gone right down with them. As a rule, efficiency and usage are inversely related - the more offense a player has to create, the less efficient they are going to be and vice versa. Love has been used less and been less efficient, going from scoring 26.7 points a game on 45.3 percent shooting in his last season in Minnesota to 16.3 points on 42.4 percent shooting this season.
Chris Bosh had to manage a similar transition when he started to play with LeBron. The difference is that Bosh had the length and athleticism to commit himself to being more of a factor on defense. Love, in contrast, has neither long arms nor quick feet and he’s never going to be anything more than passable on that side of the floor. The Cavs have to hide him as much as possible, which means they have to be getting the best version of Love on offense to get the most out of him.
As it is now, they are hiding Love on defense to get him on the floor for his offense, even though his main role is spotting up off the ball. That’s an important role but it’s not all that different from what Iman Shumpert, JR Smith and Matthew Dellavedova are asked to do and all those guys can defend more positions and attack close-outs off the dribble. There’s a pretty clear pecking order in Cleveland - LeBron and Kyrie have usage ratings north of 30 and Love is at 23.4.
The difficult part is that Love hasn’t really been able to carry the team for any amount of time without the other two members of the Big Three. According to nbawowy.com, when Love is playing without Kyrie or LeBron this season, the Cavs are averaging 1.01 points per possession and are giving up 1.1 points per possession. When Kyrie is playing by himself, they are averaging 1.42 PPP and giving up 0.931 PPP while LeBron only line-ups are scoring 1.031 PPP and giving up 0.974 PPP.
Nor has Love has been effective individually without another shot-creator who can pressure the defense, as he has a usage rating of 30.1 in those line-ups and an effective field goal percentage of 38.8%. He’s never been all that great a 1-on-1 player - he’s a great shooter but he’s not quick enough to take a lot of defenders off the dribble on the perimeter and he’s a great post scorer but he’s not big enough to bury guys at the front of the rim and consistently get easy shots with his back to the basket.
The way he is playing in Cleveland makes you wonder how much his eye-popping numbers in Minnesota were the result of playing with Ricky Rubio, one of the most gifted playmakers in the league and a guy who goes way out of his way to set up his teammates instead of looking for his own shot. Rubio and Kyrie have almost diametrically opposed games and it’s possible that Love will never be as effective without a guy who can create so many open looks for him without ever taking any for himself.
To be sure, even this more limited version of Love has been valuable to the Cavs this season. Their offensive rating is +13.9 points higher when he is on the floor and their defensive rating is only -3.9 points worse. The question is how much of that is a function of his presence and how much is a function of Cleveland’s best players spending most of their time together. He’s far from the only Cavs player to have an eye-popping net rating this season - LeBron is at +21.4, Kyrie is at +18.3, Dellavedova is at +14.1, Love is at +10.3, Thompson is at + 9.0 and Shumpert is at +8.5.
When push comes to shove in the playoffs, how much better will line-ups with Love at the 4 be than ones with LeBron at the 4 and Kyrie, Dellavedova and Shumpert around him? PF is the swing position in the modern NBA and more traditional PF’s like Love are becoming less valuable, especially on the defensive end, where the ability to guard in the post and clear the defensive boards isn’t nearly as valuable as the ability to guard in space and switch the pick-and-roll. It’s easy to picture opposing teams mercilessly attacking Love in the 2-man game on one end and putting a smaller defender on the other and daring the Cavs to muck up their spacing with two big men in the paint. In other words, if Harrison Barnes or Kawhi Leonard is at the 4, can Love stay on the floor?
One possible counter is a line-up that Blatt rolled out to devastating effect against the Dallas Mavericks in the Cavs 110-107 OT victory on Tuesday - Love at the 5, LeBron at the 4. All of a sudden, Love is dragging the only big man on defense out to the three-point line and leaving the lane wide open while he gets the chance to create offense against a bigger and slower defender on the perimeter instead of a smaller and faster one. Blatt hasn’t used that line-up much this season (114 minutes) but it has been devastatingly effective - scoring 1.295 PPP and giving up 1.04 PPP.
The question is how effective those line-ups can be without a rim protector like Mozgov or an interior defender like Thompson. Playing Love at the 5 means there’s no second line of defense when the primary defender gets beat - the better solution would probably be to play LeBron at the 5 and Love at the 4 and rely on LeBron’s athleticism and defensive IQ to make up for his lack of size (although he is bigger than Thompson anyway). Of course, if LeBron is playing at the 5, than the question returns to whether Love would be more effective at the 4 than a faster and more perimeter oriented player like Shumpert.
In all likelihood, the Cavs most effective line-up to counter five-out basketball is LeBron at the 5 and their most effective line-up to counter four-out basketball is LeBron at the 4. When the Warriors go to their Line-up of Death, Cleveland’s best possible counter would be LeBron - Shumpert - Smith - Dellavedova - Kyrie. There’s just not a lot of room for what Love brings to the table when the Cavs are playing the best teams in the league and what they could really use is another 6’7+ wing defender who could slide between the 3 and 4 positions and push LeBron down to the 4 and the 5 more often.
In other words, what the Cavs really need to do is roll back the Love for Andrew Wiggins trade. That’s not going to happen but they need more wing players if they are going to play small more often and that’s the way the league is trending. They shouldn’t make a trade before seeing what Love can do with a full playoff run but if they come up short in the NBA Finals again he’s the obvious candidate to get moved.