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Can Kevin Love Be Saved?

AP Images
AP Images

Even before he left in the third quarter of Game 2 with concussion-like symptoms, Kevin Love didn’t look like he belonged. The Cavs’ trap-heavy defensive scheme had him showing 25-plus feet from the basket on the pick-and-roll, and he wasn’t nearly fast enough to recover back to the Warriors shooters spread out along the 3-point line. On offense, he couldn’t take advantage of his size to punish the Warriors’ smaller defenders, memorably struggling to score over the top of Steph Curry — who is some seven inches and 60 pounds his minor — on one inglorious play.

If Cleveland isn’t able to make the Finals competitive, the knives will come out, and Love will be the one who will have to watch his back the most. He’s not the city’s prodigal son, and he’s not its homegrown no. 1 pick. Love was an established star who arrived in exchange for Andrew Wiggins (and other pieces), and he has not been nearly the player the Cavs expected when they acquired him from the Wolves. Picking between the Cavs’ two second fiddles is simple: Kyrie Irving is still young enough that there’s room for growth in his game; Love is a 27-year old who, at this point in his career, is who he is.

Love’s on-court synthesis with LeBron James has always been strained, but it will only devolve as the years go by. As LeBron has gotten older, he has lost bits of his explosiveness and almost all of his jumper. All signs are pointing toward a full-time move to the 4 spot before long. Love, meanwhile, has never had the rim-protecting chops to be much of a 5. Many of the Cavs’ most effective lineups feature LeBron with one traditional big man and three perimeter players, leaving Love the odd man out.

David Blatt and Tyronn Lue have spent the past two seasons trying to figure out a way to maximize Love’s skill set next to LeBron and Kyrie without much avail, and if Love’s injury keeps him out for the remainder of the series, the Cavs may have run out of time on salvaging the star they thought they were getting. Teams will inquire about him, no doubt, under the premise that the system was to blame for Love’s decline. But whether the version of Kevin Love we saw in Minnesota stills exists is a mystery to the entire league.

It’s easy to forget now, but Love was once considered one of the premier power forwards in the NBA and one of the top 10 players in the league. He averaged 26.1 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 4.4 assists in his final season in Minnesota, numbers unmatched in the past two decades. His averages plummeted to 16.2 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 2.3 assists in his two regular seasons with the Cavaliers, and in these playoffs, he’s shooting 38.9 percent from the field.

Watching him wait in the corner for the ball during countless Cleveland plays this season, it would seem obvious that Love’s post game has deteriorated — that his core skill is being ignored for the sake of the Cavs system. But that’s actually not the case. For as bad as he has looked down on the block in the Finals, Love’s effectiveness with his back to the basket hasn’t really declined. He averaged 0.98 points per possession in the post during the regular season. That’s not only better than his point production from down low in Minnesota, it’s about as good as LeBron’s outstanding post play in this year’s playoffs, where James is generating exactly one point per possession, according to Synergy Sports Technology.

Unfortunately, Love’s post-up numbers in the playoffs aren’t quite so rosy. He’s shooting 35.6 percent in that play type, and his production drops by nearly one-fifth of a point per possession compared to the regular season. Having to go up against the likes of Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Bismack Biyombo, and all the Warriors defenders exposes the trouble Love has against long, versatile defenders on good teams. That kind of drop-off encapsulates the worries about Love’s future as a star player in this league — is there a way a contending team can leverage his unique talents, or was Love just putting up inflated stats for one of the dregs of the NBA?

The problem with trying to recreate his glory years with the Wolves is that they weren’t all that glorious. Love’s Wolves were one of the most underachieving teams in the NBA, playing below their Pythagorean expectation in all six seasons according to Basketball-Reference, never even making the playoffs. Just how good can a team be if Kevin Love is its featured player? He has been in the league for eight seasons, and we still don’t have an answer to that question.

Building around Love isn’t easy. He doesn’t have the foot speed to defend on the perimeter or the size and length to protect the rim, which means he isn’t going to be effective at either of the most effective strategies for defending the pick-and-roll — perhaps the most vital task of the modern 4. But we’ve never seen him in a situation where his defensive liability has been adequately mitigated. Love has never had the benefit of playing with a defensive-minded center who can shut down the lane, choke off the pick-and-roll, and cover up his mistakes. He’s never found a home with the personnel to properly foster his talents.

The best-case scenario for Love is a career track that follows that of Dirk Nowitzki, another offensive-minded stretch-4 who needed defensive-minded personnel around him to be successful. Love needs his Tyson Chandler, and it doesn’t appear that player is on the horizon in Cleveland. Love isn’t nearly as versatile an offensive player as Dirk. He cannot consistently take smaller players off the dribble, and he doesn’t have the same height and length to allow him to shoot over the top of longer players in the post. In an ideal scenario, Love needs a more offensive-minded version of Chandler, a guy who can command a double-team and collapse interior defenses like his former teammate Nikola Pekovic, while still being able to step out on the perimeter and give Love room to operate in the post.

In other words, Love needs a unicorn. A unicorn like Karl-Anthony Towns.

The irony of his situation is that after failing to successfully build around him in the first six years of his career, the Wolves now have Love’s ideal frontcourt partner in this season’s rookie of the year. Towns could’ve covered for Love on defense as the pair formed the most versatile offensive frontcourt duo in the NBA. But the Wolves have moved on; Love needs what Minnesota now has more than it needs what he’s got left.

Fortunately, there is another way, and it’s a move much more realistic than a Twin Cities reunion. Hear me out: Kevin Love for Carmelo Anthony. It almost makes too much sense for it not to happen. The 27-year-old Love embeds within Kristaps Porzingis’s timetable in New York better than the 32-year-old Anthony, and it’s not clear how a rebuilding Knicks team will be able to contend in the remaining years of Carmelo’s prime. Carmelo and LeBron have talked about playing together for years, while Carmelo’s ability to attack off the dribble as a 3/4 combo forward is exactly the player the Cavs need to contend with the Warriors.

Kristaps Porzingis is the Latvian Karl-Anthony Towns. He may not be quite as versatile, but he’s every bit his equal as a shot-blocker and a 3-point shooter. There might not be another big man who is better suited for the Triangle than Love; he would thrive as a facilitator and a post-up player operating from the elbow. It’s a lot of moving parts, but this trade is the easiest route toward a win-win resolution for the Cavaliers and Love.