Before the Finals started, Cleveland knew what Kevin Love was.
After three years spent altering his game, this was his best season as a Cav. Love averaged a double-double, 19 points and 11 rebounds, for the first time since his last season in Minnesota. He’s made a conscious effort to space outward, taking the most 3-pointers of his career since 2013–14, when the Wolves were so desperate for shooters that Kevin Martin’s low release was their only other outside threat.
It’s been his best postseason, too. In the Celtics series, Love hit shots like a guard, making 53.5 percent from deep and averaging 22.6 points. He hit Boston where it hurt, on the boards, and averaged more rebounds in that span, 12.4 per game, than Tristan Thompson ever has in a season. Until the Golden State series, the Cavaliers had their best offensive rating, 124, with Love on the floor (of all players with minutes in all 13 games).
But after two games — two whoopings — against the Warriors, Love is already being thrown out as the piece to trade in an offseason revamp.
The proposition isn’t unfair: The Cavs’ defense — their biggest problem in these Finals — will never be able to handle the Warriors as currently constituted, and Love sticks out as a liability. (To be fair, that’s something very few players can help with against Golden State.) Love’s defense has improved, but he matches up worst against a team with the positional mobility of the Warriors, and continues to be ruthlessly taken advantage of in the pick-and-roll. And as a league scout, executive, and assistant coach all attested to Kevin O’Connor in March, Cleveland could be better off now had it kept Andrew Wiggins, the rookie Love was traded for. That’s especially true defensively; just ask James Harden.
Still, the trade rumors feel sour two games into the Finals, where so far, Love has been the only consistent help to LeBron James.
In Game 2, he took 23 shots, the most of anyone on either roster.
Well, technically Kyrie Irving also attempted that many — but Love was the right-hand man for a very exhausted LeBron that night. He finished with 27 points on 52 percent shooting and his minus-8 plus/minus was the best (or, least bad) of any of Cleveland’s starters. Kyrie struggled, starting 2-for-7 from the field, and ending with 19 points. Over the 16 times this regular season that Kyrie took 23 or more shots, he averaged 31 points, never dipping below 23. Cleveland’s offense isn’t built to stay afloat while carrying a 19-on-23 game from Kyrie, and Love’s 27 points mitigated some of the problems.
It was the second consecutive game that Love filled in where another (usually proficient) teammate lagged. In the Finals opener, Tristan Thompson grabbed just four boards, an area where Cleveland needed to own an advantage. Love finished that night with a game-high 21.
Love’s defense has given the Warriors less trouble than it’s given Mark Jackson an opportunity to pun his family name — "I call that swept away by Love!" — but he deserves credit for his play in the Finals so far. His flaws are highlighted against the team Cleveland needs to beat, but apparently so are Thompson’s (who’s scored eight points and grabbed eight boards over two games), Kyrie’s (just nine assists and three trips to the line in that span), J.R. Smith’s (three points and a lot of memes), and everyone on the Cavs roster not named LeBron. And some might even say the King is … slipping.
Cleveland might be swept out of this postseason and decide to shop the 28-year-old Love after his best season there. He is on the books for $22.6 million next season, and after that, still has two more seasons that need to be paid on his five-year, $113 million max deal. Cleveland’s cap next season is a tightly wound disaster, and moving a max contract like Love’s might be the best option should the Cavaliers push for a defensive- or small-ball-friendly roster. If nothing else for Cleveland, his deal will be easier to offload, especially after this postseason, than contracts like Thompson’s (five years, $82 million) and Smith’s (four years, $57 million). Love’s good playoffs won’t be enough to propel the Cavs to another ring, but his play has value — just maybe not enough for Cleveland to keep him.