This season was supposed to be different for Kevin Love. With Kyrie Irving gone, Love would be the second option next to LeBron James. He was also changing positions, going from power forward to center, which would open up the floor and give him easier matchups to attack on the perimeter. Instead, the position switch gave him more defensive responsibility than ever before, while Kyrie’s touches were redistributed to the Cavs’ offseason acquisitions. The more things change for Love, the more they stay the same. He has been in Cleveland for four seasons, and they still haven’t figured out how to use him, or whether the Minnesota version of himself even exists anymore.
Love has a smaller role in the offense than last season. His usage rating is down, he’s touching the ball less, and he’s taking two fewer shots per game. The Cavs’ lack of frontcourt depth is part of the issue, as it’s forcing Love and LeBron to play with each other more often. With Tristan Thompson out with a calf strain and Channing Frye barely playing, Tyronn Lue needs Love to match up with the best big men on the opposing team as much as possible. There’s no one behind him: Jeff Green is currently the backup center. Love usually plays for most of the first and third quarters, and then closes out each half, which mirrors LeBron’s substitution pattern. He has played 91 percent of his minutes with LeBron this season, compared with 77.8 percent last season.
In the rare times he’s not playing with LeBron, the rest of the roster has made it more difficult for him to get the ball. According to the tracking numbers at NBA Wowy, Love’s usage rate without LeBron has plummeted from 33.6 last season to 18.1 this season. Instead of Kyrie, Love, and a bunch of shooters, Cleveland’s supporting cast is full of guys who need the ball in their hands. Derrick Rose is averaging 11.9 shots per game, Dwyane Wade is averaging 8.9, and Jeff Green is at 7.4. Now imagine what happens when Isaiah Thomas, who averaged 19.4 field goal attempts per game in Boston last season, returns. There won’t be any time in the game to feature Love on offense if the first unit has LeBron and Thomas and the second unit has Wade and Rose.
Lue has bigger problems to worry about than getting Love more involved. The Cavs traditionally wait until the playoffs to turn up their performance on defense, but they have hit an embarrassing new low this season, with the worst defensive rating in the NBA. Most of that has come with Love at center: Cleveland has a defensive rating of 114.6 with him on the floor and 105.9 with him off. The new-look starting lineup with Love at the 5 lasted only three games before Lue brought back Tristan Thompson. However, with Thompson out for the next month, he has to use Love as his defensive anchor for now.
Love can’t protect the rim. He has a below-average wingspan (6-foot-11) for a center, he can’t get high off the ground, and he has little instinct for how to contest shots without fouling. He barely played in the second half of their early-November loss to the Hawks after fouling four times in 16 minutes. Love at the 5 is a worst-of-both-worlds situation. Cleveland gives up as much dribble penetration as any team in the league, and the Cavs don’t have a second line of defense. The result is a lot of open dunks. This was the first play of their game against Milwaukee last week:
Thomas could make things worse, if that’s even possible. At 5-foot-9, he’s one of the worst defensive guards in the NBA. The Celtics did everything they could to hide him on defense, and hip surgery could make him less mobile than he was last season. Thomas and Love played on the same AAU team in high school, but they will be tough to play together in the NBA. A lineup with Thomas at the 1 and Love at the 5 could be historically bad on defense.
Thompson will likely move Love back to the 4 when he returns, but that won’t fix all of Cleveland’s problems. Love and Thompson have a defensive rating of 117.5 in 99 minutes together this season, and neither is the type of shot-blocker who can clean up the penetration caused by the poor perimeter defenders in front of them. Thompson is giving up a higher field goal percentage around the basket as a primary defender this season (72.2 percent) than Love. The only way for this roster to work is for LeBron to rededicate himself defensively, which may not happen until the playoffs, if it happens at all. LeBron is in his 15th season in the NBA, and he’s leading the league in minutes played at 38.2 per game. He doesn’t have much left in the tank for defense.
Love’s defense might be a lost cause, but he can still help the team by taking pressure off LeBron on offense. James has handled a lot of the playmaking duties with Thomas and Rose out, and he’s averaging 28.1 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 8.8 assists a game on a career-high 58.6 percent shooting. Sharing more offensive responsibility with Love could allow him to save some energy. Love has had some big games in the past week: He had 32 points, 16 rebounds, and three assists against the Bucks, and 29 points, 15 rebounds, and three assists against the Mavs. Dallas starts Dirk Nowitzki at center and Milwaukee starts John Henson, and Love is still capable of punishing weaker defenders in the post. Featuring Love when he has those types of matchups could help Cleveland get through the regular season.
The problem is the Cavs are playing such bad defense that every game is a grind, and a trade might be the only way to fix that. There are plenty of shot-blocking 5s available around the league. Nerlens Noel, who has the same agent as LeBron, has fallen out of the rotation in Dallas. If the Cavs want someone more proven, guys like Tyson Chandler, Dewayne Dedmon, and Bismack Biyombo could be had relatively cheaply, as none of the three would cost them the unprotected Nets first-round pick they acquired in the Kyrie trade. Cleveland’s own first-round pick should be enough, plus the salaries of Frye and Kyle Korver.
No matter what Cleveland does over the next few months, Love’s playing time could be cut in the playoffs. They can’t defend with him at the 5, and he will have a lot of competition for minutes at the 4. LeBron, Jae Crowder, and Green can all play the position, and they are all much better perimeter defenders. Lue has to make rotation decisions with defense in mind. LeBron’s offense will keep them in any series. Not even Golden State can stop him when he puts his head down and attacks the rim. He averaged 33.6 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists a game on 56.4 percent shooting in last season’s Finals. They still lost in five games because Cleveland had a defensive rating of 117.5, and Love had the worst net rating (minus-13.6) of anyone on their roster.
Love and LeBron have always been an uneasy fit. Everyone around LeBron should be a 3-and-D player, and Love can do only the former. The Cavs have spent a lot of time over the years talking about featuring Love more in the post, but the offense at the end of games always devolves into LeBron getting a ball screen and attacking a spread floor. There’s no reason to do it any other way. Cleveland has had a top-four offense in each of the past four seasons without Love averaging 20 points a game once. It doesn’t matter if the Minnesota version of Kevin Love exists. The Cavs don’t need him. They never have.