It’s been three years since LeBron James’s now-infamous subtweet suggested that Kevin Love “Stop trying to find a way to FIT-OUT and just FIT-IN,” but the Love that Cleveland was expecting when it traded for him in 2014 still hasn’t shown up. After establishing himself as an All-Star in Minnesota, Love’s scoring numbers are down in his four seasons with the Cavaliers, and he’s been hampered by knee, back, and hand injuries. That Love has been a disappointment in Cleveland, despite making the past two All-Star teams, is nothing new. But it’s more glaring now, as the weakest Cavs roster of LeBron’s second tenure battles through this postseason.
The Cavaliers received the secondary contributions necessary in Tuesday’s Game 1 to support LeBron and defeat the Raptors, 113-112, in a thrilling overtime game. But they came from J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, and Tristan Thompson, who combined for 69 points. Love, still hampered by a thumb injury to his non-shooting hand, contributed seven points on 3-for-13 shooting, 13 rebounds, and two assists while playing turnstyle defense for portions of the game.
The game was a nightmare for the Raptors. Fred VanVleet missed a wide-open 3 at the end of regulation, followed by Toronto missing four tip-in chances over the final few seconds. The Cavs very well could end Toronto’s season again, but to increase their chances of advancing, and to have any chance of winning the NBA Finals, they’ll need more from Love. But does the Love who rose to prominence with the Timberwolves still exist?
In three seasons under then–Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman, Love was a high-usage big man through whom the ball was funneled. His final season in Minnesota was his best: A 25-year-old Love averaged 26.1 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 4.4 assists per game in 2013-14. Only six other players, all of whom have made the Hall of Fame, have ever surpassed the 26-12-4 threshold, per Basketball-Reference, and each instance came before the NBA added the 3-point line. Love was a unique force in Minnesota, but he doesn’t get utilized like it in Cleveland.
James is understandably the Cavaliers’ focal point, but his presence means other players must sacrifice. Dwyane Wade had to take a back seat when LeBron went to Miami, and Chris Bosh went through many of the same growing pains as Love did while getting pushed from the block to behind the arc. Next to LeBron, Love can’t run the same plays that made him a booming success in Adelman’s “corner offense,” a system that required a big man who could shoot, screen, and pass from the elbow.
Kevin Love Elbow Touches
|Year||Elbow Touches Per Game|
|Year||Elbow Touches Per Game|
Regular-season data, per NBA.com/Stats.
Playing from the elbow unleashed the best of Love; from there, he could pass like a guard, shoot over defenders, and attack off the dribble. We’ve grown used to seeing bigs roam the perimeter, but even today, few blend scoring and passing as seamlessly as Love did five seasons ago. One of the more innovative elbow actions that Adelman ran involved a guard passing Love the ball, then immediately setting a screen to free the power forward for 3s.
Cavs coaches David Blatt and Tyronn Lue never downloaded this set into their offensive playbooks. After watching endless clips of Love on Synergy, I could find only one instance in which a similar play was run this season, but it looked unscripted. All told, Love logged 7.9 elbow touches per 36 minutes during his final season with the Wolves, compared with 2.1 elbow touches per 36 minutes in his four seasons and playoffs with the Cavaliers. It’s not as if Love lost his skills. He still dishes off the dribble and creates looks for teammates. He still scores as many points per elbow touch now as he did then, per NBA.com/Stats. And he’s hit 38.4 percent of his 3s over four seasons and the playoffs with the Cavaliers, which is better than his 36.2 percent over six seasons with the Timberwolves.
The big difference is that Love has largely been relegated to a standstill shooter. Around one-quarter of his possessions through four seasons with the Cavs have been spot-ups, per Synergy; he didn’t log one season over 17 percent with the Wolves. These days, Love waits around at the 3-point line. In the Wolves days, Adelman pushed the boundaries of Love’s scoring by running him through screens and dribble handoffs. Sometimes, Love would walk into actions, fake a handoff, and launch 3s, or he’d cut for a layup.
Other times, Adelman would have Love sprint through the top of the key like he was a wing.
The Cavaliers run some off-the-ball screens for Love, but they’re far less frequent than they were in Minnesota (Love shot off screens 1.6 times per game during his final season with the Wolves, compared to 0.8 this season). Blatt installed screens to get Love going after a terribly slow start to his first season in Cleveland. They just didn’t do it as much because Love was less of a priority than LeBron and Kyrie Irving.
But even with Irving gone and the Cavs’ roster largely a wasteland of aging veterans, Love still doesn’t get any more touches or shots. He’s still capable of splashing off-balance 3s. Since being acquired by the Cavs, Love has shot 34.9 percent on 3s taken off screens, per Synergy—which is good but not great. Overall, it shows he can produce when provided the opportunities. With ample practice time in the playoffs, it’s never too late for the Cavs to install these types of sets for Love to diversify their offense.
Love is missing more than Adelman’s offense; the absence of Ricky Rubio’s playmaking has diminished Love’s pick-and-roll scoring. That’s not a knock against LeBron, who is one of the greatest passers in history. Rubio’s probing was just a better fit for Love than LeBron’s meteor drives. Rubio and Love were on the same wavelength playing the two-man game, passing back and forth, utilizing Love’s knack for ad-libbing until an opening in the defense was found. Love might pop for a 3, or cut for a layup. Rubio would find him open.
Love averaged 107.4 points per 100 pick-and-roll possessions during the three seasons he played with Rubio, compared to a pedestrian 94.2 points per 100 possessions since joining the Cavs. Again, Love is a lower priority in Cleveland. His rim-running isn’t on the same level as a lob threat like Tristan Thompson, and Kyle Korver is a far superior 3-point shooter, so he’s used for more slip-screens for 3s. And if a defense switched, LeBron would almost always have a better advantage than Love because he’d likely have a slower-footed big on him. Cleveland’s best use of Love is as a floor-spacer for the greatest player of this generation. Love was transitioning into a shooter in Minnesota anyway.
As a rookie, Love was a traditional big who crashed the boards, posted up, and rarely shot 3s. Over time in Minnesota, he became a multidimensional threat. Now, in Cleveland, he’s a glorified spot-up shooter. Over 45 percent of his shots are 3s, which exceeds marksmen like Klay Thompson (44.1 percent) and Otto Porter (35.4 percent). When Love is hovering around the line, he’s away from the paint, where he once beat up defenses with his bruising low-post scoring and ferocious rebounding.
Most head coaches don’t push their players to crash the glass like they once did because there’s a greater emphasis on transition defense. The Cavaliers certainly don’t; they ranked 27th in offensive rebounding this season. It’s a system-dependent skill. Love’s ability to vacuum up rebounds hasn’t weakened; he’s just on a team that doesn’t require him to use it.
The same is also likely true for Love’s interior scoring. The game has changed rapidly since Love was traded to Cleveland, because of the 3-point-shooting revolution. But again, Love’s production hasn’t necessarily declined when given the opportunity. Love scored 89.9 points per 100 post-ups during his tenure with the Wolves, compared with 95.3 points per 100 post-ups with the Cavs. The play isn’t a particularly efficient source of scoring compared with spot-up 3s and cuts, which is why the post-up has declined this decade. But it’s still good for that particular area of the floor. More importantly, the post can be used for playmaking.
Most teams still alive in the playoffs use the post to generate offense. The Sixers post up Ben Simmons and let him pick apart defenses when there’s an opening, as do the Celtics with Al Horford and the Warriors with Draymond Green. Teams also employ smaller players there. The Rockets use James Harden on the post to create passing angles to find cutters and shooters, much like the Raptors do with DeMar DeRozan or the Celtics do with Marcus Smart. Traditional centers have faded, but the post won’t die.
Until no. 1 NFL draft pick Baker Mayfield proves himself for the Browns, LeBron and Love are the two best quarterbacks in Cleveland. Love can throw darts across the court, or handle double-teams and comfortably deliver the ball to cutters. Love is thinner than he once was, but his passing vision hasn’t regressed, nor has his post footwork. So while Love may never be asked to score inside like he did during his Minnesota years, his passing could be an even more important skill in today’s shot-happy NBA.
Down the stretch of Game 1, the Cavs turned to Love for consecutive runs when, for some inexplicable reason, Raptors coach Dwane Casey tasked DeRozan with defending Love. Toronto doubled both times, and Love threw darts to J.R. Smith for a spot-up 3 and to Thompson, who drew a foul and made both free throws.
I asked three assistant coaches if Love could produce on offense like he did in Minnesota, if provided the opportunity. All three said yes, though one assistant expressed doubt because Love’s performance regressed during each of Cleveland’s four postseason runs; over 50 playoff games, he’s averaging 14.8 points with a 55.6 true shooting percentage. The same assistant said he thinks Love’s defense is exploitable when he plays the 4 (as he often does when sharing the court with Thompson). But if the Raptors can have a top defense with Jonas Valanciunas and the Spurs can have one with LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol, then a team can with Love.
Love is a positionally sound defender and still a fantastic defensive rebounder. The Cavs demanded a lot from him against the Pacers, utilizing an aggressive trapping scheme that required Love to chase Victor Oladipo at the 3-point line, then scamper back to his man. Love did his job against the Pacers. But he’s athletically limited, and the Raptors were ready to expose him and the Cavaliers defense at the start of Game 1.
Lue quickly pulled the plug on this defense and switched to a more conservative scheme that put Thompson on Valanciunas, which put Love on either Serge Ibaka or Pascal Siakam, both of whom set fewer on-ball screens than Valanciunas, a rumbling tractor trailer on offense. But Love’s defensive limitations were still apparent; Valanciunas made Love look like a pipsqueak.
And even when Love is in the right position, his athletic deficiencies can prevent him from altering shots either near the rim or behind the arc.
I’d be interested in seeing Love on a team with a bunch of great defensive players. And if Love’s offensive workload were significant, maybe his subpar defense could be tolerable. Love still seems to have the ability to produce at a higher level than he’s currently at on offense. But Love never made the playoffs in six seasons for the Wolves, and it’s not just because of a weak supporting cast. In addition to the defensive concerns, maybe players like him just can’t be true no. 1 options on offense in today’s league. Aldridge had a tremendous season for the Spurs, but even he’s better suited in a no. 2 or no. 3 role. Nikola Jokic couldn’t take the Nuggets to the playoffs. DeMarcus Cousins, a meaner and more athletic version of Love, never led the Kings to more than 33 wins and hasn’t meshed perfectly with Anthony Davis.
The Cavaliers would’ve been better served blending some of the old Love with the new Love by running more offense through him to alleviate pressure on LeBron, but it’s too late for that. Change could be coming, whether LeBron stays in Cleveland or not. Love has been involved in countless trade rumors over the past three years, and could become a free agent as soon as 2019 (though he has a $25.6 million player option for the 2019-20 season that he might consider picking up). If LeBron leaves this summer, maybe the Cavs can build their offense around Love. Or maybe the Cavs would deal Love to a team with complementary pieces that highlight his strengths. Any team thinking about it needs to consider Love’s growing injury history; he turns 30 in September, and in addition to his hand issues, he seems to clutch his heavily padded, surgically repaired knee on a weekly basis.
The Cavaliers had good reason to trade Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, and other assets for Love; he was one of the NBA’s most dynamic scorers and a seemingly perfect fit for LeBron’s second tenure with the Cavaliers. It worked: The Cavs won a title. James and Love’s embrace after a historic comeback from being down 3-1 in the 2016 Finals will be replayed forever. But the duo still hasn’t clicked the way the Cavs envisioned. In spite of everything, there’s still a path for Love and the Cavs to make a fourth straight NBA Finals. They have a one-game lead over the Raptors, and a chance to go to the Eastern Conference finals against a young Sixers or a depleted Celtics team. There’s still a chance for Love to find new life away from LeBron’s shadow, but while he’s here, he might as well reap the benefits.