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Kevin Love Does Not Fit the Finals Narrative

With the Cavaliers on the verge of being swept, Cleveland is being billed as LeBron and the Pips. Love is neither. What is the big man’s role—and where does he go from here?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It didn’t look right. This was a tailored outfit, designed to be perfectly imperfect, quirky and different and elegant. Despite that, everything still seemed off. The Cavaliers wore matching suits as they entered Bakers Life Fieldhouse before Game 3 of Cleveland’s first-round playoff series against the Pacers at the behest of their leader, LeBron James, whose gray threads enveloped him perfectly: the trouser legs tapered tightly, the jacket creasing in only the most flattering spots. But each successive Cavalier to step through the bowels of the venue looked a bit worse for wear: J.R. Smith’s jacket created a box around his torso, Jeff Green’s pocket square messily sprouted from his breast. Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood looked as if their uneven lapels had begun to sap them of their life force.

But nobody appeared more awkward or uncomfortable than Kevin Love. The too-narrow three-roll-two lapel, the shirt collar curling away from the top of the cashmere cardigan, the pant cuffs halting mid-shin over the workman’s boots, the tiny cup of coffee, the gawky white headphones on top of it all—they made the All-Star forward look like a kid shaken out of bed. Love gave off the impression that he’d been stuffed into a First Holy Communion getup, and then told that, for some reason, he would have to run fives alongside the schoolyard bully.

A month and a half later, the Cavaliers are down three games to none to the Warriors in the NBA Finals, and they’re still wearing the matching suits. But now, even LeBron doesn’t look right in it. And Love, well, he still looks like he’s wearing a uniform he doesn’t particularly want.

Love was traded to Cleveland five weeks after James announced that he was returning home. He’s been there for the entirety of this four-year run. With LeBron’s second Cavs stint on the verge of potentially coming to an end, it’s worth considering that Love may be set to close this chapter of his career, too.

Heading into Game 4 of the Finals on Friday night, it seems relatively certain that these Cavaliers as we know them will soon be lost to history. It makes sense, then, that the focus on this season’s team, especially during the playoffs, hasn’t been on how to fix problems, but rather on how the Cavs’ bumbling support cast will influence what LeBron does next. Cleveland has become good for two things: showcasing a singular talent and generating laughs. This team is James and his Sisyphean task.

As the Cavaliers have advanced through this year’s playoffs, LeBron’s teammates have become punch lines. They’ve been parodied on Saturday Night Live and put through the meme circuit. The narratives only deepened after the opening game of the Finals, in which James was heroic—scoring 51 points on nearly 60 percent shooting from the field—and yet the outcome was decided in part by a critical Hill missed free throw and an all-time Smith brainfart. This was Cleveland’s 2017-18 season in a nutshell: LeBron is great, and his teammates are the opposite.

Except that synopsis doesn’t account for Love, a player who defies either categorization, neither LeBron nor a walking disaster. Basketball-Reference rates Love’s chances of one day making the Hall of Fame at better than 67 percent. He put up 17.6 points and 9.3 rebounds per game this season and has upped his production during the Finals, averaging 22.7 points and 11.9 boards. These Cavs are billed as LeBron and the Pips; Love falls in between, but has been tabbed as a member of the latter group all the same.

In fact, while Love’s contributions are often downplayed, his shortcomings are magnified. He’s dropped 20-plus points and corralled 10-plus rebounds in all three games against Golden State but has been a talking point primarily for his 3-point-shooting woes, as he’s a combined 7-of-23 from beyond arc. Over the past few seasons, when LeBron has played well and Cleveland has come up short, a common assumption has been that it must be Love’s fault. That’s not just an outsiders’ opinion; take the Cavs’ heated team meeting in January.

It’s no secret that Love’s stint with the Cavaliers has been trying. In previous years, before Kyrie Irving was traded to the Celtics, Love caught flak for being the member of Cleveland’s Big Three who couldn’t play up to expectations. As Smith put it last month, the big man had come down with “Chris Bosh syndrome.”

In the wake of Kyrie Irving’s departure, everything has changed for Love. Not only is Cleveland no longer adequately equipped to challenge the Warriors for a championship, but Love’s reputation has also drifted into no-man’s land. He isn’t seen as the third wheel behind two superior stars anymore; he’s seen as part of a roster that is being compared to LeBron’s talent-deficient 2007 Cavaliers supporting cast, on which the second-best player was Larry Hughes. (Hughes, in case you were wondering, is not listed in Basketball-Reference’s Hall of Fame probability chart.)

“Love deals with the persecution of being a LeBron teammate, of being blamed, of dealing with his social-media undercutting, of being the fall guy, as he’s called himself,” ESPN’s Brian Windhorst said last month on The Bill Simmons Podcast. “I have to give Kevin a real major hat tip for being a professional and being an adult about it. … He has always seen the big picture. … He has always maintained that this is all worth it.”

But for Love, has the ring outweighed the flak, the isolation, the receding on-court role? Has it all really been worth it?

It doesn’t feel like Kevin Love plays basketball as much as basketball happens to him. He doesn’t move quickly or gracefully. His jump shot features a balky motion that doesn’t seem to happen in slow motion as much as it happens at regular speed over a long period of time. His best passes aren’t displays based in motion as much as they’re stationary geometric calculations. The game goes by, and the stats pile up, and by the final whistle his performance is prone to be discussed as much for his photogenic expressions as his production.

On Wednesday in Game 3, Love nailed a 3-pointer on the first trip down the floor to catalyze a 16-4 opening run for Cleveland. He’d hit two more shots from deep, notching 15 points and 10 boards in the first half as the Cavs entered the locker room with a six-point lead. But in the second half, the Warriors charged back. With less than three minutes remaining in the game and Cleveland down 98-97, Love got the ball on the left wing, set his eye on the rim, streaked forward, and was stripped by Andre Iguodala. Love wouldn’t score again; Golden State would win by eight. The Cavs walked off the floor while ABC’s broadcasting crew praised James’s triple-double and bemoaned his lack of help.

If (and when) LeBron leaves Cleveland this summer, it seems likely that Love will be shipped elsewhere. In another locale, he may be free to play his brand of basketball again—the heavy-usage, paint-concentrated game that he honed in Minnesota and gave away for a chance to compete alongside the best player of his generation. And perhaps that will be for the best. Love, like Bosh before him, relegated his skill set to buoy LeBron. And like Bosh before him, he is too good to be remembered as a sandbag tied around LeBron’s ankle.

Maybe, at a tailor of his own, Love will find a suit that fits.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that the Cavaliers played the Pacers in the second round; it was the first round.