Love showed up in Cleveland hoping to be a featured player in a title chase, only to wind up facing a limited role and unlimited criticism. After averaging huge numbers for the perpetually lottery-bound Minnesota Timberwolves for six years, Love's production diminished with the Cavs.
His per-36-minute numbers in 2014-15 were the worst they'd been since his second year in the league:
|Kevin Love Per-36 Minutes|
It didn't help matters that many who suspected Love's statistics in Minnesota were empty—indicative of box-score talent but lacking whatever it was that mattered in winning meaningful basketball games—saw his diminished role as confirmation of their beliefs about his shortcomings.
For the most part, as B/R's Ethan Skolnick pointed out, the Cavs haven't been critical of Love internally. But there's been some worry about his ability to cope with his performance and the outside scrutiny it constantly received: "Their concern hasn't been as much with how he's played but about how he's felt about how he's played, especially as outsiders have needled him with the narrative that he isn't doing nearly what he once did," Skolnick wrote.
Cleveland, Love's critics and the NBA at large are about to get a crash course in just how valuable the power forward's contributions really were.
Love's dislocated left shoulder, suffered in a tie-up with Kelly Olynyk last Sunday, will result in an extended absence.
According to comments Cavaliers general manager David Griffin made to Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com, Cleveland could be without its third star for the entire postseason:
B/R's Howard Beck got the grisly details:
In other words, the Kevin Love experiment is about to get a control.
The Immediate Threat
One thing first: It's suddenly not a lock that Cleveland will clash with the Chicago Bulls in the second round. The Milwaukee Bucks have made things interesting by winning two games while facing elimination, and nothing's guaranteed.
But let's assume it'll still be Chicago who emerges from that series.
As a starting point, Cleveland was 3-4 without Love in the lineup during the regular season, a record just good enough to translate to a seven-game elimination in the playoffs. But Love's Cavs won't be squaring off against a sample platter of NBA teams. They'll get the scary, experienced Bulls.
Against an imposing front line that has the bodies to shoot, defend, run the floor and gum up the middle on defense, Love would have been vital. The added offensive spacing his mere presence on the floor creates has ripple effects up and down the Cavaliers lineup.
When Love was on the floor during the season, the Cavaliers' ball movement was better, which you can see in the upticks they enjoyed in assisted field goals:
|Cavaliers Offense With and Without Love in 2014-15|
|Total AST%||3FGM AST%|
The threat Love poses from the perimeter creates space, which allows for more drive-and-kick opportunities. With the middle of the floor occupied by (at most) one Cavaliers big man, driving lanes open up, and defenses have to work harder to help and recover.
You want to test Nikola Mirotic's defense in the mid-post? Love could have done that.
You want to offset Taj Gibson's offensive rebounding with an elite glass-cleaner? Love could have done that.
LeBron James is confident, per Sean Deveney of Sporting News, that Cleveland has the personnel to make up for the absence of Love and J.R. Smith (who'll miss the first two games of the conference semifinals due to suspension): "It's the next man up. We have guys that have been able to step up. We know it's going to be a tough void with two of your bigger guys in our lineup and in our season so far, but we got to have guys step up."
Next man up is a fine idea, but the next man is not Kevin Love. Not even close, really.
The Boston Celtics simply aren't the same kind of team as the Bulls, so take the following evidence of Love's offensive value with a grain of salt: Cleveland scored 120.5 points per 100 possessions in four games against the Celtics with him on the floor but just 97.2 with him on the bench, per NBA.com.
Against the Bulls, specifically, Love's presence on the perimeter ensures at least one imposing defender won't be parked in the lane to hamper Kyrie Irving's and LeBron James' drives. Even if Love isn't knocking down shots, he makes opposing big men pay attention to him in space, creating opportunities for teammates.
Now Cleveland will have to replace Love's rare combination of floor-spacing and rebounding with players who can only do one thing or the other.
Using Tristan Thompson at the 4 will keep the Cavs competitive underneath but will utterly destroy perimeter spacing. And tossing out the likes of James Jones and Mike Miller in undersized roles will sacrifice punch on the glass.
Quietly, Cleveland was an excellent rebounding team this season, ranking seventh in the league, per NBA.com. That rate won't hold up if the Cavaliers opt to go smaller against the Bulls.
A Harsh Lesson
It's entirely possible the Cavs will win their second-round series without Love; having Irving and James makes Cleveland a threat (and maybe even a favorite) against just about anybody. But it's crazy to think that Love's absence does anything but hurt the Cavaliers' chances of advancing.
There's just no player in the league who combines his skills as a passer, rebounder and spacer. And it's not his fault his role was such a limited one this year. The fact that he could fill it at all is a testament to his value, and at least he can take solace in knowing someone's been in this position before, per Skolnick:
The Cavs are about to get a reminder regarding that value, and it may turn out that this is exactly what they and their fans need to finally appreciate what Love provided. In a strange way, a second-round collapse sans Love could have the effect of keeping the power forward happy in the future.
If this upcoming series winds up being proof of Love's worth, critics' dissatisfaction with his production and role won't carry as much weight. If it turns out Love mattered more than anyone thought, maybe the nature of his relationship with fans, the city of Cleveland and league-wide observers will change.
Maybe we'll all stop complaining about what he doesn't do and start acknowledging what he does do.
Maybe we'll like Love.
And maybe that'll result in him sticking around in Cleveland as a free agent—finally appreciated.
If absence makes the heart grow fonder, Love's upcoming hiatus could engender some serious affinity.
Or, you know, Cleveland could roll over its opponent, and Love will be exposed as a superfluous piece of a burgeoning dynasty that'll look elsewhere in free agency for a better fit.
I guess we'll find out.