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'We Always Need Kevin': Cavs Will Find Championship Form When Love Returns

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterFebruary 26, 2018

Cleveland Cavaliers' Kevin Love (0) drives against Atlanta Hawks' Luke Babbitt (8) in the first half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Tony Dejak/Associated Press

CLEVELAND — Kevin Love quickly paced down a Quicken Loans Arena hallway toward the Cleveland Cavaliers locker room with only about an hour to go until game time, raising his left hand, which was wrapped in a soft cast, for those around to see.

"I'm not late," Love insisted. "See? It's still broke."

Excused tardiness aside, Love is nursing a non-displaced fracture of the fifth metacarpal of his left hand, an injury suffered in a Jan. 30 loss at the Detroit Pistons. A projected six- to eight-week recovery timeline puts him back in action around mid- to late March, with two to four weeks left in the regular season.

When Love does return, he'll be surrounded by a very different rotation.

In Love's last game, Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade and Channing Frye also took the floor for the Cavs. They've since been replaced by George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. Cleveland is 4-2 since making the trades.

In all the excitement, which included big wins over the Boston Celtics and Oklahoma City Thunder, Love has become a bit of an afterthought.

His return to the court and reintegration into the starting lineup will be yet another adjustment for Cleveland in a season full of roster acclimation. Here's how Love will fit in with the new-look Cavs, a team that may need his services now more than ever.

Love proved to be an excellent second option behind LeBron James this season, averaging his highest per-100-possessions scoring rate (31.3 points) and his best shooting numbers (.463/.404/.883) since he joined the Cavaliers in 2014.

Cleveland's recent strong play shouldn't diminish what the 29-year-old brings to the table. The Cavs needed Love's offense and rebounding in recent losses to the Washington Wizards and San Antonio Spurs.

"We always need Kevin. He's an All-Star player," head coach Tyronn Lue said. "So, of course when you lose an All-Star player, you're going to miss him. But he's not here now, so we have to play without him."

Nick Wass/Associated Press

Love's numbers (17.9 points, 9.4 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game) aren't reflective of how good he can be as a high-usage big. Thomas' return to the court from a hip injury and need for the ball slashed Love's production—something that won't happen with Thomas in Los Angeles.

Love averaged 24.0 points on 47.0 percent shooting with a plus-0.9 net rating per 36 minutes when he took the court without Thomas. When the two shared the floor, Love's numbers dropped to 16.6 points on 40.0 percent shooting with a minus-8.8 net rating.

While James, Love, Thomas, Wade and Derrick Rose had all previously held alpha dog roles, there will now be a clear pecking order in Cleveland with Thomas, Wade and Rose gone.

Unlike in seasons past, Love has spent a whopping 98 percent of his court time at center in 2017-18, compared to just 13 percent in 2016-17. Lue preferred a smaller lineup with Crowder at power forward and Tristan Thompson coming off the bench.

When Love returns, rookie Cedi Osman will either move back to the bench or out of the rotation altogether.

And with Crowder gone and Thompson slowly rounding into form following an early-season calf injury, all signs point to a full-time return to power forward for Love.

In his brief stint as a 4 this season, Love registered a PER of 28.9 and out-rebounded his opponents 16.7-8.7 per 48 minutes of play, according to 82games.com.

Playing him at power forward offers benefits for the rest of the Cavs' big men as well.

Phil Long/Associated Press

Thompson and Nance are non-shooting bigs who cannot share the floor. And both have earned significant playing time that shouldn't be taken away by playing Love in their place at center.

Love and Thompson already have history playing next to each other and make up one of the best rebounding duos in the league. Thompson usually guards the best opposing big man, while Love takes on the slower, less skilled matchup.

Nance essentially split his time between post positions with the Lakers but has logged 95 percent of his minutes at the 5 for Cleveland.

"My position preference is 'on the court,'" Nance told Bleacher Report. "As long as I'm out there, I'm happy. Whether they want me guarding LaMarcus Aldridge or Tony Parker, I'll be glad I'm on the court."

Nance has the highest offensive rebounding rate (14.8 percent) on the Cavs, while Love carries the highest defensive figure (29.7 percent). Both Thompson and Nance should fit well beside Love and keep him from having to defend opposing centers.

Lue can plug and play either of them next to Love for a better defensive and glass-cleaning lineup.

Despite the massive roster turnover from the 2015-16 championship team to this one, Cleveland will have retained 80 percent of its title-winning starting lineup when Love returns.

That should make things easier for Love from a personnel standpoint, though he'll have to adjust to how these younger, faster Cavs play.

"I think having four guys at all times that can rebound the ball and push it out on the break gives us an advantage," Lue said. "We have that now. We have the personnel to do that, and we've just got to continue to get better at it."

Before the trades, Cleveland was the oldest team in the league and often did its offensive work in the half court. Only 10.5 percent of its scoring came via the fast break, a mark that ranked 15th in the NBA. Since the additions of Hill, Hood, Clarkson and Nance, however, the Cavs have increased their fast-break scoring to 18.6 percent of their offense, the highest mark in the league.

Love's not going to beat anyone in a footrace, but his vision and outlet passing should be a boon with so many athletes ready to run.

He's also adept at trailing on the fast break for an open three-pointer while the defense is still scrambling, which should fit in nicely as the Cavs continue to push the pace.

With Thomas and Kyrie Irving playing elsewhere, Love's abilities to create offense for himself in the half court and get to the line will be valuable as well.

Cleveland has dropped to 25th in the league in made free throws since Feb. 8, collecting just 14.5 per contest. Love is the team's best free-throw shooter and gets to the line more than anyone not named LeBron James. Prior to Love's injury, the Cavs cashed in on 18.8 made free throws per game, good for sixth in the NBA.

Gone are the days of Love as a third wheel who tried to fit in to whatever role was asked of him.

It's now Love's turn to take over as the second option on a squad that is much different—and will be much better—than the one he left behind.

    

Greg Swartz covers the Cleveland Cavaliers for Bleacher Report. Stats provided by NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.

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