After the defending champion Golden State Warriors went back to Cleveland and demolished the Cavaliers on their home court Monday night, winning 132-98, Kevin Love was asked what his role in Cleveland is after he finished with just three points on 1-for-5 shooting in 22 minutes.
“I don’t know how to answer that,” Love said.
It was an understandable response, given what had just happened on the court. But the more telling answer about where Love fits in Cleveland came a few days prior. Following Cleveland’s comfortable win in Houston to end their nearly two week long road trip with a 5-1 record, Love was asked if he felt he, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving were beginning to find a rhythm on the court together.
“Yeah,” Love said. “It’s one thing where Tristan [Thompson] and I, we do the dirty work. The grunt of the offense is in those two guys [James and Irving’s] hands, so then we just play off everybody else.”
That, in a nutshell, explains the conundrum the Cavaliers face with Love moving forward.
On the one hand, it’s commendable a three-time all-star and a two-time all-NBA player — one that averaged 26.1 points and 12.5 rebounds two years ago in Minnesota — has been willing to subjugate his stats for the betterment of the team in the hopes of winning a championship. But on the other, if Love is only being used as a player to do “the dirty work” and only occasionally play a featured role, it’s far from an optimal use of his prodigious talents.
The problem for the Cavaliers as a whole, and for Love specifically, is that he’s caught in the middle of a pair of logjams on the roster. The first, and most obvious, is the hierarchy on offense. Love showed during his six years in Minnesota, particularly when he was healthy, that he can be a fantastic offensive player. He developed into arguably the premier shooting big man in the league, and also was capable of being a terrific playmaker out of the high post with his passing ability.
In Cleveland, though, he’s relegated to third in the pecking order, lagging behind both James and Irving. Before Irving returned from his offseason knee surgery last month, Love averaged 17.6 points and 10.8 rebounds across 24 games, shooting 43.8 percent overall and 37.6 percent from three-point range while taking just under 14 shots per game.
Since Irving returned, however, Love’s numbers have dropped across the board: He’s scoring less (12.4 points per game) while shooting less (11.8) and worse (36.9 percent) than before, as the team heads to Brooklyn on Wednesday to play the Nets.
“I think we have to get him involved more,” Cavaliers Coach David Blatt said before Friday’s win in Houston. “[Then] I think that he’ll be right back to where he was. He’s been playing great basketball since day one here. He’s been playing all-star basketball. Even if the scoring is down a little bit, he’s still helping this team win, he’s still helping this team lead the Eastern Conference by [three] games. He’s a very, very big part of that. I’m not too worried about him.”
The larger problem for Cleveland and Love, however, is the team’s roster composition. Essentially, the Cavaliers now have three power forwards on their roster in James, Love and Thompson, and are paying all of them either maximum or near maximum salaries after agreeing in the offseason to five-year contracts with both Love and Thompson.
But if Cleveland ever wants to play small to match up with Golden State and the many teams around the league shaping their lineups in that manner, it’s hard to argue with the assessment that the best combination for the Cavaliers is with James at power forward, Thompson at center and Irving flanked by two other perimeter players.
While Love’s defense isn’t as awful as one comically bad clip that caught fire after Monday night’s game depicted, he clearly isn’t able to do the kinds of things that Thompson can defensively. And Thompson enjoyed plenty of success on defense against Golden State in the early parts of last June’s NBA Finals.
“For us we did a lot of switching, a lot of cross-matches were out there but we can match up with them basically one through five,” Irving said after the Cavaliers beat the Wizards earlier this month in Washington, closing out that game with LeBron and Thompson serving as the big men. Love, meanwhile, watched the fourth quarter from the bench. “That’s the luxury of having Tristan Thompson being able to switch out on guards and two guards and the three guard. For us, we got timely stops going into that fourth quarter.”
During Miami’s Big Three era with James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the Heat never encountered these kinds of issues because Bosh turned into an excellent defensive player and was capable of playing center in small-ball lineups because of it. Love’s skills, however, are predominantly at the offensive end.
No, Love didn’t make the playoffs with the Timberwolves, but he showed in Minnesota his myriad offensive gifts. Not to mention, there have been few franchises in recent memory that have had the same kind of dysfunction Minnesota endured while Love was there. One similar situation, ironically, has been in Sacramento — where DeMarcus Cousins, like Love, has toiled putting up massive numbers for years while watching the playoffs from afar.
Because of the awkward fit in Cleveland, Love has been compared by many to David Lee, who was phased out of Golden State’s plans after Draymond Green turned into one of the league’s premier power forwards — and, importantly, became an outstanding two-way player. Like Love, Lee too was a lackluster defender. The fact Golden State flirted with trading for Love for much of the summer of 2014 — before passing on the idea, keeping its core together and going on to beat Love and the Cavs for the title — only strengthens that comparison.
Love, though, is not Lee. Love has produced at a level — both in terms of skill and volume — Lee has never approached. There’s a reason Love was so sought after during his final couple of seasons in Minnesota: he’s a player that, when used properly, can carry an offense.
The problem with that in Cleveland is that Love isn’t needed to carry the offense. Instead, as he has said, he’s there to fill in the gaps and do the dirty work — a role that keeps him from utilizing the skills that made him so sought after in the first place.
That is the Kevin Love conundrum Cleveland faces. And, in the wake of Monday’s demolition at the hands of the Warriors, it’s a glaring one.