The news came in rapid succession Tuesday. First, the Cleveland Cavaliers announced all-star center Kevin Love will miss the next six weeks after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. Second, the Toronto Raptors made a trade to acquire power forward Serge Ibaka from the Orlando Magic for a 2017 first-round pick and small forward Terrence Ross.
And, with that, a fascinating few days leading up to next week’s NBA trade deadline for teams up and down the Eastern Conference standings began in earnest.
The most important news, though, lies in Cleveland, where Love has been fantastic this season, finally looking like the player who became an all-league forward with the Minnesota Timberwolves but had looked a combination of either injured or out of place through most of his first two seasons with the Cavaliers.
Cleveland was already shorthanded: J.R. Smith has missed the last two months and will sit out at least another with a broken thumb, and the Cavs spent much of the season carrying several roster spots worth of dead weight — from retired players (Mo Williams) to injured players (Chris Andersen) to players Coach Tyronn Lue has clearly decided he can’t play (Mike Dunleavy, Kay Felder, Jordan McRae).
Entering Tuesday’s game against the Timberwolves, LeBron James is tied with Toronto’s Kyle Lowry for the most minutes in the league at 37.6 per game — despite having played in six straight NBA Finals and being sixth among all active players in total career minutes played. He and Kyrie Irving have routinely been playing heavy minutes, in large part because Cleveland doesn’t have a reliable backup point guard after letting Matthew Dellavedova walk as a restricted free agent last summer. It’s unlikely that burden is going to get any easier now that Love — one of four players in the NBA to be averaging at least 20 points and 10 rebounds per game — is out of the picture until virtually the end of the regular season.
This is why the move for Ibaka — and any potential moves the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards make — could have a significant impact down the road. Cleveland is currently two games ahead of the Celtics and 4½ games ahead of the Wizards, two of the hottest teams in the NBA over the last month. It’s not inconceivable that Cleveland could fall behind both of them in the standings if it does what it realistically should and gives James and/or Irving an extended break between now and the end of the regular season.
As long as Cleveland has everyone ready for the playoffs, there’s little doubt that the Cavaliers will make it back to the NBA Finals for a third straight season, so it should be imperative to make sure they get there as healthy and rested as possible.
But Love’s injury is also a reminder that, in a seven game series, anything can happen. Cleveland knows that all too well after the way the NBA Finals turned last year.
This is why Toronto’s move to get Ibaka — shoring up the team’s most significant weakness, which was any power forward minutes Raptors Coach Dwane Casey gave to someone besides Patrick Patterson — could be the opening salvo in a series of moves among East contenders over the next nine days.
Washington has been on fire, winning 14 of its last 16 games (with those two losses being a tip-in at the buzzer in Detroit and a loss in overtime to Cleveland when James hit a turnaround three-pointer to tie the game at the end of regulation). But the Wizards are the first to admit they need another bench piece. Will Love’s injury — and the potential opening it creates — motivate the Wizards even further to go get someone like Lakers guard Lou Williams to give them scoring punch off the bench?
Boston, meanwhile, has the second best record in the Eastern Conference, has a 30-point per game scorer in Isaiah Thomas, an excellent coach in Brad Stevens and is flush with assets, including a guaranteed top four pick in this year’s NBA draft from Brooklyn. Will the Celtics be willing to push some of their chips into the middle of the table for a shot at a player like Bulls star Jimmy Butler, who could potentially be the difference between Boston winning a series or giving Cleveland a legitimate run for its money in a seven-game series?
Even Toronto, after moving on from Ross and a first for Ibaka, has more assets in play. Will they send along their remaining first-round pick for an upgrade somewhere else to try and further bolster a team that’s clearly in win-now mode to try and improve on last season’s rather lopsided six-game loss to the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals?
These are the questions the team’s at the top of the East will be asking themselves over the next nine days before the deadline passes on Feb. 23 at 3 p.m. The answers will shape the final two months of the regular season atop the East — and will show how seriously teams think the window for catching James has opened by Love’s injury.