At the time of this writing, no one knows for sure where LeBron James is going to play basketball this fall. There is certainly a chance he could pick up his player option or sign a longer-term deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers. There is a chance he departs and forms his own West Coast superteam. My thought experiment takes place after the latter. Assuming The King leaves again the Cavs front office will have a series of decisions to make. It stands to reason that power forward and living trade rumor Kevin Love will be shipped out for a draft pick or young prospect so the Wine and Gold can begin a long, painful rebuild. What if, however, number zero stuck around? What if the Cavs chose to build around him and make him the focus of the offense? What if Love is all they need?
Kevin Love played the first six years of his career with the Minnesota Timberwolves. The big man averaged 32.8 minutes per game, 19.2 points, 12.2 rebounds, and 2.5 assists. Love earned All-Star honors in 2011, 2012, and 2014. His usage rate averaged 24.7% and peaked at 28.9% in 2012-13. His 26.9 player efficiency rating in 2013-14 ranked third in the NBA behind only Kevin Durant and LeBron James. That same year his 14.3 win shares ranked third behind the same two stars. In other words, Kevin Love played outstandingly well in Minnesota and made an impact in every game he played.
The biggest difference between Minnesota Love and Cleveland Love is distance. In the Twin Cities, Love shot 76.4% of his attempts from two-point range and 23.6% from three. Those numbers drastically changed as a Cavalier with Love shooting 56% of his attempts from inside the arc and 44% from beyond it. For the past four years, various fans and writers have criticized David Blatt and Ty Lue for wasting Kevin Love by exiling him to the three-point line. There is an argument that Love’s role had to change to accommodate The Best Active Player In the Game, and that debate is best left for another day. In our scenario, James is gone which means Love could potentially return inside and revert to his ball-dominant, short shot self. Assuming, of course, he stays healthy.
Love is no stranger to the trainer’s room. In the 2012-13 season, he suffered a broken right hand that required surgery. He returned too early and had to miss almost the whole campaign when a second surgery occurred. Over the past four years, he has suffered a variety of injuries that landed him in a suit. In Game 4 of the 2015 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, the Celtics’ Kelly Olynyk attempted to remove Love’s arm as a trophy but had to settle for dislocating his shoulder. Love missed the remainder of the postseason. In 2017 he missed six weeks after undergoing arthroscopic surgery to remove a loose body from his left knee. In January a fractured left hand cost him twenty-one games. He further aggravated his hand in the Cavs’ first-round series against the Pacers. While these injuries are troubling taken together, it is interesting to note that they have been fluky and seemingly random. Some players spend a career enduring a dodgy knee or chronic back pain. Love may be brittle at times, but he does not have one balky body part that defines him.
When considering this path, it’s important to note the T-Wolves’ record with Love as their main man.
Even with Love posting eye-popping numbers the Timberwolves struggled mightily during his tenure. During his best season, 2013-14, Minnesota still missed the playoffs by nine games. Love’s supporting cast left plenty to be desired. Ricky Rubio showed flashes of promise, but frequent injuries left him on the sidelines. Corey Brewer contributed what he could, but was a strict role player. Kevin Martin, Shabazz Muhammad, and Robbie Hummel, among others, did not inspire much confidence up north.
So how would this play out in Cleveland? Assuming GM Koby Altman only has the players under contract for next season the starting five might include:
Ty Lue or a head coach to be named later could deploy a second unit of:
There would be a handful of roster spots to fill so a few of the younger players could be packaged and dealt for a shooting or point guard to support Love. Also the number eight overall pick should be able to provide some help as well. The roster as currently assembled lacks the dependable outside shooters who could provide options for Love as he bangs down in the post. Kyle Korver figures to be the best shooter on the list but he will turn 38 next March and it remains to be seen how reliable he will be in the coming year. Love’s age is worth noting as well. The big man will turn thirty years old on September 7, and the Cavs would be taking a risk by assuming he could recreate the dominant play he turned in six years earlier. Love is hardly hobbling down the court, but this plan would place a tremendous physical burden on him.
The best part of this strategy is that it has an easy expiration date: the 2019 Trade Deadline. If Love can return to his 30 points-30 rebounds form then the Cavs have a chance to rebuild on the fly and stay in contention. If, however, the wins aren’t stacking up then Altman can pull the ripcord and deal Love for a package of picks and prospects. The biggest risk lies in Love’s propensity for injury. If he does suffer a health setback then the haul will be significantly lessened. This will be Altman’s biggest dilemma if LeBron leaves. There will be no financial or strategic need to deal Love shortly after, but his value may never be higher than it is this offseason.
How the front office deals with Kevin Love will be the first indicator of the club’s long-term plan. Building around Love feels like a “stay contending” move made with the bottom line and attendance numbers in mind. If James does leave the “blow it up” Philly model will be a tempting and perhaps better long-term possibility. The upcoming NBA Draft reform is designed to discourage tanking, but for teams that have no other road to relevance, it remains a viable way to go from afterthought to champion.
So what is the play? Love’s injury history and age are certainly red flags, but after playing third and second fiddle for Cleveland since 2014-15 it seems natural that he would get his chance to be the focal point. Trying to build around Kevin Love did not work in Minnesota, but the Cavs have a more competent (and overpaid) roster who could offer superior support than what he was used to. I say let Love eat for half a season. If the plan isn’t working become sellers at the trade deadline and hope the lottery gods are kind.
No matter how you feel about it, this is a sad thought experiment. Personally, I would love nothing more than for LeBron to sign a five-year deal, Love to return to full health, and the Cavs to pick up Kawhi Leonard or some other game-breaking star as they contend for a fifth straight Finals appearance. Unfortunately, this situation may come to pass whether we like it or not. Regardless of how the Cavs utilize Kevin Love, it is worth noting that he has been a great team player who did what the team asked. He fought back from injuries and changing roles and helped the Cavaliers hang a banner in 2016. There is no taking that away. Also, wouldn’t it be something if after all the trade rumors and speculation it’s Kevin Love – not LeBron or Kyrie Irving – who stays on the team the longest of the big three? Koby Altman, you’ve (not) got to hide your Love away.