Two years after being traded from the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Kevin Love experiment in Cleveland has not yielded the results the Cavaliers were expecting. A loss in Game 6 would end the Cavs’ season in the NBA Finals for a second straight year, and Thursday’s contest could very well be Love’s final game in a Cleveland uniform.
Trailing the Golden State Warriors 3-2 in the finals, the Cavs can still go on and win their first title in franchise history. But if Cleveland pulls off the upset, it might be without much contribution from Love, who’s played a limited role when his team has needed him most.
Love was brought to Cleveland to be the final member of Cleveland’s new “Big 3,” but his contributions in the finals haven’t compared to what LeBron James and Kyrie Irving have given the Cavs. After scoring 17 points in a Game 1 loss, Love has totaled just 18 points in the last four games, missing six quarters because of a concussion.
Cleveland’s best performance came when Love was sidelined. The Cavs won by 30 points as Love watched the entirety of Game 3 from the bench. Upon Love’s return in Game 4, Cleveland looked like the same team that was overmatched in Game 1 and Game 2. In the Cavs’ Game 5 win, Love managed to score just two points and grab three rebounds in 33 minutes, and he was mainly a spectator as Cleveland’s top two players kept their title hopes alive.
That’s not to say Love is a bad player. He nearly made the All-Star team in the regular season, averaging 16 points and 9.9 rebounds per game, helping the Cavs maintain their spot atop the Eastern Conference as Irving missed the first quarter of the season with an injury.
And to his credit, Love is aware of his struggles and expects more out of his individual play.
“If you can’t get yourself up for this,” he said after Game 5, “you might as well go home.”
Love was much more of a factor in the first three rounds of the playoffs. He had some big games for the Cavs, most notably his 25-point performance on 10 shots in Game 5 of the conference finals. But he was inconsistent, and even as he averaged 19 points per game in the second round, he did so on just 32.4 percent shooting.
Love doesn’t seem to have a place on the Cavs as currently constructed, relegated to being a spot-up three-point shooter during most of his time on the court. As a liability on defense, his five-year, $100 million contract makes him overpaid, considering his value to the team, and it only makes sense that Cleveland would explore a trade this summer.
There were rumors near the trade deadline that the Cavs had discussions regarding a three-team deal that included the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics. Whether the trade was ever close to being completed may be irrelevant, since Love’s performance in the finals is further proof he is an expendable asset for Cleveland.
Love’s trade value certainly isn’t what it was two years ago. Once considered a top-10 player, the 27-year-old was nearly dealt to the Warriors in exchange for sharpshooter Klay Thompson. It’s a deal that would have prevented Golden State from putting together an all-time great team. Instead, the Cavaliers dealt No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins for the three-time All-Star, a trade that Cleveland may be regretting.
Love’s numbers were bound to take a hit after going from the No. 1 option in Minnesota to the No. 3 option with the Cavs. But the differences in his averages from 2014 to 2016 (26.1 points to 16.0, 12.5 rebounds to 9.9, 4.4 assists to 2.4, 45.7 percent shooting to 41.9 percent) are indicative of a player who appears noticeably a step behind his top form.
James, who is desperate to bring a title to Cleveland, has been rumored to have a strained relationship with Love, but has remained encouraging that the former Timberwolves star can make an impact.
“We definitely need Kev to play better,” James told reporters Wednesday. “We want him to play better, but we don’t want to add no more stress on him or added pressure. We just want him to go out and play, just let it hang out.
“I think he’s looking forward to the challenge. I think he’s looking forward to the moment. We definitely need him. He’s too big of a piece to our puzzle.”