While the NBA Finals has been highlighted by the star power of LeBron James and MVP Stephen Curry, one player has loomed large over the series, and he won’t be playing a single minute on the floor. Kevin Love, one of the most discussed players of the offseason, was lost for the playoffs after a shoulder injury in Game 4 of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ first-round series, but still figures prominently in the matchup.
Cleveland made it through the next two rounds without Love, and they’re hoping to beat the Golden State Warriors in the finals. Love was on the bench watching the Cavs lose to the Warriors in Game 1 on Thursday night, but he nearly found himself playing for Golden State this season.
A year ago, the Minnesota Timberwolves were shopping the sharpshooting forward, who was entering the final year of his contract and had made it clear that he would not re-sign with the team. Minnesota was interested in a trade centered on Klay Thompson, which would also give them a future first-round pick and David Lee or possibly Harrison Barnes. Golden State ultimately decided that they didn’t want to part with their starting shooting guard.
Considering the statistics Love put up for Minnesota, experts and fans alike believed Golden State should have pulled the trigger on the deal. Love averaged 26.1 points and 12.5 rebounds last season, good enough to make the All-NBA Second Team. Thompson was an above average player, but he had never made an All-Star team.
But keeping Thompson turned out to be the best decision the franchise made last offseason.
Curry has been the team’s best player, but Thompson has been incredibly important to their success. He was the second-leading scorer in Golden State’s 67-win season, averaging 21.7 points per game, while converting 43.9 percent of his 7.1 three-point attempts per contest. He was good enough to be named to the 2014-2015 All-NBA Third Team, and he’s emerged as the second-best shooting guard in all of basketball.
The “Splash Brothers” have formed the best backcourt in the NBA, which has been instrumental to the team’s success. Both players put up better numbers when the other one is on the floor, and Golden State’s top six lineup combinations feature the two guards playing at the same time.
Thompson struggled from the floor in Game 1 of the finals, but he still managed to score 21 points on 14 shots, helping the Warriors beat the Cavs in overtime. He scored seven points in the fourth quarter, as Golden State tied the game up after trailing for almost the entire game.
It’s difficult to say what kind of impact a Love-for-Thompson swap would have had on the Warriors, but it seems more than likely that Golden State would not have been as good. The frontline of Andrew Bogut, Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes has been incredibly difficult to score against, and replacing one of the two forwards with Love might have hurt the Warriors defensively.
Love might have taken playing time away from Green, who has spent considerable time at power forward and emerged as an elite defender. Green saw his playing time increase by nearly 10 minutes per game last year, and he’s been described as the “heart and soul of the team” by head coach Steve Kerr.
There’s no arguing that Love is among the top power forwards in the league, but he might not be as good as some around the NBA thought he was, prior to the trade. His numbers were bound to take a hit when playing alongside scorers like James and Kyrie Irving, but he didn’t prove to be a legitimate MVP contender. Cleveland was a better team with him on the floor, but his on/off splits don’t compare to those of Thompson.
Trading for Love seemed to make the Cavaliers the favorite to win the NBA Finals, but it could turn out to be a major mistake. Because of his injury, Love hasn’t impacted Cleveland’s quest to win a title, and there’s no guarantee he’ll re-sign with them in the offseason. The Cavaliers traded Andrew Wiggins to the Timberwolves, who was named the Rookie of the Year and appears to be a star in the making.
Love did help the Cavs in the regular season, and he still has a chance to be an important part of multiple championship teams. But it seems safe to claim that Golden State made a sensible decision to pass on dealing Thompson.