It’s been a long season for the Cleveland Cavaliers. While a dip in overall performance was expected in the post-LeBron James era, many believed the Cavs would remain competitive in 2018-19 and some even projected Cleveland to hang around the playoff race for the majority of the campaign. That, of course, did not come to fruition, as the Cavaliers deploy a defense that has been historically poor throughout the season and the team’s offense isn’t nearly good enough to overcome that lack of resistance.
As a result of Cleveland’s struggles, the jokes have been flying throughout the season. In some ways, the Cavs have earned the snickering with wholly impotent play. Still, there is a giant caveat that has been overlooked for much of the journey: the notable absence of Kevin Love.
From the moment James inked a multi-year deal in Los Angeles, Love has been the best player on the Cavaliers roster and the franchise inked him to a four-year contract extension that hasn’t yet kicked in. Given his age (30) and previous role as a supporting piece, that deal was immediately met with skepticism and, frankly, it is easy to see why. After all, it usually isn’t a good idea to invest that combination of years and dollars in a player of Love’s age, particularly when that player isn’t a full-blown superstar capable of carrying a team to the playoffs and beyond on his back.
Love’s situation was doubly treacherous, as the four years and more than $120 million represented a payment for services rendered rather than for future contributions. On cue, reality struck when Love appeared in the first four games before suffering an injury that kept him out of Cleveland’s lineup from late October to early February. His absence, combined with all kinds of roster and coaching issues, placed the Cavs in a hole that they were incapable of emerging from during the season and, in general, Love has almost been forgotten as a result. It would be unwise, though, to forget that Love is still good at basketball.
That should go without saying but, because of the contract and the potential albatross it presents to the franchise if things go south, Love’s on-court effectiveness is often unacknowledged. In 15 games this season, the veteran big man is averaging 18.1 points and 11.1 rebounds a night (with encouraging advanced metrics) and, in games in which Love appears, the Cavs are a respectable 6-9. It’s a small sample size, but Cleveland has been absolutely disastrous when Love leaves the floor (either for rest or injury) and downright solid when he plays.
Entering Thursday night’s game against the Magic, the Cavs boasted a +2.0 net rating in almost 400 minutes when Love was on the floor. In contrast, Cleveland was outscored by 11.2 points per 100 possessions when Love exits — a mark that represents utter futility by modern NBA standards — and the Cavs have a brutal win-loss record of 11-42 in games they play without Love in the middle of everything. It should be noted that Love hasn’t been able to perform with his previous level of offensive efficiency, at least on two-point field goal attempts, but, all things considered, the former UCLA standout has lived up to the billing when he’s been healthy and available this season.
That doesn’t necessarily indicate that Love is without injury risk moving forward and it’s important to understand that, barring a considerable bump in his overall effectiveness, he isn’t likely to be “worth” the massive contract extension he was given. Still, Love hasn’t been the problem for a Cavs team with an unsightly record this season and, even with his weaknesses fully acknowledged, he would help any team when deployed properly.
The NBA has made great gains in the public consciousness, in part because of the interesting nature of the league’s transactions. With that comes the danger of overreacting to contract status and ignoring on-court ability. Love is a current victim of that paradox. While virtually everyone agrees that the Cavs will probably regret the substantial contractual investment, he can still play and do so at a high level. That’s worth something.