It’s difficult to surmise how a player who features on one of the two biggest teams in the league – coming off an All-Star season – can be forgotten. But we’ve inexplicably arrived at that point with Kevin Love.
The UCLA product had his best campaign with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016-17 – one that saw him average 19.0 points and 11.1 rebounds per contest.
His on/off impact was a plus-9.0 points per 100 possessions (the highest mark of his three years in northwest Ohio), he contributed more win shares than Al Horford, Paul Millsap and Serge Ibaka, and he was the only player in the league to have a total rebound rate over 19.0 percent, while converting at least 125 three-pointers, per Basketball Reference.
For all the talk of his deficiencies on the less glamorous side of the ball, Cleveland’s defense actually tightened up by an astounding 6.3 points per 100 possessions with Love on the floor, according to NBAWowy.
One may believe the discrepancy occurs due to the Cavs’ lack of depth, or the fact that Love would most often get subbed out for the likes of Channing Frye and Richard Jefferson – two vets who remain productive, but don’t possess the foot speed to aptly defend these days.
However, perusing through Cleveland’s defensive numbers last season, we find another bit of evidence that speaks to Love’s importance on that end. With Love in the game and Tristan Thompson – a supposed stalwart of point-stopping – sitting, the Cavaliers yielded 106.6 points per 100 possessions. Meanwhile, with the stretch-four on the bench and Thompson in the game, Tyronn Lue’s team gave up 110.1 points per 100 possessions.
No matter how we spin it, Cleveland was better at shutting down their opponents with Love on the court.
It shouldn’t come as too much of a shock, though, as Love’s positioning defensively is excellent and his ability to absolutely clean up the glass ends many possessions.
But we all know accolades – both tangible and intangible – are garnered through offensive contributions; for the masses to remember just how good Love is, the floor-spacing big will need an uptick in scoring output.
Well, with Kyrie Irving traded to the Boston Celtics and Isaiah Thomas out until at least January with a hip injury, Love’s offense will almost certainly be the biggest benefactor.
Over the past three regular seasons, on nights Irving sat and Love played (a 39-game sample size), the 6-foot-10 power forward averaged 19.0 points, 10.7 boards and 2.4 assists.
With the extended role, even Love’s efficiency improved – from 42.6 percent shooting overall as a Cavalier to 43.4 percent when Irving didn’t play.
Nonetheless, even with the ball-dominating Irving still on the team, Love never stopped being a stud in his own right.
Over the past few seasons, the All-Star big man has been at his deadliest as a pure shooter. According to NBA Math, in 2016-17, Love’s value-added coming off screens was an 11.6, a mark that outpaced sharpshooters like JR Smith and Wayne Ellington.
It was the third-highest rate among power forwards, trailing only the deadly accurate Ryan Anderson and the rim-attacking locomotive James Johnson.
What’s more, on spot-up opportunities, Love produced 1.19 points per possession (PPP), which was the sixth-best mark among players with at least 250 such looks.
For reference, one spot behind him at No. 7 on that list was Klay Thompson.
Even more pertinent, Love scored a fiery 1.33 PPP when attempting spot-up jumpers without taking a dribble, a rate that placed him in the top 15 percent of the league.
Simply put, if you give him a look with his feet set, the big man wasn’t missing, no matter the contest.
Apart from Love’s pristine shooting, we should also mention we’re only a year removed from him being one of the league’s most devastating post-up bigs. Though his back-down attempts are rarely pretty, they were brutally effective in 2015-16.
Love posted up 310 times that season, and totaled 304 points in those possessions. The overall 0.98 PPP put him in the 83rd percentile – outscoring traditional paint beasts such as DeMarcus Cousins, Marc Gasol and Al Jefferson.
Cleveland’s 4-man possesses a gawky turnaround jumper that he can use going over either shoulder, along with a classic baby hook almost every big man has in their repertoire.
When a big can post up, shoot from all three levels or dart to the basket when the situation calls for it (Love was in the 75th percentile as a cutter in 2016-17), he becomes almost indefensible.
Although Love will likely never find his 2011-12 form – when he averaged 26.0 points per night – as a member of the Cavs, he’s due for a monster year.
With Irving shipped to the rival Celtics and Thomas set to miss months from the hip ailment that ended his 2017 postseason run, Cleveland won’t have any choice but to hand Love a larger role than any he has previously had with the team.
And that should worry opponents.
Last year, in 278 minutes of action with Irving on the bench, the Love-LeBron James duo outscored the opposition by 16.8 points per 100 possessions according to NBAWowy.
If prorated for the year, that would have made the tandem the league’s second most potent two-man unit of the non-Golden State Warriors variety.
A hyper-focused LeBron is going to wreak havoc in 2017-18. The signings of Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose will make the Cavs’ reserve unit far more formidable. Jae Crowder gives them another two-way threat to throw at Kevin Durant. They still have Smith, Frye and Kyle Korver – three absolute floor-spacing demons – on the roster.
But the return of an All-NBA-caliber Love could wind up being Cleveland’s most impactful change heading into next season.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter @frankurbina_.