Watching the Cleveland Cavaliers' offense this season was like watching a Marvel movie. There were little differences game to game, but the general flow and end result were predictable. The Cavs were more than likely going to score and it was going to either be via a LeBron James bucket, a Kyrie Irving bucket or a shot created by Irving or LeBron or attacking the rim. Simple and obvious, but effective.
The reason why the Cavs operated this way was because of how Kevin Love was used before he was injured. Prior to coming to Cleveland, Love made his name as an arguable top-10 player and legit No. 1 option primarily working out of the elbow. During this final year in Minnesota, Love was sensational, averaging 26.1 points with a TS% of 59.1 and shooting 37.6 percent from three. Overall, the Wolves were more than 10 points better per 100 possessions with Love on the floor.
In Cleveland, Love has still been good, as even with lower averages and a smaller role in the offense, he was a borderline All-Star. In large part, Love was the third option and we saw very little of him on the floor as the clear go-to option. Per 82games.com, none of the Cavs 20 most used lineups included Love on the floor without Irving and James. That is sort of to be expected - why would you ever take two of your best three players off the floor at one time? - but it helps explain Love's year. In a sense, he played the role of Thor, the really powerful hero who the team doesn't always use in the best way.
For better or worse - and it's a little bit of both - Love was used as a decoy and spot-up shooter. When the Cavs came down the floor, Love often started on the outside as a way for the Cavs to create space before running any sort of action. For the year, Love shot seven more shots in the 20-24 foot range than he did shots within 5 feet and shot 46 more shots from 25-29 feet than 5-9 feet. In the 2013-14 season, Love took more shots inside than out and overall was more balanced in terms of where he shot from. His focus on 3-pointers while shooting less overall per game didn't make him as efficient as some expected, but some of that could have been avoided if the Cavs had given Love the ball in different spots.
Take this performance against the Lakers for example. This was arguably Love's best game of the season, as he scored 32 points - but look at how he is getting his points. There's a little bit of Love getting touches inside - mostly early on, as you can see - but he's largely taking threes. He's essentially providing the same skill J.R. Smith is on the his perimeter. Just think about that for a second: Kevin Love and J.R. Smith largely do the same thing for the Cavs offense.
Having Love on the floor against the Warriors would be especially valuable. Without Love and fully functional Irving, the Cavs have simplified things and now run a lot of LeBron isolations or pick and rolls. Cleveland plays very slow - the Cavs ranked 25th in pace during the regular season and are playing just a bit faster in the playoffs - and that's because of the style the Cavs are playing. It's a stripped down version of what the Cavs did during the regular season. Even then, the Cavs played the same way LeBron teams normally do. This is basically to let LeBron dictate the offense and surround him with as many shooters as possible.
It worked against the Bulls and Hawks and for good reason - it's really, really hard to stop LeBron James from scoring. The Bulls had Jimmy Butler to defend LeBron - and LeBron did shoot under 40 percent against Chicago - but it wasn't enough. Aside from Butler, no one had hope of stopping James. And without a healthy Joakim Noah, the Bulls lacked a big inside to make life hard for LeBron in the post or once he got into the paint. The Hawks, after DeMarre Carroll injured his knee and Thabo Selolosha had his leg broken by the NYPD, just didn't have anyone with a chance of defending LeBron. His bad 3-point shooting aside, LeBron scoring as much as he did was to be expected.
That won't be the case against the Warriors, who can use Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes on LeBron. Green is one of the few guys in the league who you might be able to leave alone on LeBron when he posts up due to his length and overall defensive skill. Barnes isn't quite as well equipped, but he should be able to do ok when LeBron is hanging around on the perimeter and dribbling away the shot clock. And that will happen. A talented as LeBron is, he has the tendency to waste away the shot clock and not attacking until there are five or so seconds to do so.
This is where Love would have come in. Love is too skilled and too strong in the post for Barnes, leaving no choice but for the Warriors to use Green to defend Love. This gives LeBron a one-on-one matchup with Barnes, which would be a huge net win for the Cavs. And if the Warriors tried to use Barnes? You give the ball to Love on the elbow or on the block and clear out. If you can get him rolling, the Dubs have to move Green back onto Love and the cycle repeats itself once more. Simple, obvious and effective.
In this scenario, it becomes a lot easier to see how the Cavs score against a Warriors defense that ranks near the top of just about every defensive metric and is incredibly hard to attack. Just about every rotation player the Dubs have is long and can easily switch onto another player; this is the beauty of their defense. Love, however, would have given the Cavs a player who could have taken advantage of those switches and gotten easy buckets if/when the Warriors switched a guard onto him in the post.
And this doesn't even touch on what lineups where Love would have played with Tristan Thompson. These lineups were really successful in the regular season - a lineup of Irving, Smith, LeBron, Love and Thompson scored 116 points per 100 possessions during the regular season - and would have potentially killed the Warriors on the boards. Both Love and Thompson are excellent rebounders and pairing them would give the Cavs their best chance to control the boards and then be able to keep the Warriors from getting out and running as much as they'd like to. This seems especially true for when the Warriors go really small and play Green at the five.
Some of this, of course, would have required the Cavs to use Love in a way they hadn't all season. By giving Love touches on the block and on the elbow, the Cavs could make the Warriors work in a different way that makes life easier for everyone else on the floor. Whether that would have happened or not isn't really clear, but it's certainly something that would have been on the table and let the Cavs unlock the entirety of their offensive potential. But as much as it hasn't looked like it the past two rounds, the Cavs really could use Love, the fully operational version, instead of the hero who isn't doing everything he's capable of.