Whether the Warriors win tonight or Sunday, or even if the Cavs pull off an historic comeback, pondering Kevin Love's future appears to be high on everyone's to-do list. He is the team's most perplexing question, and has become, by virtue of this stage, his game, his strengths, and his weaknesses, one of the most polarizing figures in the league.
Most of us had negotiated a tenuous peace with ourselves regarding Love's fit in Cleveland, but if I had been asked at the beginning of the Finals to write a script for killing that peace and replacing it with with that old, familiar angst, it would have looked pretty much exactly like what has played out. The Cavaliers were crushed in the first two games of the series, once despite a solid performance from Love (17-13-2 on 48 percent eFG in Game 1), and once when he got injured in the middle of a clunker (five points, three rebounds in 26 minutes in Game 2). Then, they won Game 3 handily without him, lost a critical Game 4 when he returned, and required an historic night from LeBron and Kyrie to help cover up his disappearing act (two points, three rebounds in 33 minutes) in Game 5. Decent numbers in a blowout loss? Check. Crappy injury luck? Check. Team plays better without him? Check. He disappears in critical moments of Games 4 and 5, looking completely ill-suited for the matchup, belying the fact that he helps against 28 of the 29 other teams in the league? Check and check.
Despite the Cavs' opportunity to extend the Finals to a seventh game, in-game chatter on social media, as well as postgame breakdowns, all touch on What Will Happen Next to Cleveland's introverted, chocolate milk-loving 27 year old power forward. No one is watching (or even playing in) these Finals without wondering about Love's long-term place on the team. Hell, his teammates must be thinking about it. Love himself must wonder what's in store for him. Such is the power of the Golden State Warriors, reigning champions, winners of 73 regular season games, and the league's budding dynasty; they're not only capable of beating you, but also sending you into an existential crisis even as you're pushing them to six, or possibly even seven games.
Two weeks ago, everything was hunky-dory. Take a look at how Kevin Love performed in the first three rounds of the 2016 postseason:
He was a tad uneven against the Pistons, struggling to find his shot in the Cavs' closely contested Game 4 victory and finishing with the second-worst On/Off rating on the team throughout the sweep. Love bounced back nicely against the Hawks, dropping 27 points in the series-clinching Game 4 and hitting 13-of-29 threes in the four game set overall, finishing as the team's on/off leader. In the Eastern Conference Finals, Love's rebounding totals took a significant dip (he had one offensive rebound the entire series), but he shot the lights out (albeit on fewer attempts) and posted the Cavs' second-best on/off rating. In other words, he was a vital part of the Cavs' 12-2 march through an improved Eastern Conference to the Finals. He had two poor showings (Games 3 and 4 of the Raptors), and the Cavs lost both games. He was not just part of their success; he was essential to it.
All of that changed in the Finals. It was predictable; after all, Love averaged seven points, 12 rebounds, and three assists in the Cavs' two regular season contests against the Warriors, while shooting just 29 percent from the floor and knocking down a combined 1-of-8 threes. Golden State has done an even better job minimizing Love in the Finals, and they've done it in two ways: keeping him off the glass, and keeping him from getting perimeter shots off.
Love is averaging 6.0 rebounds per game in the series overall, and has just 11 total rebounds in the 77 minutes he's played since the start of Game 2. His total rebound percentage in the regular season was 18 percent; so far in the Finals, that number has plummeted to 11.4 percent. And while his three point percentage isn't great, Love's other problem is that he's getting very few shots off in the first place. He's hoisted 14 threes in the finals, or 3.5 per game, nearly half the amount he averaged throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs (6.6).
What can he do to change the narrative and stem the tide? He could do a better job of knocking down the (few) looks he's getting, I suppose, and continue trying hard on defense (God bless him). The problem is that his job is to provide spacing, the gaps through which two of the best playmakers in the world can drive to the rim, and there are no easily digestible numbers for that. His on-court gravity is important, but it's subtle. We (as a collective, basketball-viewing public) don't really do subtle. So, what, is he supposed to demand the ball, thus taking it out of LeBron or Kyrie's hands? Veer from the offense and demand more post-ups? Hoist shots when they aren't there? Suddenly become an elite defender, a thing he's never been, and no one ever really expected him to be?
It'd be nice to conclude that Kevin Love has the chance to "redeem" himself in some way by playing big on the biggest stage of his career, and the most important games in Cavs history. But the matchup is so poor, his opportunities so limited, and his effect so subtle, it's hard to imagine what such an effort would look like, exactly.
I knew how to write the script for conjuring up the angst and bringing all these Love-based existential questions to our tv screens and Twitter feeds. I don't know how to write our way out of it, but I hope there's a surprise twist at the end of this story.