Whether you think that he’s underperformed or not in a Cleveland Cavaliers jersey, it shouldn’t surprise you we ranked Kevin Love as the team’s third most valuable player.
Sure, there might be an argument for Tristan Thompson — whose status as a quick-footed, high-energy rebounding savant who can switch multiple positions on defense has heavily impacted the NBA Finals two years in a row — but there are only two players that wear wine and gold that have a wider skill set than Love. He hasn’t had the easiest time transiting into an offensive flow with two other ball-dominant scorers, and the league getting a little bit smaller, quicker and rangier hasn’t exactly been an ideal situation for him defensively, but you still see flashes of why a 6’10’’ three-point specialist who can also score on the block and pull down rebounds at a high level can have a sizable impact on a team, especially one with Kyrie Irving and LeBron James; both are players who usually don’t work at their best with multiple bigs clogging the lane.
And that’s why he’s frustrating. It’s not that he’s completely fallen to unplayable. It’s that we’ve never seen him reach his full potential with an all-star cast, but we have seen glimpses of it. The expectation was that his two-man game with LeBron would be nearly unstoppable, a tornado of pick-your-own-adventure ways to get embarrassed at the rim or from deep. A conglomeration of elements have kept it from happening, really. Some it’s how the league is changing. Some of it’s joining up with players who demand a high usage rate. Some are things that he can do better moving forward.
Love will most likely never be an outstanding rim protector or a fluid freak who can guard every position on the floor and fight through or switch screens with the sort of force and agility that cuts off lanes and limits ball movement, but the way he gets sucked into screens or becomes lost in space is concerning. Although, if his lateral quickness and defensive I.Q. even marginally improve this season, it will be a major step forward — he doesn’t need to become a feared presence, but he also can’t be a clear non-factor who opposing team actively work to exploit. In many instances in his year’s playoffs, Love showed the sort of energy and effort that led to a better version of himself on that end of the floor than we had previously seen from him. In an article titled, “Kevin Love is playing the best defense of his life in the 2016 NBA Playoffs,” SB Nation’s Jesus Gomez breaks down via video some good defensive plays that Love made against the Raptors, chronicling how his slight improvement made major differences, ending with, “If this continues, though, it seems like he's just another average defender instead of a target. If he continues to do the little things on that end as well as he has lately, he will have the chance to buy himself enough time on the court to make opponents pay on offense. That will make the Cavaliers an even scarier team.”
If that trend continues, plus the Cavs seemingly willingness to keep trying to incorporate Love into the offense in innovative ways — which I wrote about back in January — his status within the team will be fine. If he’s not a liability against high-powered offenses, he’s too talented on the other end, one way or another, not to fulfill a meaningful role.
Love’s value could trend in any direction this year — it could skyrocket, fizzle or stay put. It’s a tricky thing to analyze because we know the weapons and flaws he has, but it’s hard to tell whether he’ll be able to navigate his strengths and weakness through a changing landscape on a team where he’s clearly a third option on the side of the floor where he excels and the biggest liability on the side where he doesn’t. There’s still a tremendous amount of upside — and also a pretty high basement — but it’s a matter of whether he can clean up his negative tendencies and be impactful with his positive ones. And it’s not just what it means for the rest of his career, it matters for the Cavs’ immediate future.
Third place votes: 11
Fourth place votes: 1
Fifth place votes: 1