It's tough to look around the NBA and determine exactly who is over, or underrated. The terms are loaded and highly subjective. LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant all have legitimate claims as the best player on the planet. However, if you were to act as though any of them are infallible and their sweat is more valuable than oil, I would suggest that you have overrated them as a player.
With that being said, when I try to think of which player is the most underrated on the Cleveland Cavaliers, I'm going off my sense of how the general NBA fan views them as a player; relative to what they provide. The knee-jerk reaction was to pick Tristan Thompson. Thompson does so many things that impact the outcome a game that don't show up on the box score. For that reason, his value has often been marginalized or understated.
But with the championship run that the Cavs put together last season, I believe that has changed. While some may attribute the impact Thompson has on a game solely on the presence of James, overall there seems to be an appreciation of what he did for the team. While he still may be underrated, I think the tide has changed and people are starting to appreciate what he can bring, the same way high level role players on other championship teams have been elevated in the past.
When you are looking at the Cavs to determine who the most underrated and undervalued player would be, it has to be Kevin Love.
The conversations surrounding Love have been nauseating over the past two seasons. On the one hand, while other players have been complimented for sacrificing for the good of the team, Love's sacrifices in the box score have been met with claims that he was never any good. On the flip side, while sacrifice was necessary and the end result has been good, it's been clear that Love hasn't consistently fit within the team's systems and was struggling with his role. While the Cavs were incredibly good with him, the possibility of more has always been part of the subtext.
There are countless ways to measure the impact Love has on the game. If you're a proponent of RPM, Love ranked 10th overall in the NBA in the metric this past season, an improvement from 52nd the year before. When Love is on the court the team has an effective field goal percentage of 53.6, compared to 51.2 percent when he sits (per NBAWowy). According to basketball reference the Cavs offense scored 7.5 points per 100 possessions more with him on the court than when he sat, while allowing only 1.9 points per 100 possessions more on defense.
His net impact with the team has been undeniable. For all the talk of his inability to co-exist with the big three, his points per game increased after the All Star break to 16.7, after Kyrie Irving started to find his stride again coming back from surgery. While Love came out of the gates blazing last season, averaging 19.8 points and 11.8 rebounds a game in his first 17 games. Those numbers took a dive in December however, averaging 12.7 points and 9.2 rebounds.
The fact of the matter is that the Cavs are at their best when their four highest paid players share the floor together. Lineups featuring Irving, James, Love and Thompson had a net rating of +13.7 in 520 regular season minutes. In the playoffs those four had an even higher net rating of +16.4. For all the talk of awkward fit, the cornerstone pieces have been outright dominant for the Cavs and have validated David Griffin's vision of what this roster could be with a championship.
So much of the angst surrounding Love seems to come from fit against the Golden State Warriors. Love and the Cavs struggled in the first two games of the Finals, to make matters worse he suffered a concussion in game two. Anybody that's suffered a concussion can attest to how long it can take to truly feel yourself again, and while Love didn't have the best Finals series, he displayed toughness and did all the little things throughout game seven to help the Cavs win. It's what Tyronn Lue, the front office and people covering the team have been calling for, that he finds a way to make an impact even when the offense isn't there. Whether it be fighting for rebounds, hitting timely shots, intelligent passes or digging deep defensively, Love found a way to come up big when the team needed it.
But a less than glamorous Finals seems to have shortened the memories of some. Love was a dominant force throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs and a big part of the team getting to the Finals. Love played strong post defense on both Andre Drummond and Al Horford throughout the first two rounds while averaging 18.9 points and 12.5 rebounds. Despite a shooting slump early in the Toronto series, he poured in 22.5 points on 13/21 shooting in the two closeout games of the series. Throughout the playoffs when a team needed to be put away, Love found a way to step up:
If you're sensing a trend in all this, it's probably that Love has routinely found a way to overcome adversity, shake off tough performances and prove himself as a competitor. Playing alongside LeBron James will expose any player to a level of scrutiny and criticism that's usually reserved for players who have severe off court issues. But Love has proven himself to his teammates and this roster has proven that they can win.
Match-up issues still exist when it comes to Love and the Cavs against the Golden State Warriors, but how that Warriors team plays remains to be seen. We've seen that the way to beat them in the past hasn't been to play their style, but to beat them up on the boards and attack the rim when there are no longer rim protectors on the court. There may be complications when it comes to playing Love, but he has shown that he is willing and able to sacrifice and play the role that is needed in each match-up, and that is invaluable to the Cavs.
It is my opinion that we will see an expanded role from Love next season, out of necessity. The departure of Timofey Mozgov has opened up minutes at the center position and given Love's effectiveness there both in Minnesota, and in this past playoff run it seems reasonable to think he will begin to see more time there. At center Love's vision as a play-maker becomes amplified and his spacing becomes even more valuable to the various slashers on the team. He just turned 28 years old and is still very much in his prime. This roster has earned the trust of LeBron James and while he continues to save himself for another long playoff run, expect Love to be utilized more to his potential throughout next season.
So while many continue to question whether a player like Love has a place in the modern NBA and whether he ever really was that good; the past indicates that as long as he is on the court, the Cavs will remain dangerous and have a chance to bring home another championship.