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Where does Isaiah Thomas’ return leave Kevin Love?

A high-usage point guard returning in mid-December wasn’t great for Kevin Love last time. This isn’t that team.

NBA: Miami Heat at Cleveland Cavaliers
Hopefully Kevin Love won’t have to fight teammates for touches.
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

In recent weeks, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ rotation has finally settled into some consistency. However, with two key pieces about to return, the rotation is going to go through a major shake-up. Isaiah Thomas is a guaranteed starter and, as Justin Rowan recently wrote on Fear the Sword, Tristan Thompson should start as well.

During the next few weeks, players are going to find themselves as members of different units and filling different roles while Tyronn Lue feels out his stacked roster. There are many possible outcomes for where Coach Lue will head with the rotation. This is the second of three things to look for as the Cavaliers’ rotation changes.

Note: The Cavaliers' current season can be split into two distinct periods: from the beginning of the season until the Derrick Rose injury (Cavs’ record: 5-6), and from that point to the present (15-2). All numbers within pertain only to games played after Rose went out with injury on November 7th and are from NBA Stats unless otherwise noted.

On December 20th, 2015, Kyrie Irving returned to the Cavaliers’ rotation from an injury suffered in the 2015 NBA Finals. Up to that point in the season, Kevin Love had averaged 17.6 points per game on 33 minutes and 14 field goal attempts each night.

For the rest of the season, he averaged 15.3 points on 31 minutes and 12 field goal attempts per game. The difference is about 1.5 points and 1.5 shots per 36 minutes played.

Throughout this season, Kevin Love is averaging 19.1 points on 13 shots in 29 minutes per game and has increased those numbers to 20.1 points on 14 attempts in the same play time since the Derrick Rose injury. It has been his most impressive season as a Cavalier thus far.

However, Isaiah Thomas is a talented offensive player who needs possessions and Tristan Thompson, when healthy, is a high-level specialist who needs minutes at the same positions that Kevin Love plays. With Love producing more than ever with the fewest minutes per game of his Cleveland career, as Justin also wrote about, one has to worry about the potential for Love losing his touches.

This raises the question: how do the Cavaliers get Kevin Love the minutes and touches he deserves amongst this roster?

A good option would be to use Love with the Cavs’ superb bench.

This is not to say that Kevin Love wouldn’t start for Cleveland, but that he would be playing fewer of his minutes with the Cavaliers’ full starting lineup on the court. When the starting lineup (Jose Calderon, J.R. Smith, Jae Crowder, LeBron James, and Love) have been on the floor, Love has lead the unit in usage rate at 30%. Calderon has a usage of just 10%.

Isaiah Thomas is guaranteed to have a significantly higher usage than Calderon and that’s a good thing. IT providing offensive production at a high level would mean that Kevin Love wouldn’t have to with the starters. While Thomas takes time to build chemistry with the rest of the lineup, Kevin Love’s role with the starters can slowly be scaled back, gradually freeing him up for bigger roles elsewhere.

Swapping another one of the Cavaliers’ players in for Love with the starters could help bolster the defense of one of Cleveland’s worst defensive 5-man units. Jose has been so decent defensively that IT may be a downgrade from Calderon at the point on this end of the floor.

Thompson returning to the starting lineup should help with their defensive play. However, he would have to be nearly 100 percent healthy for his replacement of Crowder to push the needle defensively. This is where substituting another guy for Love could really make a difference, even though Kevin Love has been perfectly fine defensively this season.

Jeff Green has been a revelation this season, especially on the defensive end. He has shown the ability to guard every position and has become a key cog in a defensively stout bench. Playing him in Love’s place with the starters could transform the defense of the starting lineup. Crowder or a healthy Iman Shumpert could also play in this spot as wing defenders depending on matchups.

However, if Love is so replaceable in the starting lineup, how would he fit with the bench? How would he get the touches he deserves? Let’s take a look at what Dwyane Wade has been doing this season: he is playing the fewest minutes of his career, but his usage is a monstrous 34.5% when LeBron is on the bench.

Kevin Love could earn touches in the same way: playing away from the starting lineup. His minutes are already down, which has given him the ability to do more in his minutes.

All Coach Lue has to do is pair Love with just one of Isaiah Thomas, LeBron James, or Dwyane Wade and fill out the rest of the lineup. From there, Kevin Love can be an efficient and lethal second option. This, in combination with his wide skillset, would make him an offensive Swiss Army Knife able to catch opponent’s off guard.

The best part is that the Cavaliers already know that this can work. Kevin Love has a net rating of plus-26.2 in 123 minutes played with Kyle Korver and a net of plus-0.1 in 342 minutes without Korver. In fact, the four-man unit of Love, Korver, Green, and Wade is an impressive plus-34.8 in 31 minutes played across 10 games.

The Cavaliers’ third-best 3-man unit with more than 15 minutes played is the combination of Kevin Love, Kyle Korver, and Jeff Green. In their 52 minutes together, they have posted a net rating of plus-36.2. The combination of Love and Wade is plus-37.0 with LeBron on the bench.

Kevin Love’s extensive offensive skill set (rebounding, post scoring, passing off the block, and shooting) have been displayed this season. He has bullied opponents and put up bigger numbers than Cleveland has seen from him. With the impending shake-up of the Cavs’ rotation, Coach Lue cannot afford to forget his All-Star big man and his many tools.