Third time’s the charm.
In his third season in a Cleveland Cavaliers uniform, Kevin Love found his comfort zone playing alongside LeBron James and Kyrie Irving and started to show more consistent flashes of his basketball brilliance that we were so accustomed to seeing from him with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
While it is sometimes lost in the shuffle, Kevin Love is a remarkable basketball player. He’s a 6’10” power forward that’s an adept outside shooter, a skilled operator in the post, a beast on the boards, and quite possibly the best quarterback in the city of Cleveland.
Ever since his arrival in Cleveland, his contributions have generally been underappreciated, and his mistakes are accentuated and put under a microscope. It’s a very similar circumstance that followed Chris Bosh when he was playing with LeBron and Dwyane Wade in Miami; the third wheel never gets his due credit, but the lion’s share of the blame.
While Love’s regular season numbers weren’t a distinct improvement from last season, it was clear that the Cavs had finally figured out how to effectively harness his immense offensive talent. In prior seasons, it felt like the Cavs would try to force the ball to Love at certain points in the game, and in others would seemingly ignore him completely. Now, the process has become much more organic and Love has found a way to continually make an impact, whether it be from a net-scorching barrage from the outside, a crazy outlet pass for a LeBron throwdown, or a surprising dose of defensive sagacity.
Love was rewarded for his efforts by receiving his first All-Star Game selection as a member of the Cavs, but akin to seasons prior, Love ran into a spell of bad luck. In the first round of the 2015 NBA playoffs, Boston Celtics center Kelly Olynyk yanked Love’s arm out of its socket, ending his season and likely costing the Cavs a chance at winning their first NBA title. That injury also cost Love his offseason, as he was forced to rehab the entire summer and wasn’t cleared for basketball activities until training camp had started the following season. Love made it through that following season without many hiccups, but again hit a road block when he suffered a concussion in Game 2 of the 2016 NBA Finals, and while he only missed one game as a result, the concussion stymied his individual impact for the remainder of that series. Fast-forward to this season, and Love had been playing through knee problems all season, and in February he received a knee scope that found a loose body in his left knee that would take him out of commission for about six weeks.
The concern was that Love would be coming back very shortly before the playoffs and may not be able to find his rhythm again coming off such a long injury layoff, not to mention the concern that Love’s play may become prudent due to concern about re-injuring his knee.
Except that’s not what happened.
Love was a revelation for the Cavs in the 2017 NBA playoffs. During the playoffs, Love averaged 16.8 points and 10.6 rebounds per game on 43.6 percent shooting and a stellar 45 percent from three. Love played perhaps the best basketball of his career in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics, averaging 22.6 points and 12.4 rebounds per game on 48.6 percent shooting and a scorching 53.5 percent from three. After completing the gentleman’s sweep, the Cavs were set to face off against the Golden State Warriors for a third straight time in the NBA Finals, except this time the Warriors had a new addition that would prove to be both foreboding and foreshadowing for the Cavs: Kevin Durant.
Love played much better in the 2017 NBA Finals than anyone would have expected, especially given his past history against the Warriors, but it still wasn’t enough. Love had flashes in this series where he seemed to be having his way with the Warriors offensively; great players will do that on occasion, regardless of competition. There were even moments where he stood out defensively, leading the team in steals and blocks for the series. Unfortunately, his production wasn’t consistent enough to make a difference in the outcome of the series, and the Cavs bowed out in five games.
It’s easy to imagine a world in which the Warriors don’t sign Kevin Durant, but that’s not the reality. Love is a tremendous player and one that isn’t appreciated enough for what a special talent he truly is, but what we saw in the 2017 NBA Finals also begs the question about whether this current Cavs core matches up well enough with this irrepressible juggernaut in Golden State.
If the Cavs decide to run it back again next season, that’s not a bad thing. This is the best team in franchise history, and we should continue to enjoy every second of it while we still can. The moment LeBron decides to leave again/retire, it will never be this good again.
This is a seminal moment for the future of the franchise. There are murmurs that LeBron could be looking for greener pastures next summer. The Cavs didn’t reward GM David Griffin with a contract extension despite assembling the roster that won the first championship in franchise history. The Cavs still don’t have a president of basketball operations or a GM and we’re less than a week away from free agency.
But it’s alright. Even if 2016 was the only championship this core will ever win, its meaning will never dissipate and it will most certainly never be forgotten.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. The window is still open, and the opportunity is still there to add to the legacy of the greatest team in franchise history. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and if that means having to move on from Kevin Love in an effort to continue down the path of greatness, so be it. But either way, let’s never forget to appreciate his contributions to this team, to this city, and to the first championship in franchise history.