There’s one moment in Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals that probably depict the relationship between LeBron James and Kevin Love accurately.
It’s the first quarter and the Cavaliers are trying to fight off the Warriors as much as the Oracle Arena crowd. At the 5:33 mark, with the Cavaliers down six, Love appears to blow a defensive rotation and him and James appear to have a quick discussion.
To many, it appeared as if Love was going for a high-five and James was more concerned with pointing out Love’s mistake. That wasn’t the case in reality, but that situation depicts the pair perfectly. From the outside, it seemed like a relationship ready to implode, with Love’s introverted personality and James’ on/off social media passive-aggressiveness.
They struggled their first season together, with the famous “fit-in, fit-out” tweet from James being the lowlight. But on the court, Love was unhappy, struggling to fit into the Chris Bosh role effectively. Yet, a poolside meeting over the summer and Love was back for the next five seasons.
The start to 2015-16 was a little different. Kyrie Irving was still nicked up and didn’t play the first 24 games of the season. During this time, Cleveland found itself 17-7 and rolling behind the efficient play of LeBron and Love.
Now fast forward nearly two years and they’re in a similar scenario. Except, Irving isn’t going to return in 24 games — he’s gone for good. But here’s what I know: Cleveland still has the best player in the world and an All-Star at its disposal. They should be able to recreate a similar start from 2015-16 and extend that through the year.
On paper, the fit for LeBron and Love seems natural. James loves to distribute and find shooters, while Love can rebound and knock down three-pointers. This season, Love will have an expanded role in the offense hopefully and be counted on to create more of the offense with Irving gone.
Analyzing those 24 games without Irving, here’s why I believe that this duo for the Cavaliers can continue to be effective this upcoming season.
Cleveland started off the season 8-1, with Love showing his growth in year two with the Cavaliers. He had three games with at least 20 points in that stretch and also six games with double-digit rebounds.
After a shaky game in New York in mid-November, Love responded with at least 20 points six of the next seven games. Including a 34-point performance over Orlando, when Love shot 11-of-18 from the field and 6-of-9 from three-point range. The third star was starting to fit in his role as the No. 2 offensive weapon behind LeBron and thriving.
Don’t let this fool you, Love did have some bad games during this stretch, especially during a three-game losing streak in early December, but he seemed to be much more comfortable playing without Irving.
But the months of October and November from that season can give us a glimpse into what we can expect with Love and James. During a 17-game stretch during those two months, Love averaged 19.8 points, 11.8 rebounds and shot 46 percent from the field. For the rest of that season, Love wouldn’t have a single month that came close his performance from the early part of the season.
His usage rate during the first part of the year without Irving was around 25 percent, but when Irving returned, it dropped to around 22 percent. The pitfalls in Love’s game for the latter part of that year can’t be solely pinned on the return of Irving, but it seems to have played a major role.
In Minnesota, Love was the primary scorer and star and thrived individually, but couldn’t find team success. As the third star, Love took a back seat to James and Irving, but found overall team success via the lone championship.
This upcoming season, we might get the best of both worlds. An increased role will get Love involved early and often in the offense, meaning he stays locked in on both ends of the floor.