Fresh off a new extension that will keep him under contract through 2023, Kevin Love is the new face of the Cleveland Cavaliers. The pressure is squarely on his shoulders to continue the success the club has had over the last four years, though nobody (other than Tristan Thompson, apparently) thinks they actually have a chance to match the Finals runs they’ve made recently. Perhaps that pressure is more internal than external – the contract extension, arena renovations at the Q, and owner Dan Gilbert’s vision for the team all contribute to a more pressurized work environment than a lot of other non-playoff teams throughout the league. Whether or not Cleveland does squeak into the playoffs will largely come down to Love’s play and his ability to move past the weaknesses in his game that have held him back in the past.
Perhaps the biggest question as the Cavaliers move forward is whether or not Love can get back to who he was in Minnesota. He’s been elevated from third to second to first option over the last 14 months and now it’s time to see whether the do-it-all playmaking big man who gave defenses fits with the Timberwolves still exists. More than his outside shooting skills, which were more unique for a big man when he broke into the league than they are now, it was his playmaking from the elbows and mid-post that made Minnesota’s offense a top-ten unit in his final season with the Timberwolves. Love was marvelous that year, setting up shop on the left side of the floor and working defenders into a panicked frenzy.
If that version of Love still exists, the Cavaliers will have enough offense to hang with the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff race. Relieving some of the ball handling duties off George Hill and Collin Sexton’s shoulders will do wonders for Cleveland, as throwing those guys into full-time point guard roles is likely a recipe for disaster – Hill doesn’t have the consistency needed from the game’s more important position and Sexton is going to need time to gel with the team and the league in his rookie year. Turning those guys into off-ball shooters, screeners, and cutters while Love holds court at the elbows should be a major part of the Cavaliers’ attack this season.
While Love’s offensive role has changed over the years, he’s been immensely successful no matter where his teams have deployed him. Whether as the playmaking focal point of the offense or a pick-and-pop threat, he’s been whatever his team needs offensively and is able to both pass and shoot at a very high level. On the other end of the court, however, his limitations are extreme. Defense has never been his forte, but his shortcomings in this area of his game have been a constant sore spot throughout his tenure in Cleveland and will continue to be going forward. With lower expectations than the last four years, his slow foot speed and poor positioning won’t be as impactful on the team’s overall success, as the margins at the very top of the league are much thinner than they are in the lower middle.
Love’s issues on the defensive end aren’t as wide-ranging as one might expect. 2017-18 was the first year since 2011-12 that his team was a below average defensive unit when he was on the floor in the regular season. Through the course of the regular season, Love has been able to make it work in a variety of schemes and against a variety of opponents, but the focus on his defensive shortcomings doesn’t come to the forefront until it’s obvious that he’s borderline unplayable on that end of the floor against the very best teams in the league. The Golden State Warriors presented a particularly difficult matchup for Love, but the vast majority of the other 29 teams in the league can’t replicate the particulars of the torture Golden State inflicted on Love. Against the rest of the mediocre Eastern Conference, he’ll be just fine, though I’m sure there will be a highlight or two of him getting blown by Stephen Curry or Kyrie Irving when the Cavaliers are matched up with the very best teams in the league.
Love is back to being the top dog on a middling team with limited playoff hopes, but it’s been a while since he’s held those responsibilities. Significant questions linger about how his game has changed over the last four years and whether he can still summon the playmaking prowess of Minnesota Kevin Love, but the Cavaliers have made it clear with their long-term investment in him that they believe he’s still got it, along with everything else he’s learned as a supporting star during James’ second run in Cleveland. It remains to be seen whether Love can get back to that level (and how much that takes away from his already limited defense), but with nobody between him and the throne anymore, we’ll certainly find out if he’s still got it.