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2017-18 Cleveland Cavaliers exit interview: Kevin Love once again proved to be an undeserving scapegoat

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Despite injuries and lineup decisions beyond his control, Kevin Love emerged as a reliable second option for the Cavs.

2018 NBA Finals - Game Four Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

In a year where it was pretty easy to find fault with whatever supporting cast was surrounding LeBron James, Kevin Love was the closest thing the Cavs had to a second constant.

He was the second-leading scorer just behind James, averaging 17.6 points per game, and was the leading rebounder pulling down 9.3 boards. While Love becoming the second scorer seemed like a no-brainer ever since the Kyrie Irving trade, it wasn’t always an easy journey for him to put up those numbers.

The biggest adaptation Love had to make was spending a lot of time at center rather than his natural power forward position— a move he outwardly was unhappy with at times. But in the end, it was a move that was mostly successful.

Love put up a true shooting percentage of 61.4 percent, far and away the best of his career. Instead of settling consistently for outside shots, the move to center gave Love his biggest chance to work inside since coming to Cleveland. He shot 66.1 percent on close-rage shots (0-3 feet away from the basket), the second best percentage of his career just behind his final season with the Timberwolves.

However, that isn’t to say that Love was completely ineffective from the outside — his 41.5 three-point percentage was the best of his career.

As the season went on, he became more adept at dragging less-athletic defenders (such as Jonas Valanciunas) out of the paint where he could exploit them:

Of course, the move to center wasn’t exactly perfect. Against defenders like Thaddeus Young or Al Horford, who are able to play physical down low and harass their opposition outside of the paint, Love struggled to get the same shot creation and to convert on makes:

It also certainly helped that oftentimes, Tyronn Lue would have his team start out games looking for Love to get him touches and get going early. As a result, the Cavs were then able to play inside-out basketball.

For the guy who has been the scapegoat on this team the past four years, he was able to find success and become a consistent second option.

When Love’s performance struggled, it was largely due to circumstances outside of his control. For example, when the Cavs were in the middle of the failed Isaiah Thomas experiment, it was arguably Love who suffered the most.

Pre Thomas, Love had settled in nicely. He averaged 20.2 points and 10.2 rebounds per game in the 34 games he played in prior to Thomas’ return to the lineup on Jan. 2. His three 30-point regular season games also happened before that game against Portland.

Once Thomas returned, Love’s averages took a nosedive: 11.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per game as the Cavs were in freefall for 13 games, going 5-8. As Thomas tried and failed to get acclimated, Love exited the Jan. 30 game against the Pistons with a fractured hand, causing him to miss 20 games.

By the time he returned, he had an entirely different cast of teammates. He rebounded decently in the 11 regular season games he had before the playoffs, however, averaging 16.5 points and 8.8 rebounds.

During the postseason, Love averaged 14.9 points and 10.2 boards, a dip from last year’s numbers of 16.8 and 10.6. Love was up and down in the Indiana series as he struggled against Young, and as his hand injury got re-aggravated. Against Toronto he arguably had his best game of the playoffs in Game 2, dropping 31 points and pulling down 11 boards. Once again, he was able to exploit matchups with Valanciunas.

Like against Indiana, Boston at times was not the best matchup for him, and a concussion in Game 6 kept him out of the rest of the series. But against Golden State in the Finals, he managed double-doubles in the first three games in a series many assumed he would just be a liability.

Since joining the Cavs in 2014-15, Love has spent most of the time relegated to playing third fiddle behind LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. In his first year as the Cavs’ second option, there were plenty of obstacles he had to overcome.

While injuries and a rotating cast of teammates didn’t ultimately allow him to keep up his early year production, he still did what was asked of him, but was oftentimes still seen as a scapegoat for this team (including the explosive January team meeting when he was accused of faking an illness).

In the end though, it’s a role that Love seems to accept as just coming with the territory. And now, as we wade into the offseason, we once again commence the annual tradition of Love trade rumors.

“I always wanted to be here,” Love said during the Finals when asked about his future. “Always wanted to win here. But as you know, it’s probably going to come up. It always does. It’s also good to be wanted. But at the same time, it’s going to be interesting to see what happens. We just don’t know.

“Knowing that it’s a business, I know that’s cliché to say, Take it in stride. But that’s just what I’ve had to do. Keep my mouth shut and go about my business and work and be ready and be prepared for this team next year.”

It’s not a surprising attitude for Love to have because in the end, through all the drama, blame and rumors that surrounded him, Love once again came to work and did what he could to help this team reach its ceiling.