While the financial impact of Kevin Love’s extension will make headlines, how it affects the Cavaliers on the court will arguably be even more interesting than the implications he has on their cap sheet.
Unless general manager Koby Altman has a league-altering trade in his back pocket, Love is going to be the No. 1 option on this Cavaliers’ team going throughout the 2018-19 season, a role he hasn’t assumed since his days in Minnesota ended in 2014. That version of Love made three All-Star Games and two All-NBA Second Teams in his first six seasons in the league and while the Timberwolves were unable to push into the playoffs in what was a strong Western Conference at the time, the Cavaliers are hoping a Love-led team can break that trend next season. Decried for his failings instead of being celebrated for his successes throughout his run as the second or third option behind LeBron James and Kyrie Irving over the last four years, a return to form for Love is in the offing, as the team will look to play through him at the elbows and in the post while taking advantage of his shooting to space the floor and rebounding and passing to run in transition.
Of all his skills that were underused in Cleveland over the past four years, Love’s ability to pass from the post and elbows will be most exciting to watch in 2018-19 and beyond. James’ presence often meant sticking Love in the corner for spot-up opportunities or sometimes playing in pick-and-pop with James or another ball handler, but he wasn’t given the reins of the offense in the same way he was in Minnesota previously, which theoretically was part of the reason the Cavaliers wanted Love on the team when James decided to come back in 2014. Per data provided to NBA.com from Second Spectrum, Love averaged 8.0 elbow touches per game in his final season in Minnesota; he never hit more than 2.1 per game in the last four years in Cleveland. His rebounding prowess got a lot of the headlines during his time with the Timberwolves, but it was his generational ability to score and pass from the elbows that made him one of the more valuable offensive players in the league at the time. Given his development into a better three-point shooter on higher volume since moving to Cleveland and the fact that his ability to read the game and make those passes should still be there after laying dormant for a number of years, it’s fair to speculate that he’ll assume his rightful mantle as one of the best offensive big men in the league once again.
The Cavaliers will be able to run a lot of sets like Minnesota does in the above clips, where Love gets the ball at the elbow and shooters and cutters play off of one another while he makes the best decision with the ball. If this looks relatively familiar, it’s probably because you’ve seen the Warriors slice teams open with this action, using Draymond Green as the passer and Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson as the shooters/cutters. Love was making it work with Ricky Rubio and Kevin Martin, so it will certainly be interesting to see what he can do with George Hill and J.R. Smith, two plus outside shooters.
Defense has never been Love’s strong suit, a shortcoming that was exacerbated this past season, when he played 80 percent of his minutes at center, per Cleaning the Glass. The Cavaliers posted a 112.7 defensive rating in that time, a mark that would have been good for second-worst in the league in 2017-18. It has to be noted that Cleveland was a tire fire on that end of the floor no matter what alignment was out there, but Love’s inadequate ability to move his feet in pick-and-roll and be a deterrent at the rim certainly hurt them in a big way. Given the structure of their 2018-19 roster, as flexible as it still is at this point, Love should go back to playing more power forward in the immediate future, as the team has Tristan Thompson and Larry Nance firmly in the center rotation along with youngster Ante Zizic and minimum signing Channing Frye. Love will still see some minutes at the 5 in smaller lineups, but his move back to the power forward position should help the Cavaliers defensively.
While there’s some concern that Love doesn’t have it in him anymore to be a team’s top option offensively, a feeling substantiated by the team’s poor performance when James sat last season (albeit in a very small sample of just 242 possessions), the day-in and day-out knowledge that he’ll be the man and the fact that the coaching staff can rebuild the offense around his skills should alleviate those issues. With Love improved on both ends of the floor next season through higher usage and a move back to power forward, the Cavaliers should have a strong bid for the Eastern Conference playoffs along with teams like Miami and Detroit at the bottom of the playoff picture.