Can the Cavaliers survive without Kevin Love?
By PAT RALPH
College Contributor Network
The Cleveland Cavaliers may have completed a four-game sweep of the Boston Celtics in the first round of the NBA Playoffs and looked rather dominant the entire series, but the 4-0 series victory came with a very steep price. A price the Cavaliers may have trouble paying for the rest of the playoffs.
In this past Sunday's Game 4 win, All-Star forward Kevin Love's shoulder popped out of place early in the contest and forced him to miss the rest of the game. In addition, guard J.R. Smith was ejected after earning a flagrant foul for hitting Celtics' forward Jae Crowder in the face. As a result, the Cavaliers will be without their sharpshooting guard for the first two games of the conference semifinals against whoever their opponent will be. Fortunately for the Cavaliers, the two games Smith will miss are at home in Cleveland, rather than on the road.
While Smith's three-point shooting will be greatly missed from Cleveland's starting lineup, the loss of Love is killer to the Cavaliers' hopes of winning an NBA championship this year. Originally, it seemed as if Love would only miss the next round against either the Chicago Bulls or Milwaukee Bucks. However, Love's injury will require 4-6 weeks of recovery and possibly surgery to repair the muscle. In other words, Love will not be back for the rest of the playoffs.
The injury to Love is very sad to see. After struggling the entire first half of the season and failing to mesh with the team culture (a.k.a. getting along with LeBron James), Love started to fit in with the Cavaliers' system during the second half of the season and play like the All-Star everyone expected him to be when Love was acquired last summer. Like how it was for Chris Bosh with the Miami Heat back in 2010-11, it took Love a lot of time to adjust to the fact that Love was not the best player on the Cavaliers and that sacrifices would need to be made for the good of the team. Not to mention, Love was playing like a monster against Boston which was his first-ever playoff series.
So how much is Cleveland going to miss Love? A LOT. Because Love is nothing spectacular defensively, the Cavaliers won't miss him much on that end of the floor. Tristan Thompson's ability to defend opposing power forwards and rebound the ball well will allow him to slide in nicely to Love's spot in the Cavaliers' starting lineup. However, Thompson joining the starting lineup means one less dependable body on the Cavaliers' bench. And more minutes for the one-and-only Kendrick Perkins.
It is on offense where the Cavaliers are going to miss Love the most. When Love is on the floor, the Cavaliers average nearly 120 points per 100 possessions. Without Love, that number drops to 97 points per 100 possessions. The Cavaliers' offensive efficiency with Love on the floor is +17.4 compared to -7.0 without Love. In addition, Cleveland's field goal percentage and three-point percentage drop significantly without Love on the court. No, Tristan Thompson will not be able to fill the offensive void for Cleveland. Love is irreplaceable. It's safe to say the Cavaliers are really going to miss Love's offensive production.
There are few players, if any, who can shoot the three, rebound, and pass like Love. Hence why Love is a matchup nightmare for opponents and makes Cleveland's offense a pain to guard for opposing defenses. In an ideal offensive situation, LeBron and Kyrie Irving love attacking the rim, getting high-percentage shots, and forcing opposing defenses to collapse upon the paint. As a result, it opens up opportunities for guys like Love, Smith, and James Jones on the perimeter to knock down uncontested threes.
Once Love and the others start percolating from downtown, defenses are forced to extend out to the three and defend the shot. Through that, it re-opens the paint up for King James and Irving to do what both do best. Not to mention, Love's ability to space the floor has played a huge role in the rise of Timofey Mozgov down low and on the pick-and-roll for the Cavaliers. Doesn't this remind you a lot like the Big Three era in Miami?
As you can see, the loss of Love will force Cleveland to readjust their offensive system going forward in the playoffs. Now, opposing defenses will concentrate the majority of their resources on keeping LeBron and Kyrie out of the paint. While both All-Stars can knock down threes with the best of them, it's probably the better of the two options here.
The good news for Cavaliers' fans is that Cleveland still has the best basketball player on the face of the planet. LeBron will do everything in his power to will the Cavaliers to a championship without one of the members of the Big Three. Outside of Dwyane Wade's continuous knee injuries and Chris Bosh's injury during the 2012 playoffs, Love's absence is the largest injury obstacle to LeBron's quest for a championship in the last five years. While Bosh was a more valuable player to Miami's success due to his importance on the defensive end, Love's injury is much more serious. If the Cavaliers are going to win it all, LeBron will need to have a performance for the ages throughout the playoffs.
So can the Cavaliers win the NBA championship without Love the rest of the way? I honestly do not know. Yes, Cleveland has the best player in the world, but I believe it could all come down to matchups. Since it is very likely Cleveland will get an experienced Chicago team in the conference semifinals, the Bulls could be the most difficult test for the Cavaliers. Not only can Chicago lock down Cleveland defensively and mtachup well with the Cavaliers in terms of size and quickness, but the loss of Love now allows power forward Pau Gasol to stay in the paint rather than drift outside. If Cleveland has a healthy Love, Gasol has no choice but to go out and guard him on the perimeter. Now Chicago can focus on cutting off the paint to LeBron and Irving. Chicago is already a superior rebounding team than Cleveland; now that looms even larger without Love on the floor. Not to mention, Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler have been outstanding so far in the playoffs for Chicago.
If Milwaukee becomes the first team to come back from 3-0 down to win a series and defeat Chicago, the Bucks can also lock up Cleveland defensively with their freakish length and athleticism across the floor. The Bucks are also a strong three-point shooting team which could give Cleveland some problems defending the perimeter. In addition, Milwaukee is one of the best teams in the NBA at creating turnovers and could give Cleveland some serious issues. Fortunately for Cleveland, the Bucks are extremely young and inexperienced which should play well into the hands of King James.
If Cleveland can navigate its way through the conference semifinals, the Cavaliers will likely see either the Atlanta Hawks or Washington Wizards in the conference finals. Or maybe the Brooklyn Nets; at least I hope not. A matchup against Atlanta would pit two of the best offenses against each other and it could be beneficial to Cleveland because Atlanta does not have much size. Therefore, Cleveland could control the paint offensively against the Hawks. However, the Hawks are much better defensively than the Cavaliers and have the quickness to play with Cleveland.
Like the Bulls, the Wizards can matchup very well with the Cavaliers and could really pose some serious problems for Cleveland. Washington is one of the best defensive teams in the NBA and has the ability to slow down Cleveland offensively, especially without Kevin Love. Not to mention, the Wizards have the size, speed, and playoff experience to go up against Cleveland. And of course, there is no one who enjoys playing LeBron James more in the playoffs than Paul Pierce.
And don't even get me started on who Cleveland could see from the West in the Finals; the Cavaliers have enough to worry about right now in the East. If the Cavaliers fail to win the title or make the Finals, I think we will all be saying how valuable Love is to this team. Or even more so, how valuable Bosh was to those Miami Heat championship teams.
Of course, the "max-contract" question that has lingered all season and will continue to linger heading into the offseason is "Will Kevin Love re-sign with the Cavaliers or leave via free agency?" Love has yet to re-sign long term with Cleveland and seems destined to test free agency, with teams like the Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers very interested in acquiring his All-Star services. Going to either of those teams would make him the No. 1 option offensively and primary scorer, a role he earned while on the Minnesota Timberwolves. You saw the impact LeBron leaving had on Chris Bosh in Miami; a similar situation could occur for Love if he bolts Northeast Ohio. However, the injury could have a significant effect on what interest, if any, other teams have in Love this summer.
The sacrifice in going to Boston or Los Angeles would be the opportunity to win right now, which Love has a much better chance of doing in Cleveland. But of course, it's no secret that Love and LeBron have struggled to get along this season. Love will have to decide this summer if personal or team accolades are more important.
Maybe how the Cavaliers do the rest of the way without Kevin Love will provide some insight into the All-Star's decision this summer.
Pat Ralph is a junior at Villanova University. He covers Villanova Athletics for his school newspaper The Villanovan and school TV station VillanovaTV. He also has a passion for Philadelphia sports, especially the Phillies and Eagles, as well as the New York Knicks. Follow him on Twitter @Pat_Ralph