The NBA Finals are set to tip off in just a few hours, and Today’s Fastbreak has coverage of every angle imaginable. As we prepare for what should hopefully be a competitive series between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, our own Tyriq Butler has looked at some of the most intriguing individual Finals matchups. However, one key player that isn’t factoring into the equation is Kevin Love, who has missed the last two rounds of playoff basketball and will be missing the NBA Finals as well after injuring his shoulder in the first round against the Boston Celtics.
It would be hard for most teams to lose an All-Star and still make the Finals, yet alone win it, even in an Eastern Conference that didn’t inspire fear across the board. But that’s exactly what the Cavs did. They not only made the Finals, but they rolled through the conference, finishing with a 12-2 record on that side of the playoff bracket. As well as they’ve played though, the offense has gotten stuck in mud at times, and the team seemed to be playing its best basketball in the first four playoff games before losing Love to a borderline-dirty Kelly Olynyk arm grab.
When it was announced Love would miss time with injury, it was only natural for Cavs fans to be worried. When it became clear there was no chance of him returning, that put the team’s championship chances in serious doubt. However, Cleveland kept humming along without him, ratcheting up its defense and rebounding rates in order to punish teams and make the Finals.
Since the injury, LeBron has amped up his production. His game is always evolving, but that process has been accelerated with the need to pick up the slack for his injured teammate. Without the jump-shot in his current arsenal, James has taken to the block to post-up smaller defenders, a role previously reserved for Love’s skill set, even if it was an underused one. Kyrie Irving’s injury contributed to LeBron being the primary ball handler on many possessions, but it has given him more freedom to bully his way close to the basket to create shots for himself and his teammates.
Whether or not the Warriors will be able to contain LeBron has become the biggest question leading up to the Finals, and that’s because he currently constitutes such a large part of the Cavs’ offense. The team doesn’t have a legitimate replacement for Love on offense, which leaves a much larger burden on James to create from scratch. While being predictable isn’t a positive, having the ball in LeBron’s hands mitigates the loss offensively.
Where Cleveland has really gained an edge is on the defensive side of the ball. Starting Tristan Thompson in Love’s place has given the team additional rim protection, and Thompson should handle himself well down low in this series. The most important upgrade comes in the ability to switch screens easier. The dangerous Stephen Curry–Draymond Green pick-and-roll is easier to defend with Thompson playing power forward and covering Green. Thompson has the athleticism to plausibly guard Curry, or at least as much as Curry can be guarded by a taller defender.
The Curry-Andrew Bogut pick-and-rolls might even seem more appealing in order to get Timofey Mozgov switched out on the point guard, but Bogut presents a much worse option receiving the ball rolling to the basket. Also, in lineups where Thompson is the only big, the Cavs can employ five players capable of switching on and off every rotation, with the weak link being Irving, who really can’t confidently cover anybody whether he’s healthy or not.
The Cavaliers are destroying teams on the offensive and defensive glass with Thompson and Mozgov playing together, but without Love the team is much more likely to go small. The reality is that Love demands heavy minutes when healthy, and he’s probably too much of a liability to play long stretches without either Thompson or Mozgov due to his inability to defend the rim.
Love wasn’t a force on the offensive boards this year due to him playing primarily on the perimeter, grabbing only 6.5 percent of his team’s offensive rebound chances this regular season, per Basketball-Reference, which was a career low. His 26.3 percent figure on the defensive side of the ball was also a career low. Thompson and Mozgov aren’t as good of individual defensive rebounders as Love, but they’ve been able to adequately pick up the slack.
For all the adjustments they made, they still don’t have the same potency offensively without Love. With his ability to stretch the floor, the absence of Love has messed with the Cavs’ spacing at times. LeBron gets hurt the most by this, as he has less room to barrel into the lane and get off shots close to the basket. Considering how bad he has been shooting the ball from the outside this postseason, the fewer layups and dunks he’s able to create, the harder it’ll be for him to put points up on the board. If LeBron goes off and wins with this team, it’ll be a huge feather in his cap personally, enhancing his legacy by winning a title without Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh by his side.
Love may not have been the perfect fit for this series, with the Warriors’ defense and offense both primed to take advantage of his specific weaknesses as a player. Still, the team has a tendency to get slogged down on offense, and Love’s shooting and post-up play will be sorely missed when it comes to breaking out of some of those slumps.
If the Cavs win, pundits will inevitably throw out the idea that Love was holding them back the whole season. Yes, there may be some upside to having Love in street clothes, but it’s tough to argue that the team is really better without him. It may take some more creative coaching to hide Love’s deficiencies on defense moving forward, but that’s a problem I’m sure Blatt would rather have than the alternative of not having him at all. Even if Love has stated he expects to be back next season, the fact that the organization is scared he might leave in free agency tells you all you need to know. Having an All-Star riding the bench due to an injury can’t improve the team, even if the Cavs are well equipped to survive his absence.