Sometimes, the wheels just run out of tread.
Kevin Love was 33 years old (still is) and approaching his 14th season in the league. Injuries spoiled much of his 2020-21 and he wasn’t particularly effective.
Injuries did the same in 2018-19 and portions of various other recent seasons as well. Reports of his discontent amid a Cleveland Cavaliers rebuild swirled.
Maybe, this was one of those times.
The Cavs, donning an entire 24-or-younger starting unit, seemed prepared for another campaign geared toward youth development. Love, despite a decline from his All-Star heyday, seemed like someone whose shooting, passing and rebounding acumen could potentially invigorate a contender if he was bought out and rediscovered some mojo elsewhere.
An amicable split between the two sides certainly appeared possible or likely. Yet here we are, three months into the season, with both parties still in tandem.
At 36-25, Cleveland is the surprise of the East, 4.5 games back of the No. 1 seed. Love, meanwhile, is a contender for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award. Tyler Herro looks like the runaway favorite, and that’s fine. He’s been excellent, though Love’s year warrants legitimate consideration.
Early on, another playoff-free year was in the cards. Through seven October games, the Cavs were 3-4 and Love struggled his way to 9.9 points on .355/.208/.909 splits. Since then, Cleveland is 33-21, while Love has averaged 14.8 points on .428/.402/.850 splits.
After finishing with 26 points (5-of-10 shooting from 3-point range) and four assists in Monday’s 127-122 loss to his old team – the Minnesota Timberwolves, Love is averaging 14.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists on 58.9% true shooting. His 31.9 points per 100 possessions are his highest since 2013-14, when he earned an All-NBA Second Team nod.
He’s come off the bench for all but two games this season, and Cleveland really leans on his multifaceted services to buoy an array of lineups. Entering the week, the Cavaliers had a plus-4.7 net rating with Love on the court – the fourth-highest mark on the team and ahead of starter and rookie sensation Evan Mobley (3.9).
He’s been featured in more than 200 different Cavaliers configurations, and been asked to hone in on widespread responsibilities. To thrive amid constant instability highlights his impact.
When a group needs floor-spacing, Love is the answer. When a group needs connective playmaking, Love is the answer. When a group needs rebounding, Love is the answer.
He flows into triples around handoffs with fellow big men, launches from well beyond the arc and nearby defenders don’t deter him. Whether it’s moonwalking into jumpers off a lethal fake or feigning a pass to open a shooting pocket, Love’s quite adept at manufacturing space for himself along the perimeter.
Confidence and brazenness are never issues. For a Cleveland team stocked with defense-first, shoot-occasionally frontcourt options, his skill set is integral to its offensive survival (18th in offensive rating).
At 6-foot-8 with the ball skills to produce openings, Love’s outside shooting acts as a form of self-creation on a squad that’s increasingly lacked it in the wake of Collin Sexton and Ricky Rubio’s injuries. Love can fire over the top of defenders from an assortment of angles and is diverse in his shooting value.
His mismatch scoring in the post has also been a trusty bet much of the year. So many teams opt to switch ball-screens this season, which leaves Love with fortuitous matchups down low. He’s long been a potent low-post player. That hasn’t changed.
Footwork and delicate touch shepherd these trips, where Love reaches a comfortable spot and rises over or through ill-suited defenders. He also loves to bait opponents with shot fakes and parade to the charity stripe.
In many creation-starved lineups, Love’s mid-post arsenal is the offense’s North Star.
In other lineups, ones a little richer in spacing and shooting, his facilitating and speedy processing assume grander usage. The end-to-end outlet heaves remain a staple. He lasers dimes to cutters. When Cleveland requires someone to help move the chains from midpoint to conclusion, he’s the guy.
His 15.7% assist rate is the best mark of his career (min. 50 games played), while his 9.8% turnover rate is the second lowest of his career. Precise, frugal play-linking has been a hallmark of his contributions in a bounce-back year.
Cleveland has not encountered much team success since LeBron James left in the summer of 2018. Those ensuing seasons are paralleled by injuries and frustrations for Love. His early years in Minnesota, while prosperous individually, also didn’t feature any playoff success.
Love emerging as an essential member of a playoff-bound squad and rewriting the trajectory of his game is blissful. Regardless of whether he wins Sixth Man of the Year, he’s made clear there’s indeed tread left on those tires.
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Data modeling provided by Stats Perform’s Matt Scott. Design by Matt Sisneros.