The months of April, May and June proved to be a rollercoaster ride for Kevin Love. After showing signs of finally fitting in with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving while the Cleveland Cavaliers marched through the Eastern Conference playoffs; Love pulled off an impressive vanishing act during the Finals as the Cavaliers fell into a 3-1 deficit that left many questioning his future in Cleveland. Once again, the narrative shifted back towards Love’s inability to fit in with the Cavaliers and the need to trade him this off-season as Cleveland found success while he rode the bench against the Warriors.
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However, Love’s rollercoaster ride took an unexpected turn as the Cavaliers stormed back to beat the Warriors in seven games, securing the franchise’s first NBA championship. Lost in the monumental comeback was the underlying cause for the Cavaliers’ resurgence — not a result of Love’s reduced playing time, but more a product of the Cavaliers finally pressing a consistent, aggressive attack against a relatively weak Warriors interior defense. Regardless of Love’s sneaky-strong performance in Game 7, his overall disappearance in the Finals has cast him as the weakest link in the Cavaliers’ rendition of the ‘Big 3’.
Unfortunately for Love, the looming financial decision the Cavaliers face this off-season complicates his situation. With a 2015-2016 payroll hovering around $106 million, the Cavaliers will likely see their payroll escalate next season if they intend to resign J.R. Smith, Matthew Dellavedova, and possibly an un-retired Richard Jefferson who all enter free agency this summer and will likely command a higher market value than their current contracts. Of course, James will also probably opt out of his contract to take advantage of the salary cap increase and they will need to accommodate his interest in signing a new max deal. As a result, the Cavaliers will be forced to make some sort of roster move to avoid significant luxury tax penalties in the ensuing seasons.
At this point, James, Irving and Tristan Thompson are untouchable, but Love has yet to prove himself in that category. With his large hit on the Cavaliers’ cap space, moving Love this summer provides an easy solution to the Cavaliers’ financial predicament that a post-Finals narrative insists will result in minimal cost to the team’s on-court performance. Regardless of the criticism Love faces, the Cavaliers need to determine if moving Love is in their best interest long-term and whether there exists a realistic return value that better positions the team to defend their title.
Does Kevin Love fit?
To better understand Love’s fit with the Cavaliers, I used a descriptive based RAPM model to measure the expected points contributed per possession, specifically examining total on-court and shot-specific-distance events for a given player. By using expected point values, I then used a player’s on-court offensive and defensive contributions to calculate the additional wins he accounts for over a replacement level player (WAR) given average teammates and opponents. In total, the model provides the tools to assess the overall and specific value Love brings to the Cavaliers.
Since he was acquired in the summer of 2014 from Minnesota, Love has consistently battled the perception that he is a bad fit with the Cavaliers. The majority of this narrative is supported by Love’s inability to consistently replicate his level of play when he was with the Timberwolves; however, during his brief tenure in Cleveland, Love has shown dramatic signs of improvement from his days in Minnesota.
After experiencing an underwhelming first year in Cleveland, Love responded in 2015-2016 with his most impactful offensive play over his previous three seasons, including his final season in Minnesota when the Cavaliers decided to acquire him. It’s important to note the Cavaliers acquired Love in order to bring in a forward that could spread the court as a perimeter threat; a role that mirrored the one Chris Bosh filled while James was in Miami.
Similar to Love in 2014, Bosh joined a James-centered roster in 2010 as a dynamic scorer who could spread the court and rebound for an underachieving franchise. As a result, Bosh’s transition provides a reasonable benchmark to compare Love with respect to role similarity on previous James’ teams. When comparing the two, Love’s most recent season has significantly outperformed Bosh during his final year with James in 2013-2014 across nearly all shot-distance ranges and is arguably the best edition of this staple role that James has played with during his career.
While Love seems to be finding a growing sense of comfort in Cleveland, especially in comparison to comparable players, his greatest value is arguably his overall net-expected points per possession while on the court. Love has seen a steady improvement each of the past three seasons as his net-expected points per 100 possessions has grown from +0.16 in 2013-2014, to +0.77 in 2014-2015, and topping out at +1.11 this past season, significantly higher than Irving’s +0.17 in 2015-2016, which is a testament to Love’s continual improvement on defense.
However, the Cavaliers’ main concern should center around how Love compares to the two cornerstones of the franchise; James and Irving. Although the shot-specific-distance model does not take into account the impact of complementary skills, it can identify where a player is most impactful, either directly or indirectly when specific shot attempts occur.
When comparing the relative offensive impact amongst each other, Love compares favorably with both James and Irving, especially when shots are taken within 12 feet of the basket. The model suggests while he is on the court, shots taken from these ranges provide equal, if not greater, value than for James or Irving. This is most likely a result of two factors: (1) Love is a tremendous passer and, unlike Thompson, provides a greater interior playmaking threat for James, Irving and the numerous outside threats the Cavaliers possess and (2) Love provides a great interior rebounding presence when he applies himself as he did in Game 7 and has a knack for finishing around the rim. Each of these factors help contribute towards higher possession efficiency even though it might not result in a significant amount of points scored per game.
However, since James or Irving is likely to dominate the ball, Love’s playmaking abilities close to the basket often disappear and would explain Love’s inconsistent offensive play. Love is a quiet playmaker and it is no surprise Love seemed to excel when the ball was put in his hands close to the basket during the playoffs. If the Cavaliers intend to keep Love on the perimeter awaiting a pass, his fit in Cleveland is average at best according to the model. Additionally, his inconsistent play might be more indicative to how he is being used by the Cavaliers.
Alternative options to Love
If the Cavaliers were to move Love this off-season, regardless of his perception in the front office, they would have a large void to fill without him on the roster. Every season, you hear it often from fans and media pundits, “Team X needs to get rid of Player Y” and in the case of the Cavaliers, they need to tread cautiously. After their last Finals appearance in 2012, the Thunder found themselves in a similar position with James Harden, a key third cog in their ‘Big 3’. By forcing themselves into a move motivated by financial considerations, the Thunder received little value in return and have yet to return back to the Finals.
Using the model’s expected-point values, a given player’s WAR value can be calculated (see pages 6-8 for full methodology). When looking at possible replacements, the dominant driving factor should be best-value players because swapping an equally expensive player for Love will not improve the Cavaliers’ financial situation and most likely require moving additional players. As a result, the players targeted should provide the smallest cost per additional win above a replacement player since Love’s largest drawback is his exorbitant contract. Using this criteria, the top-10 best value players at the power forward position who played at least 25 minutes per game were tabulated with reference to Love’s WAR and cost per WAR.
When looking at best-value players, the Cavaliers are not going to find a realistic player that is better than Love, which should be expected. The biggest criteria the Cavaliers would need to determine is the style of player they are looking to add.
In terms of interior post-orientated players, Aaron Gordon and Nerlens Noel provide the best value as both are around 3-times more cost-effective than Love, but both provide a significant drop-off in raw WAR value.
The most promising style would be a perimeter-orientated player with a clear overall leader in Kristaps Porzingis at nearly five-times more cost-effective than Love. Depending on how much the Cavaliers are willing to spend, Ryan Anderson and Patrick Patterson would be interesting candidates as well that could provide a purer perimeter player than Love if that is the role the Cavaliers want. However, a swap of Porzingis, Anderson or Patterson for Love would result in a significant net-loss in rebounding abilities and might put greater stress on James and Irving to create for teammates, not to mention the how realistic those potential acquisitions actually are.
The final verdict
At the end of the day, it’s important for the Cavaliers to recognize two important factors when considering moving Love this summer. First, contrary to his stat-line, Love has improved in Cleveland since being acquired from Minnesota and does have a positive impact. His inconsistency might not necessarily be a reflection of Love, but the role the Cavaliers are trying to place on him.
Second, given their financial predicament, the Cavaliers don’t have a lot of viable options available to them that will help alleviate the stress currently placed on their salary cap that will also minimize the impact of Love leaving without parting ways with additional players. If the Cavaliers prefer Love to play like Channing Frye than they should look to move Love since their best-value replacement options are perimeter-orientated players. If this is not the case, they need to re-evaluate how Love is used in their offense as they might get more out of Love if they put him in a position to create near the basket. Figuring out these factors will allow the Cavaliers to make a sound decision with Love this summer.