Leading up to the 2016 postseason, Kevin Love‘s time as a Cleveland Cavalier was equal parts confusing and frustrating. Seen as a perfect complement to a lineup featuring LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, he instead struggled mightily at fitting in. His year-to-year PPG decreased and, despite flashes here and there, he never quite hit his All-Star form. For two straight seasons, Love’s name was tossed around in trade rumors, with the Cavs deciding against moving him each time.
It was a good thing they resisted the urge, too, as everything changed the second the 2016 playoffs started.
Cleveland rolled through the Eastern Conference, thanks in part to Love finally becoming a consistent contributor. Suddenly, the Big Three everyone was hoping to see when the Cavs traded for him in the summer of 2014 started taking fruition, and it helped the team steamroll its way to the Finals.
It was at this stage that everything Love had been contributing was instantly forgotten.
He was immediately labeled as a liability defensively against the vaunted Golden State Warriors, specifically for his inability to slow down Draymond Green. His scoring dropped, with his minutes following. Cleveland convincingly winning Game 3 while Love recovered from a concussion hardly helped, instead fueling the idea the team played better without him. Apparently, Love being a mismatch against a 73-win Warriors squad meant Cleveland would just never be able to win with him on the roster.
Luckily, the Cavs overcoming a 3-1 hole en route to a championship quieted the anti-Love crowd for a bit. However, the stage is once again setting the same way it did last year. Love is coming off an impressive Eastern Conference Finals showing against the Boston Celtics, and he and his team now gear up for another rematch with Golden State.
Obviously, there are many storylines to parse through as the Cavs and Warriors prepare for their third straight Finals. To me, the most important is Love finally erasing the narrative that he’s a liability against Golden State.
Unfortunately for him, nothing has changed when it comes to the challenge he has to overcome. Green is still in the lineup, meaning Love will likely be tasked with covering him throughout the series. The Warriors in general probably still see him as a player to exploit defensively, and will no doubt run sets which end up forcing him into mismatches.
Upon dealing with such a scenario last year, Love’s offense plummeted. He went from averaging 15.2 PPG in the Eastern Conference Finals to a measly 7.3 in the Finals. It seemed as though his struggles on defense resulted in his confidence taking a hit offensively.
Should Golden State’s strategy work once again this year, you better believe Love’s critics will be quick to forget everything he’s done to this point. We’ll likely once again have people pointing out how he’s nothing but a hindrance for Cleveland, claiming the team needs to set him aside or risk losing the series.
While I remain astounded at how quickly people are willing to write off Love the second he struggles against the best team in the NBA, I can’t deny Golden State’s ability to make him a non-factor. Until he can prove to be an impact player against the Warriors, this narrative will never change.
What better time to do so than in this series?
Love knows Golden State is going to work hard to force him into mismatches, just as it did in the final minute of Game 7 last year. While it’s asking a ton of him to provide that same, still-astounding defensive ability he showed in shutting down Steph Curry for an entire series, he also knows the Warriors won’t stop challenging him until he proves he’s up to the task.
Offensively, while having James and Irving in tow allows the Cavs to hang with anybody, Love finally becoming a contributor against Golden State would be a game-changer. If he’s consistently scoring, it forces the Warriors to respect his outside shot. As a result, they wouldn’t be able to sag a defender off of him in attempts to prevent James and Irving from driving the lane.
Simply put: when Love is a legit scoring threat, Cleveland becomes near-impossible to guard. Which is why it’s finally time for him to end his struggles against Golden State.
Clearly this will be easier said than done. However, very few people are giving the Cavs a shot in these Finals. If Love puts last year’s strains behind him and steps up in a big way, the grim outlook everyone has for Cleveland suddenly starts to change.