Let me preface this article by saying this: I am a huge Kevin Love fan. I try to watch him play as much as possible. I think the recent outpouring of articles questioning his ability is quite ridiculous. He is one of the top 12 players in the NBA. This is not another article talking about how he’s overrated and hasn’t even made the playoffs.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, time to get to the point. The Cavaliers are not necessarily a better team after adding Kevin Love. And it has nothing to do with his basketball ability or his leadership.
As of now, the trade is rumored to be Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and a first round pick for Love. Adding Love to the Cavs means a likely starting lineup of Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, LeBron James, Love, Anderson Varejao. That’s a deadly five, and bringing Tristan Thompson off the bench means there’s a third big man who can play some serious, valuable minutes.
I don’t want to speculate on what Andrew Wiggins will turn into. I’m not too concerned with how the Cavs will be in the future. This trade is clearly about winning now, so that’s what I want to analyze. Without any way of knowing how Wiggins’ game will translate to the NBA and how he’ll develop, there’s no way to guarantee the value he would provide the team as his career goes on. What we can gauge is a rough estimate of what he can provide in the 2014-15 season.
I also can’t say what Anthony Bennett will turn into. Last year’s performance has many fans discounting him, but all reports out of summer league is that he looked to be a completely different player. But again, that won’t tell us whether he’ll be an All-Star in six years or enjoying the used car dealership he’ll open.
There’s still time for free agent additions or further trades, but as it stands, after receiving Love, the Cavs’ second unit appears to be something along the lines of John Lucas, Matthew Dellavedova, Mike Miller, Thompson and Brendan Haywood. That’s not the worst second line we’ve seen, but it certainly won’t compare with division rival Chicago, who is looking at a bench of Kirk Hinrich, Tony Snell, Doug McDermott, Nikola Mirotic and Taj Gibson.
If the Cavs didn’t trade for Love, they would have a second unit of Dellavedova, Waiters/Wiggins, Miller, Erik Murphy and Haywood. The big difference there is in the guards. Having a guard come off the bench, ideally Waiters, with the talent of those two, would make a world of difference for when the first unit is getting a breather. And that difference is huge when you consider that either Wiggins or Waiters would be a drastic offensive improvement over whoever is filling in post-Love trade.
I’m fully aware that just because James, Love, Irving and Waiters are in the starting lineup doesn’t mean that they’ll always play together. We’ll see Lucas paired with Love, and quite a lot of Waiters and Thompson, plus a good dose of LeBron with everyone. What worries me here though is in the latter minutes of the first quarter, and at any other time when a full second unit has to play extended minutes together, they’re going to be less efficient on offense than Roy Hibbert in the playoffs.
The biggest knock on Irving’s game is his lack of defensive presence. He’s not a big guard, only 193 pounds hang on his 6’3″ frame, but he’s also never been known to have the tenacious demeanor you ideally want from someone marking a ball handler. For comparison his defense rating1 sat at 108.0 last season. That puts him in a tie for 253rd in the league.2 The biggest perk to Wiggins at this point is his on-ball defense.3 Putting those two on the court together would mean that Wiggins could mark Derrick Rose, Brandon Jennings, John Wall and the other high-powered offensive guards of the East. As it stands, that’s a hole that will definitely be exploited as the year goes on.
It’s the classic case of star power vs. depth. In a league with a salary cap, it’s pretty hard to have an abundance of both things. I’ve always been one to err on the side of depth, and watching the Spurs this season served as great support for that. Even the 2013-14 Chicago Bulls are a prime example of the value of depth. They lost their best player to injury, traded away arguably their second best player for nothing and were still able to snag a four seed4
With a lack of depth, injury really isn’t too much of an option. If Love, Irving or (god forbid) James gets hurt, this team is going to have a major hole. Keeping Bennett and Wiggins would provide so much more versatility in players who can fill in if needed considering one is a guard and one is a big man. With the current lineup, Varejao has to stay healthy. It’s a must. Unfortunately, the 31-year-old has played merely 79 games in the past three seasons. Combined. That doesn’t give me a lot of confidence that Erik Murphy won’t be playing a lot of minutes come January.
Then there’s the discussion of whether Kevin Love really is the best fit for Cleveland. He’s developed a three-point game that’s quite a force, but with Irving, Miller, James Jones, James and Waiters, there won’t be as much of a need for Love to be the guy spacing the floor. Instead, he’ll be asked to gobble up rebounds at an even higher clip than the 12.5 he averaged per game last season. While Love is arguably a top-five rebounder in the league, there are other guys who can grab missed shots and don’t look like a matador when someone is driving to the basket.
That being said, Love is also very adept when it comes to scoring beneath the basket. He’s crafty in a way that stats can’t really measure. I love watching him pump and juke out defenders, making two or three players commit too early, on his way to dropping in a layup. That’s the sort of offense that Love will be expected to provide, especially when you consider the limited skill set of Varejao. But is that really what’s needed with offensive threats like James and Irving?
The Warriors weren’t willing to trade for Love and it wasn’t only because the asking price was too high. Love wasn’t the best fit for Golden State, a team that shoots lights out from beyond the arc already. Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry work together, and the Warriors’ front office clearly didn’t believe that Love and Curry would jive in quite the same way. What I haven’t been able to discern is whether the Cavs think that Love and James are really a good fit or if it’s simply that it’s now believed that James is good enough that anyone is a good fit alongside him.
A recent NY Times article touted that Kevin Love is the perfect fit for LeBron. Reading through it, my questions remained. Is adding a big man who’s an outside shooter really the answer to bring a championship to Cleveland? Would the team not have been better off pursuing a shutdown interior defender? After looking at this from just about every angle, I stand by my claim that they should have. Supporting James’ offense and countering Irving’s lack of defense with a brick wall beneath the basket would have me saying that the Cavs are undoubtedly the best team in the East. As it stands, I can’t comfortably make that claim.
As a fan of the game, I wanted to see James go to Cleveland and win in a way that builds the franchise back up. He proved in Miami that a team of three superstars works, but it never felt right to anyone except fans in Miami, and I’m sure even some of them weren’t fully on board with the way the team was constructed. While the Cavs are bringing in Love the proper way, this means the team still feels awfully reminiscent of the Heat. There are three superstars present and they’re getting all the media attention. I would argue that Waiters is head and shoulders above anyone else on the Heat roster from last season, but that doesn’t change the fact that Irving, James and Love are the new big three.
The Cavs won’t be worse for adding Love. It’s nearly impossible for a team to get worse when they’re giving up two guys and adding an all-NBA player. But they also won’t be much better. What they’re adding in an elite rebounder and crafty interior scorer, they’re losing in depth and perimeter defense. They’re going to score an insane amount of points every game, they’re going to be exciting to watch, but they’re going to be very vulnerable.
In the meantime, I can’t wait to see some 80-foot alley-oop outlet passes from Love to LeBron.