When Love is the Problem

After the end of the 2013-14 season, Golden State knew that it was a strong team with a bright future. However, it also knew that it had to make some tough choices in that offseason to reach its potential.

It fired its coach, Mark Jackson, despite him leading the team to its two-year combined record since 1990-92. After hiring Steve Kerr, the Warriors have gone 171-35 in the past two years, including playoffs. If Cleveland can't make the first comeback from down 3 games to 1 in NBA Finals history, Kerr's two seasons will result in two NBA titles.

But arguably, something just as important that offseason was a move the Warriors didn't make: trading Klay Thompson to Minnesota for Kevin Love.

The Warriors believed Thompson was set for a leap to stardom alongside Steph Curry and refused to include him in a deal for established all-star Love. Since then, in addition to the likely two rings, Thompson has made All-NBA twice, became the league's biggest catch-and-shoot and spot-up threat, and routinely guards the opponent's best perimeter player.

Of course, Cleveland did make that trade for Love after re-acquiring LeBron James in free agency in summer 2014. While the Cavs have made two straight Finals after putting together a LeBron-Kyrie Irving-Love Big Three, everything about this season from Cleveland has screamed "Title or Bust."

Even though Cleveland has dominated the Eastern Conference playoffs two years in a row, Love has always fit in the least of the trio and has never had his role fully defined. Those latter two facts probably aren't changing in what will be LeBron's team for as long as he wants it to be.

It's time to admit that, barring an unprecedented Finals comeback (that got a smidge easier Sunday afternoon with Draymond Green's suspension for Game 5), the Kevin Love experiment in Cleveland has failed, and that it's time for the power forward to move on.

After firing David Blatt in midseason with the Cavs on top of the Eastern Conference and a prohibitive favorite to go back to the Finals, Cleveland's front office is now used to making hard decisions, not unlike the one Golden State made in the spring of 2014. It now almost definitely has to make another one if it wants to take the final step of winning a title.

Let's start with an obvious statement: Love is not a bad basketball player at all. His shooting and ability to spread the floor from his position would be assets on any team in the league. He's also still a pretty strong defensive rebounder and an automatic 15 and 10 in most games on most teams in the league. Even before he's really put on the trade block, there appears to be substantial interest.

However, as Minnesota found out, if he's your best player and surrounded by mostly league-average parts, you're not even making the playoffs. He's an absolute liability on defense, and can't be hidden against the best offenses.

Games 3 and 4 of the Finals were a perfect microcosm of Love's tenure in Cleveland for me. Of course, Love didn't play in Game 3 after suffering a concussion in Game 2. In that game, with Richard Jefferson starting in place of Love, it allowed Tristan Thompson to impact the contest in a way that Thompson-Love lineups down low against Golden State just don't match. The Cavs dominated the glass, forced 18 Golden State turnovers, knocked down 48 percent of their three-pointers, and won the game by 30.

Having seen that display without Love, I wouldn't have played him one minute alongside Irving in Game 4 if I was Tyronn Lue. It's just giving away too much against Golden State to have two minus defenders on the court who are each going to need their shots on offense while in the game.

Love made some great offensive plays in Game 4, but also made several defensive blunders and wasn't as good as he needed to be on the glass. While his particular game is at a huge disadvantage against Golden State, I can't help but wonder if Love will be better served in this league for the foreseeable future as a key scorer off the bench, no matter where he is come the beginning of camp in September.

The problem Cleveland runs into with trying to move Love is that, even with the salary cap going up some 20-odd million dollars for next season, the Cavs will still be paying the luxury tax as a result of the big contracts that James, Irving, Love, and Thompson are under.

That means the salary coming back has to roughly match up to Love's approximately $23.5 million per year he's owed over the course of his contract signed last year. Cleveland also doesn't have first round draft picks in 2016 and 2018 to attach as trade assets, and league rules prohibit trading away two consecutive first-round picks.

While Carmelo Anthony for Love will probably pick up steam as a rumor if the Cavs indeed lose the Finals, I don't like the fit for 'Melo in Cleveland, as he's another sub-par defender, he's in his late prime, and there's only one ball to go around between him, LeBron and Irving. Then, if you're a team like Boston or Denver with enough promising assets and some $10 million-plus annual contracts, I don't want to mortgage depth to get a guy that isn't a two-way player and can't lead you into contention as your best player. But as mentioned before, a team will likely bite.

As long as Cleveland has LeBron, it will rightfully be treated as the favorites to come out of the East. But the chance of the Cavs finally overcoming the West's champ is greater if Kevin Love moves elsewhere.

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